As a teenager, Sam was artistic and carefree; she fell in love with her next-door neighbor, Wyatt, and for a short time, they seemed destined for forever. When Wyatt broke Sam’s heart, it took years for Sam to put herself back together, and she adopted the belief that being relaxed would cause her to feel broken, so the “fixed” Sam revels in data and is cautious. When Sam goes swimming, she prefers the Y, where she can count her laps in a controlled environment over the ocean, with endless variables. Sam is recently engaged to Jack, a nice guy, maybe a little boring.
Sam overgeneralizes – a cognitive distortion marked by viewing a single negative event as a never-ending pattern. Overgeneralization leads to self-sabotage and lower life satisfaction.
Like with all cognitive distortions, the goal is to move from:
Situation -> Automatic Thoughts -> Emotion -> Response
Situation -> Automatic Thought -> Emotion -> Analysis of Automatic Thought -> New Emotion -> Adaptive Response
Tips for Challenging Overgeneralization:
Reframe Absolute Thinking: Consider thoughts that include “always” and “never.” If you think, “I can never make any mistakes at work,” try reframing it to “I prioritize being highly professional whenever possible.” If you think, “People never listen to me,” reframe to “[specific person] doesn’t listen to me, but [specific people] usually do.”
Use a Growth Mindset: Fixed mindsets are characterized by limited and inflexible thinking and a belief that things are unchangeable. Conversely, a growth mindset is a deeply held belief in change. The easiest way to access this super-power mindset is to introduce the word “yet.” For example, “I’m not good at math” is a fixed mindset; “I’m not good at math yet,” is a growth mindset that enables people to embrace challenges.
Make an Exception Journal: Whenever you notice a fact that disproves your overgeneralization, write it down. Write down (referencing the above examples): specific moments when you have made a mistake and work (and things have still been ok), specific situations when people have listened to you, and any particular improvement in math skills. Notice the word specific on repeat – the more precisely you challenge the distortion, the likelier it is that the challenge works.
Let’s apply the discounting the overgeneralizing theories to Sam…
Sam notices that when she’s with Jack, she behaves like a watered-down version of herself, which makes her feel ambivalent about a future with Jack (SITUATION).
Sam immediately thinks that ending relationships always leaves her broken for years (AUTOMATIC THOUGHT).
Sam feels trapped (EMOTION).
Sam behaves inconsistently with her true self as she struggles to maintain a relationship she doesn’t honestly want (RESPONSE).
And add in the new skills:
Sam realizes that she had one relationship end badly, but that doesn’t mean all her romances will end with despair (REFRAME ABSOLUTE THINKING). When Sam notices herself thinking, “You can’t have a healthy, long-term relationship,” she reframes it to “I haven’t had a healthy, long-term relationship yet,” and reminds herself that she has only opened her heart to two (1.5?) people so far (APPLY A GROWTH MINDEST). Sam lists exceptions; she can think of friendships that have ended without her feeling broken (MAKE AN EXCEPTION JOURNAL). (ANALYSIS OF AUTOMATIC THOUGHT).
Sam feels empowered (NEW EMOTION).
Sam shows her true self in her relationship with Jack, knowing that they may or may not work out but that she will be ok in the long term (ADAPTIVE RESPONSE).