overgeneralization

Understanding Overgeneralization: A Cognitive Distortion

Overgeneralization is a faulty perception or belief that causes you to judge yourself and others inaccurately. At some point, you’ve probably said things like:

  • “I never do anything right.”
  • “No one ever listens.”
  • “All drivers from [a city] are bad.”

A lot of people practice overgeneralizing each day and are completely unaware of it. The problem is that it leads to unnecessary anxiety and fear, and prevents us from trying new things, doing our best, and exploring opportunities that bring us closer to our goals.

This article looks closer at overgeneralization as one of the negative thinking patterns affecting mental health, and how to change it.

What is Overgeneralization?

Overgeneralization is described by the American Psychological Association (APA) as a cognitive distortion in which a person applies the negative outcome of an isolated event to all future events[*].

For example, underperforming in a science subject and then concluding that you’re terrible at science.

While anyone can experience overgeneralization, including those who are mentally healthy, research shows that people with chronic depression and anxiety frequently experience it. To provide context, depression and anxiety are caused by a variety of factors, including adverse life events such as trauma, medical problems, and the buildup of small stressful situations[*][*].

Signs of Overgeneralization Thinking

Do you suspect overgeneralized thinking? Look out for these signs in a kid, teen, or adult:

  • Using blanket statements. For example, “All [group of people/thing/circumstance] are [negative characteristic].”
  • Using words like always, never, every, everybody, nobody, everything, and nothing when referring to something.
  • Being convinced of an outcome without first trying, giving it a chance, or validating it.
  • Engaging in negative self-talk, which also happens in other cognitive distortions.
  • Limiting oneself to opportunities in life.

Examples of Overgeneralization Thinking

Let’s consider some common examples of overgeneralization:

  • Oliver stuttered while speaking during his first presentation. After that event, he concluded that he can never speak well in public.
  • The coronavirus, which first broke out in China, has led some people to conclude that all new infectious diseases come from China.
  • Tommy was served spoiled food at a restaurant in a particular city. After that incident, he told his friends that all restaurants in that city always serve bad food.
  • William was bullied at summer camp. So, he told himself, “I would never attend summer camp again,” because he believes that he will always be an easy target for bullies at camp.

How Overgeneralizing Can Affect a Person

Constant overgeneralizing is unhealthy for you in many ways and will ultimately affect the quality of your experiences and your overall satisfaction in life. For instance, it makes you expect the worst in every triggering situation — even though it may actually turn out great.

Since overgeneralizing limits your thinking, you believe that you cannot improve, things cannot be done, or situations can never change. In other words, it puts you and others in boxes.

If not caused by anxiety, overgeneralizing may lead to feeling anxious. For people who aren’t depressed, repeated negative thoughts can put them at risk of depression symptoms[*].

Who Is At Risk for Overgeneralization?

Traumatic events, unmanaged stress, and people who are diagnosed with anxiety disorders and depression are more prone to overgeneralizing. This is why it’s vital to examine the quality of your thoughts and catch yourself doing it so you can stop it.

If you’re trying to identify overgeneralization in yourself, a child, or a student, refer to the signs and examples above. In the next section, I discuss practical strategies to manage it based on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Tips to Manage Overgeneralization

Cognitive behavioral therapy techniques can be used for overgeneralization and other cognitive distortions. Since your thoughts influence how you feel and behave, you need to start by being mindful of your thought patterns. These tips will help:

1. Identify what triggers you.

A trigger refers to anything — a person, place, sight, or sensation — that causes you to overgeneralize. Being invited to summer camp, for instance, reminded William of his past experience when he got bullied. This made him very anxious and hesitant to accept future invitations.

We provide worksheets that allow kids, teens, and adults to identify specific triggers and what they’re currently doing to manage them:

2. Recognize when you think negatively.

Notice yourself using extreme words like “always” and “never” in your everyday conversations. Additionally, notice how you’re feeling. Are you annoyed? Frustrated? Self-conscious? Suspicious? Having these strong feelings can mean that you’re also having negative thoughts.

Parents, teachers, and mental health professionals may use this handout for kids and teens who have difficulty identifying their feelings: Feelings and Emotion Thermometer for Kids & Teens

Tip: Consider keeping a thought diary where you can write down a distressing situation or trigger as well as the thoughts and emotions that emerged.

3. Practice reframing.

Reframing is a CBT technique that compels you to view a situation from a different angle. It’s an effective way to replace a negative thought with a more beneficial one.

Reframing can look like this: Instead of concluding that you can never speak well in public, you change your point of view by asking yourself helpful questions like:

  • What was the reason for my stuttering? (Pressure, lack of preparation, etc.)
  • How can I improve?
Through reframing, you might realize that most of your beliefs weren’t based on reality, which then opens up opportunities for positive change.

4. Keep practicing.

What’s great about reframing is that you can use it at home or anywhere. Shifting your mindset takes effort and practice. The more you do it, the easier it becomes until you can successfully overcome overgeneralization.

As you record your thoughts and feelings in a CBT journal, write down new, alternative thoughts. With regard to the example above on stuttering, your alternative thoughts could be (as the result of reframing):

  • “I cannot change what happened in the past but I can do better.”
  • “This is a learning opportunity and I strive to be open-minded.”

Repeating these positive affirmations regularly helps you get rid of negative self-talk. At the same time, they help lower your stress levels when experiencing triggers and may motivate you to embrace change.

5. Seek professional help.

Practicing these strategies works, but don’t ignore the possibility of getting professional help, especially if you feel “stuck” or that you’re not making any progress. Whether you’re dealing with overgeneralization or another cognitive distortion, a therapist can support you through your problems.

Conclusion

Overgeneralization can limit you in so many ways. Like other unhelpful thinking patterns, the way to deal with it is to carefully examine your thoughts and how they’re affecting you. Reframing and using positive affirmations are two helpful methods to end this distortion, which requires constant practice. If you’re interested in more mental health handouts and worksheets for kids and teens, check out our full catalog here.

References:

  1. American Psychological Association. Overgeneralization
  2. World Health Organization. Depression
  3. Mayo Clinic. Anxiety Disorders
  4. Tairi T. Associations between cognitive errors and mental health status in New Zealand adolescents. 2019 November 13

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