Our thoughts have an important influence over our wellbeing.  There is an intricate link between our thoughts, emotions, and behaviour. 

“”Some thoughts can feel easy to unpack and explore, while others feel complicated, confusing, and contradictory.”

– Nikole Seele

It is important to understand, that as people, we are hardwired for survival.  This means anticipating danger and being able to respond and react effectively and inefficiently.  Our quick thinking can successfully get us out of difficult or dangerous situations.  But sometimes, our thought processes become exaggerated, and cause us to feel stuck.

Aaron Beck, in his creation of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy identified several ways in which our thoughts can develop unhealthy patterns.  He researched the way in which distorted thinking influenced his patients’ symptoms and identified that changing thinking patterns could change psychological symptoms.  These exaggerated patterns of thought are referred to as cognitive distortions, with one example of a cognitive distortion being overgeneralising.

Before diving into the specifics of overgeneralising, let’s first unpack how cognitive distortions might develop.  Very simply, our brains are constantly seeking out patterns.  The quicker and more effectively we can identify patterns, the easier it is to make sense of the world.  We develop brain short cuts to save energy, and to make everyday tasks easier to do. 

Sometimes, our brains can develop flawed connections between thoughts, emotions, experiences, and consequences.  This might mean creating links between unrelated events or identifying patterns where there are none.  These flawed connections can often have a negative impact on our mental health.

Over generalising as a flawed connection, involves taking a single case and generalising that experience to a variety of different situations.  This means making a conclusion from a single experience and applying that conclusion to other unrelated situations.  Let’s break this down with an example: You are driving to work and get stuck behind a slow-moving vehicle.  A pattern of overgeneralising may cause you to think, “Things always go wrong”.  You may choose to speak up in front of a class and get the answer wrong, causing you to conclude, “I never know the right answer”.

Examining your thoughts can help to identify overgeneralisations.  You can identify these thoughts as they typically involve absolute words such as “always” “never” “everything” “nothing”.  They are usually applied to a variety of situations or contexts and are applied to both current and future situations.

Once you have started to identify these overgeneralising thought patterns, you can start to explore them.  How true are these generalisations?  Are you always wrong?  Or are you occasionally wrong?  Do things always go badly, or are there instances where things go badly and others where things go well?  Remember that the alternative is not thinking that things are always good, but rather seeking a more realistic perspective.  Changing these negative thinking patterns is going to require noticing, challenging, and replacing.  This process takes time!

written by Nikole Seele, Counselling Psychologist