Overgeneralization is another way of thinking that can add to negative feelings and sabotage constructive effort. The motto of overgeneralization is not “if you don’t succeed the first time, try, try again.” It is rather “Because you didn’t succeed the first time, you are doomed to failure” or “Failing the first time means you won’t ever be able to succeed”. Overgeneralization takes a negative outcome of some kind and “generalizes” it from the present to any future attempts to succeed.
“I can’t even make it through the first chapter of this book—I’ll never finish it!” “I didn’t get any grades above a C this semester. I’ll never get an A. In fact, maybe I should re-think college.” “I’ve hit three red lights in a row—I’ll never make it to work!” “Did you see that he didn’t even acknowledge her in the meeting? He never gives other people credit for anything!”
Overgeneralization with our own mistakes or failures saps motivation and takes us out of a growth mindset. With a growth mindset, we are always learning and sharpening our skills and abilities. Overgeneralization, though, keeps us from learning. Maybe most importantly, it diminishes our responsibility for future success or failure. There’s no point in taking positive action or working to improve our situation if the outcome is predetermined. Sounds kind of depressing, doesn’t it?
Overgeneralization about others can also de-motivate us. Maybe we could accomplish something, and even get credit for it, if we thought about how to make it happen. Does the boss never give anyone else credit? Maybe not very often (and we can acknowledge that he’s not a very good boss), but that shouldn’t keep us from doing credit-worthy things. And who knows? We might even get credit if we go about it in an effective way.
Overgeneralization also takes a few people (or even just one person) and generalizes to “everyone”. With one stroke of language, one, two, or three is suddenly multiplied to “all” and “every”. As Ryan Martin, Ph.D. points out in What Is Overgeneralizing?, our feelings of anger or frustration are also multiplied if we generalize to “everyone”. Instead of “These people ahead of us are moving so slowly!”, “Everyone is moving at a snail’s pace today!” also multiplies our frustration.
As with other harmful types of thinking, we need to take a careful look at what we are really thinking and saying. We can acknowledge a present difficulty without generalizing it to the future. That gives us room to grow, change, do better, and succeed! Taking positive actions to accomplish something, however small the steps may be, is very empowering. It helps us to feel more in control of our situation and is a great mood booster.