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Overgeneralizing

By Beverly Ward


July 24, 2022


From Science: Overgeneralizing is a type of Cognitive Distortion (the sixth in this series of blogs) in which we take a single thought about an event and apply it broadly. Cognitive Distortions are unhelpful thoughts that are unrealistic and unhelpful. While overgeneralizations are very unrealistic, they seem and feel very real when we are caught up in them. There are two types of overgeneralizing, they are:


1 – Generalizing from some current moment to all of the future – For example, if we are rejected and then generalize from that to thinking ‘this is always happening to me, I am unlovable, I will be alone forever’. A common overgeneralization, especially with depression, is hopelessness. For example, we might generalize from ‘things are not going well’ to ‘my problems are insolvable, and I am going to be stuck in this forever.’


2. Generalizing from an error I made to myself – For example, if we fail a test and then generalize from that failure to thinking ‘I am a failure, I am a loser and my life will always be a failure’


Dr. David Burns, a leader and pioneer in CBT says that ‘This is the cause of all depression, overgeneralizing into the clouds of abstraction.’ What he means by this is that, mentally, we lose sight of what is realistic and true and get lost in a fog of abstract thinking. The word ‘abstract’, comes from two Latin words: ‘abs’, meaning ‘away from’, and ‘trahere’, meaning ‘to spin out’. Being ‘lost in abstraction’ is to spin out away from the here and now into somewhere imaginary. I believe Dr. Burns adds the words ‘the clouds’ to his description to capture the feeling. With this distortion, we often feel as if we are in a fog, or clouded over.


The first step in turning around any distorted thought is to decide if we want to turn it around. The first technique in doing so is asking, ‘what does this distortion show about me that is positive and awesome and what are some benefits of believing this thought’ (this is called positive reframing). If I am overgeneralizing from ‘I failed this test’ to ‘I am a failure’ the positive it shows about me might be that I value and want to do a good job. Maybe a benefit of the thought is an increased feeling of safety. It may keep me from putting myself out there, from risking failure in bigger things by avoiding them, for example ‘I won’t enter that competition because I would just fail’. This thought keeps me stuck, but ‘safe’.


Some helpful CBT techniques for overgeneralizing are ‘let’s be specific’ and ‘acceptance paradox’. To use these tools, we start by talking back to the overgeneralization. If I am a failure when, exactly did I fail, what time of day today was I a failure? What is the definition of a failure, and, if this is the definition of ‘a failure’, how many people are then failures? The point of this exercise is to pull us out of the clouds of abstraction and into reality. We want to identify and isolate the real mistake and bring to it a spirit of acceptance and forgiveness.




From Scripture: Lamentations 3:21-23 tells us, ‘Yet this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: It is because of the Lord’s loving kindnesses that we are not consumed, because His [tender] compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great and beyond measure is Your faithfulness.’ This verse was written by the prophet Jeremiah during a time of despair and pain. Jemiah’s writings in Lamentations describe great anguish and great hope. Lamentations describes ‘laments’, or ‘loud cries’ of despair. Jeremiah and the other Israelites certainly could have (and may have at times) overgeneralized to see the future as hopeless. Yet in verse 21, Jeremiah tells us that he finds hope by calling to MIND the Lord's loving kindnesses.


We are never 'a failure’ no matter how often we fail. God’s mercies are new every morning, this doesn’t mean there’s an absence of trouble, it means that He is with us to comfort us while we are ‘in the clouds of abstraction’ and to show us the way out. As each new day begins, we can look for God’s light within the clouds of abstraction. We can find His mercies overcoming our troubles. We will see His blessings if we train our MINDS to find them. If you look to the East, you will see the sun rise, without fail, every morning. Look for it, and you will also see God’s daily provision in a multitude of ways.


Let’s talk about Thomas Chisholm, lyricist of the iconic hymn ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness’. Here is the thing about Thomas Chisholm, he was just an ordinary guy. There is no amazing, hard to relate to story here, just an ordinary guy with an ordinary life. He was a teacher, a newspaper editor, an insurance agent and then a pastor. Reverend Chisholm wrote poems, and a musician friend of his, William Runyan, liked one so much that he developed it into a song, ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness’. It was not a well know song until just before Thomas Chisholm’s death. In the 1930’s, Moody Bible college heard it, liked it and began to perform it regularly. In 1954, it came across the desk of Billy Graham, who loved it and made it a part of his revivals. God used an ordinary life to do something extraordinary. We never know what God may do with our lives and it does not have to be spectacular or obvious to be BIG. You never know how God is using you.




Action Plan: When you find yourself overgeneralizing ‘into the clouds of abstraction’, ground yourself with truth. Ask yourself questions: Why am I believing this? Is what I am believing 100% accurate? Is there evidence to refute this idea? There is much evidence in God’s Word to refute all that is distorted in our thinking and there is much instruction in God’s Word to do so.




The Lagniappe:


Story of the hymn Great Is Thy Faithfulness




Carrie Underwood and CeCe Winans singing 'Great is Thy Faithfulness"






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