Overgeneralization Psychology

By Dr Alice Boyes |

A common problem is that thoughts that have some validity in some contexts become overgeneralized and cause problems in other contexts.

Huh? Examples coming up…

You can help yourself a lot if you can learn how to detect when you are basing your actions on overgeneralized thoughts.

Almost any thought can become overgeneralized.

Overgeneralization Psychology Examples:

– It’s important to never let anyone down.

– Other people should never let me down.

– Being wrong is bad (If you have been cognitively flexible enough to realize a mistake you’re doing something right. Or, maybe you decided to prioritize something else ahead of avoiding the possibility of being wrong e.g. you decided to risk being wrong because you wanted to give someone a chance).

– Taking risks is good/bad.

– It’s important to be prepared.

– It’s important to always give 100%

– If I feel anxious it is a sign something is wrong.

– Other people are generally trustworthy/untrustworthy.

– If I feel tired, it means I need to rest.

– I need to feel confident before I act.

– I should trust my intuition.

– Everything happens for a reason and other types of fatalistic thoughts

– Being optimistic/pessimistic is good/bad.

– I need to sort out my problems before I take on new challenges.

– I need to learn to love myself before anyone else will love me.

– I should avoid making mistakes.

– I should avoid wasting anything.

– If you want something done well you should do it yourself.

Any of the above can become overgeneralized.

If you keep having a problem or can’t get past something, ask yourself if an overgeneralized thought might be part of the problem.

Is your thought causing you to only be able to see a situation from one perspective?

We tend to be very fused with our thoughts, so much so that we see our thoughts as reality rather than as just thoughts. Therefore, you’ll have to do a bit of work to figure out what thoughts are causing you to repeat behaviours that are perpetuating areas of stuckness and suffering in your life.

If I have overgeneralized thoughts does it mean there is something wrong with me?

No – our brains are wired to make generalizations e.g. touching something hot with your hand is not a good idea. Our brains have evolved this way because these generalizations generally work out well for us. However, there are times when overgeneralized thoughts cause us to only be able to see part of a picture and not the whole picture. We fail to see alternative ways of looking at a situation. We end up banging our heads against walls because we’re basing our actions on our thoughts. We end up responding to our thoughts rather than responding to the real characteristics of the situation at hand.

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About The Author

is the author of an upcoming book about anxiety for PenguinRandomHouse. She writes for Psychology Today, GOOD magazine, and is the Emotions Expert for Women's Health Australia. She lives in NYC and is originally from New Zealand.

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