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Unhealthy Thinking Patterns: Overgeneralization

In my last post, I talked about the unhealthy thinking pattern of negative focus. That pattern is a very common one, and often, it doesn’t show up alone. Many times, it’s paired with another unhealthy thinking pattern, like overgeneralization. 

What overgeneralization is

Overgeneralization is taking one experience and assuming it applies to all experiences.

Experience: A dog bit me.
Overgeneralization: All dogs bite.

Experience: I burned dinner.
Overgeneralization: I’m a terrible cook.

Overgeneralization turns a single truth into a sweeping truth. It turns one event into all events.

In this way, overgeneralization can easily and quickly shape your view of the world. If it only takes one bad experience to convince you that any similar experience will also be bad, then your opinions and beliefs about the world around you will solidify very quickly. 

What overgeneralization looks like

Like other unhealthy thinking patterns, overgeneralization is not hard to understand, but it can be hard to catch it in the act. 

Fortunately, there are some key words that clue you into the fact that you might be overgeneralizing. These are words like: always, never, every, everyone, and no one.

Overgeneralization thoughts might sound like:

“Why can I never get that right?”
“I always get stopped at this red light.”
“No one ever helps me with this.”
“Everyone always goes to lunch without me.”
“I’ll never be good at public speaking.”

Overgeneralization can also look like fatalism or giving up.

“Why should I keep trying?”
“I messed up once; might as well quit.”
“I can’t do it; it’s not worth the effort.”

Why it’s a problem 

Like I said before, overgeneralization can lead to hastily made conclusions about the world. 

The bigger problem is that those conclusions are often false.

In any scientific study, one single piece of evidence would be nowhere near enough to reach a valid or acceptable conclusion. Realistic conclusions are made after consistent results are repeated over time. 

Because of this, overgeneralization can cause any number of problems in your life, such as:

  • Anger (one study has shown that overgeneralizing makes us angrier than using realistic and accurate language; anger is often expressed in unhealthy ways, too)
  • Frustration
  • Low self-confidence (believing that you can’t do anything right)
  • Unnecessary emotional pain (believing something that isn’t true)
  • Anxiety (particularly social anxiety)
  • Prejudice (using one person from a particular group to make generalizations about all members of that group)

How it affects you as a creative 

Overgeneralization can also have a real, negative impact on your life as a creative. Because overgeneralization causes you to make sweeping conclusions, it can cause you to have a fatalist attitude about your creative endeavors.

Creativity requires thinking outside the box, taking risks, trying new things, and yes, failing. When you exercise your creativity, you will fail, over and over again. 

If you overgeneralize, you will take those failures to mean something they don’t. You will believe not only that you failed, but that you are a failure. 

And if you believe that, you aren’t going to be very motivated to keep creating, are you?

How to overcome overgeneralization

As with any unhealthy thinking pattern, it’s important to learn to overcome overgeneralization so that you can think thoughts that will serve you and your goals. 

Remember: undoing these thinking patterns takes time and attention. If your brain is used to overgeneralizing, that will be a hard pattern to break. But it is possible, and it is worth it. 

Find counterexamples.

When you overgeneralize, you use words like always, never, everyone, and no one. But the thing is, phrases that include those words are rarely true. 

When you catch yourself overgeneralizing, think of a counterexample to your generalized statement. 

Let’s take the dog biting example. If you’re bit by a dog, and it makes you want to assume that all dogs bite, ask yourself, “Have I ever met a dog that didn’t bite? Do I know someone who has a dog that has never bitten them?” The answer, of course, will be yes.

Once you have a counterexample, you can no longer use those generalized words. You can’t say that “all” dogs bite, because you now know that that simply isn’t true.

Finding a counterexample stops overgeneralization in its tracks.

Imagine a third party.

What if a friend came to you and said, “My partner and I just broke up. I’m going to be alone forever!”

Would you say, “Yeah, you’re probably right?” I hope not.

When you catch yourself overgeneralizing, picture a friend bringing that generalized statement to you. What would you tell them? You would probably be the voice of reason in an otherwise emotionally charged moment. Try to be that for yourself. Step back and look at the situation objectively. Is that conclusion you’re jumping to really as accurate as it feels?

Acknowledge patterns.

Just because something isn’t always true doesn’t mean it can never be true. In fact, it can be usually true.

Picture this: your partner throws something away. The trash is overflowing, but they don’t take it out. 

You might be tempted to think, “They never take out the trash!” but in all probability, that isn’t entirely accurate. However, it might be true that they usually don’t take the trash out.

Recognizing patterns like these allows you to experience and express frustrations in healthy ways. It allows you to respond in a rational way rather than to blurt out a statement that is untrue.

Overgeneralization: You never take the trash out!
Pattern recognition: I noticed that you don’t seem to take the trash out as often as I do. 

Which of these examples is more likely to lead to a positive conversation and desired outcome?

Stop labeling.

Putting a label on something is almost the same thing as overgeneralization. When you label someone (including yourself) as stupid, lazy, reckless, etc., you are making a generalized statement about them, one that is probably not entirely true. 

Avoid putting labels on things (and especially on people). If you’re tempted to label, label the single action or experience:

That decision was not the right one.
I should not have done that.

I was having a bad day.
They probably weren’t thinking.

These thoughts could probably use a “negative focus” check, but they take away the generalization pattern. This can help you not jump to conclusions about someone’s character over one isolated incident.

Overgeneralization can be a big blow to your happiness. It can lead you to form inaccurate, harmful conclusions about the world that will reinforce your negativity and lead to even more unhealthy thinking patterns. 

Step back. See the truth. Don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t let one experience shape your ideology or how you view yourself. The world is far more complex than that—and so are you.

Think thoughts that serve you.

With Design.org’s assessment and coaching statements, you can design thoughts that will help you “create happy” in your life. It’s free, so get started today!