Distortion 2: Overgeneralization

I’m beginning a series on some of David Burns cognitive distortions. It helps me to really see them for what they are and how I apply them to my thinking. Hopefully it will help someone else realize they are doing it too to their detriment.

◊ Overgeneralizing takes isolated cases or truths and makes wide, sweeping assertions about many more cases–or even all cases. Generalizing is another type of heuristic that helps us to grasp and categorize things. Inducing what will happen next based on what you’ve experienced is obviously an important skill. It’s generally safe to believe, for example, that since you nearly burned your eyebrows off the last time you left the gas on too long before you lit the grill, it will probably happen again if you wait just as long…and the same goes for any gas grill you dare to light.

◊ Obviously, this is a valuable cognitive skill. Even animals do it. But it takes a turn for the nasty when it is used to protect us from what we don’t know or understand. I’m talking about discrimination and prejudice that is irrational, bitterness, and pessimism. Combined with the fact that our brains are wired to hold onto negative events and losses more tightly than positive ones, this all becomes very natural. Murphy probably only had to drop his buttered toast a couple of times before he discovered “a law.”

◊ I have laughed until I nearly cried at things like despair.com. Their success is based on overgeneralization of stuff we’d rather not experience or witness. But I laugh like a sad clown–nobody in their right mind finds these really putting smiles of joy on their faces. The smiles demotivators invoke are smiles along the lines of “as long as it doesn’t happen to me..this time.”

I’ve learned that even though this distortion is easy to adopt in order to feel smarter and that I somehow won’t be duped by anyone, it makes me really annoying to people who catch onto me. It makes me a Debbie Downer, who focuses on what will probably go wrong. But worst of all, opportunities go flying by me because I see them coming for a fleeting moment and go, “Meh, wouldn’t work anyway.” Better to keep the cognitive skill as a way to be prepared and remember that each new opportunity is in fact new.

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