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In part 3 of my series on Cognitive Therapy, let’s meet Lucy.
Lucy’s having a bad day.
First, she ran out of milk for her cereal this morning, and then she couldn’t find her car keys.
When she got to work, she learned that a project she had wanted went to someone else.
Have you ever had a day like this? It’s rough, right?
But there’s something else adding to Lucy’s misery: her thoughts.
Her knee-jerk response when something goes wrong is something like this: “Of course, bad stuff always happens to me.”
And, “Of course someone else got the project. I never succeed at my goals.”
We heard words like “always” and “never” in “ALL-or-NOTHING” thinking. Now we’re talking about another form of extreme thinking, called:
It happens when we exaggerate our faults and mistakes.
We say things like, “I always do the wrong thing,”
Or, “you never listen to me.”
It also happens when we overgeneralize our problems.
When something goes wrong, we turn it into something that has always been and will forevermore be true:
“Bad stuff always happens.”
“Things will never get better.”
Now, in one way, I totally get how this happens.
Our brains are wired to look for patterns in what happens to us, because patterns help us make sense of the world.
But by definition, an overgeneralization connects the dots in a pattern that isn’t really there.
The brain takes a shortcut, making big assumptions based on much smaller pieces of information.
I’m not saying Lucy isn’t having a bad day. Only that, with her thoughts of always and never, she’s making the day’s disappointments more permanent and pervasive than they need to be.
If we were to replay a movie of Lucy’s life, would these terms make sense?
Or would it be more accurate to say that bad stuff happens sometimes, perhaps more often than she’d like, and her exaggerated terms are making them more universal than they really are?
If we were to replay her life, would we see that good stuff happens to Lucy, too?
This reminds me of something Kahlil Gibran said: “An exaggeration is a truth that has lost its temper.”
Living with anxiety or depression can cause us to pay more attention to the bad stuff that lines up with our cynical worldview than the good stuff that doesn’t.
Overgeneralization and Suicide
We may be tempted to laugh at Lucy’s overgeneralizing, but her pain can be very real.
Clinicians have known for a long time that overgeneralization is a common distortion among those contemplating suicide.
Those who suffer from anxiety and depression use more “absolute”-type language (“always,” “never,” “totally,” “entire”) than others do, but suicidal individuals use even more.
Their pain becomes so excruciating, so seemingly permanent and pervasive, that they believe it will never go away and it will never end.
This is where cognitive therapy comes in.
It’s not about shooting down every thought we have. It’s about testing our thoughts to see if they reflect reality. If they don’t, then they are distortions that can lead to distorted – and often unnecessary – pain.
1. Do Your RESEARCH.
The first involves doing our research. We examine the evidence for our overgeneralizations. We can ask questions, like:
- What evidence do we have that what’s happening really is an ongoing problem? If someone were watching a movie of my life, would they agree with me?
- Are there times when the thing we claim “always” happens doesn’t happen? Or when what we claim “never” happens does happen?
2. Be a REALIST.
Second, we can learn to look at our problems more realistically. One technique for this is called “positive tracking.”
Let’s say that every morning you order the same drink at your local coffee shop. But one day the barista says, “Sorry, we just ran out.”
And you think to yourself, “Of course, they always run out before I get to order my drink.”
But is this true?
Try tracking how many times over the next couple weeks you get to order your drink…or not. This simple test can break the phantom patterns we think we see in life.
And we can apply the same test on more serious things, like job stress or relationship issues.
Then we can take the next step of replacing exaggerations with more realistic terms. One question we can ask is, “What less extreme words would more realistically describe the situation?”
“Always” and “never” can usually be replaced with “sometimes.”
Like Lucy, we sometimes experience bad stuff. But sometimes these things don’t happen. This more realistic look at life can help reduce our feelings of anxiety and depression.
3. Find the Right RATIO.
Finding the right ratio involves asking, “What are the costs vs benefits of my overgeneralizations?
Is the cost I’m paying (like extra worry and negativity) worth it?”
4. Follow the Golden RULE.
Using the Golden Rule involves asking, “Are overgeneralizations a fair way to treat others or ourselves?”
Exaggerations like “You always do this” or “You never do that” tend to create communication cul-de-sacs, causing the relationship to stall in defensiveness and blame.
We can break the cycle by letting our overgeneralization go, viewing others and ourselves in more realistic and forgiving terms.
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 Gibran, K. (2014). Sand and Foam. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
 Shea, S. C. (1999). The Practical Art of Suicide Assessment: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals and Substance Abuse Counselors. John Wiley. 42.
 Al-Mosaiwi, M., & Johnstone, T. (2017). In an Absolute State: Elevated Use of Absolutist Words Is a Marker Specific to Anxiety, Depression, and Suicidal Ideation. Clinical Psychological Science, 2167702617747074.
 Leahy, R. L. (2017). Cognitive therapy techniques: A practitioner’s guide. Guilford Publications. 461.
Dr. Pamela Coburn-Litvak has published research articles on exercise and stress in Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior. Her latest book, Leaving the Shadowland of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, was published in 2020.
After receiving a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she served as both Assistant Professor of Physiology & Pharmacology and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Research Affairs at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. She then joined the Biology department at Andrews University and developed courses in human physiology as well as the neurobiology of mental illness. She also founded Rock @ Science LLC, a company that specializes in health and science education and web development. She co-developed the brain and body physiology segment of the Stress: Beyond Coping seminar with its creator, Dr. William “Skip” MacCarty, DMin.
Dr. Coburn-Litvak currently lives in California with her husband. Their two daughters are mostly grown and attending school elsewhere.
When she’s not studying or teaching about stress, she enjoys stress-relieving activities like puttering around the garden, taking nature walks with her family, knitting, cooking, and reading.