What Is Overgeneralizing?

How it’s defined and why you should never do it.

Posted Aug 01, 2019

Last month, I wrote about catastrophizing and how it is one of the thought types most often linked to anger. This is part of a series I am doing on why we get mad and the thoughts that tend to be involved.

In Part 2, I want to get into another one of those thought types: Overgeneralizing. 

Have you ever been driving—maybe even running a little late—and been stopped by a red light only to say something like, “Why do I always hit every red light?”

If so, you are like many people who use words like “always” and “every” when you evaluate events even though those words probably are not entirely accurate. In other words, while you might be stopped by a lot of red lights, you probably do not always get stopped by every single one of them.

This is an example of overgeneralizing, which is when you use overly broad language in our evaluations of events or people. You can really hear overgeneralizing in the language people use when they talk about provocations. They use words like “always,” “never,” “everybody,” and “nobody.” This type of thinking and language matters because once you say something always happens to you, you start responding to the pattern of events instead of just the one event that has just happened.

For example, imagine you are on your way to an important meeting and there is a small group of people walking slowly in the hallway in front of you. If might be a frustrating experience for sure, but if your interpretation is “Why does everyone walk so slowly?” you will likely get even angrier because now you are not just frustrated by this small group of people in front of you, you’re frustrated by everyone.

It may sound like I am splitting hairs here, but I am not. This tendency to overgeneralizing makes us angrier than when we use more realistic and accurate language (Martin & Dahlen, 2007; 2011; Martin & Vieaux, 2013). People who overgeneralize tend to get angrier than others, they express that anger in less healthy ways, and they suffer greater consequences as a result of their anger. 

So what can you do about it? Here are some options:

1. Think through the accuracy of the statement. When you catch yourself using words like “always” or “never,” stop yourself and ask those words are accurate. Has your spouse really never bought you flowers before? Does the fast-food place by your house always mess up your order? If those words are accurate, by all means, get angry (and maybe even consider doing something about it, as anger can be a healthy motivator).

2. Replace that overly broad language with something more realistic. Once you realize that your kids do not always forget to flush the toilet, replace that language with something more accurate. Even a subtle shift from “he always forgets to buy milk” to “he often forgets to buy milk” can lead to a change in anger. 

3. Do not minimize the pattern either. Sometimes, there are legitimate patterns of mistreatment, and it is unhealthy to minimize those. For instance, if your partner routinely cancels your dinner plans at the last minute (i.e., not always but often), it is completely reasonable to acknowledge that pattern and respond with frustration. 

4. Keep practicing. These shifts in thinking take time, and it is unrealistic to think you can change your interpretation style overnight. It might take some time so keep practicing. 

References

Martin, R. C., & Dahlen, E. R. (2007). The Angry Cognitions Scale: A new inventory for assessing cognitions in anger. Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive Behavior Therapy, 25, 155-173.

Martin, R. C., & Dahlen, E. R., (2011). Angry thoughts and response to provocation: Validity of the Angry Cognitions Scale. Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive Behavior Therapy, 29, 65-76.

Martin, R. C., Vieaux, L. E. (2013). Angry thoughts and daily emotion logs: Validity of the Angry Cognitions Scale. Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive Behavior Therapy, 29, 65-76.