Distortion 2: Overgeneralization

I’m beginning a series on some of David Burns cognitive distortions. It helps me to really see them for what they are and how I apply them to my thinking. Hopefully it will help someone else realize they are doing it too to their detriment.

◊ Overgeneralizing takes isolated cases or truths and makes wide, sweeping assertions about many more cases–or even all cases. Generalizing is another type of heuristic that helps us to grasp and categorize things. Inducing what will happen next based on what you’ve experienced is obviously an important skill. It’s generally safe to believe, for example, that since you nearly burned your eyebrows off the last time you left the gas on too long before you lit the grill, it will probably happen again if you wait just as long…and the same goes for any gas grill you dare to light.

◊ Obviously, this is a valuable cognitive skill. Even animals do it. But it takes a turn for the nasty when it is used to protect us from what we don’t know or understand. I’m talking about discrimination and prejudice that is irrational, bitterness, and pessimism. Combined with the fact that our brains are wired to hold onto negative events and losses more tightly than positive ones, this all becomes very natural. Murphy probably only had to drop his buttered toast a couple of times before he discovered “a law.”

◊ I have laughed until I nearly cried at things like despair.com. Their success is based on overgeneralization of stuff we’d rather not experience or witness. But I laugh like a sad clown–nobody in their right mind finds these really putting smiles of joy on their faces. The smiles demotivators invoke are smiles along the lines of “as long as it doesn’t happen to me..this time.”

I’ve learned that even though this distortion is easy to adopt in order to feel smarter and that I somehow won’t be duped by anyone, it makes me really annoying to people who catch onto me. It makes me a Debbie Downer, who focuses on what will probably go wrong. But worst of all, opportunities go flying by me because I see them coming for a fleeting moment and go, “Meh, wouldn’t work anyway.” Better to keep the cognitive skill as a way to be prepared and remember that each new opportunity is in fact new.

Distortion 1: All or Nothing

I’m beginning a series on some of David Burns cognitive distortions. It helps me to really see them for what they are and how I apply them to my thinking. Hopefully it will help someone else realize they are doing it too to their detriment.

◊ All-or-nothing (also called ‘splitting’) is that tendency to sort everything into absolute terms like “always,” “never,” “every time,” and an oldie but goodie “utterly,” etc. If you really try and think about it, very few aspects of human behavior are absolute. There is usually at least one time you did “that thing” differently. You grow in knowledge and ability so repeat your actions but not exactly the same way; or, you mess up 7 out of 10 times but those other 3 are magical.

Sad that Google Suggests only one thing to follow this question. And, yet again, teenagers are singled out as more stupid than other populations. Don’t buy into it! 

 ◊ I suppose it tends to follow a natural progression. Hindsight is 20×20, our brains develop and change, and these facts conspire to make us think we are over it.

◊ Why do we do this? Because it’s a heuristic that has worked before—a mental shortcut which makes it easier to move on. For example, if you are tired of a relationship with a friend that on certain occasions puts you down, you may be torn as to whether you should continue the relationship. Sometimes they make you feel good, and sometimes bad, so it’s not 100% miserable. You might even feel guilty getting rid of them for “sometimes bad” because you are disregarding the good. So you split it, all-or-nothing: “That guy is always putting me down.” Then you can sever the connection, because who’s going to fault you for someone who’s always bad to you?

To be fair, we have to take mental shortcuts to survive and to get through life. These shortcuts aren’t all bad of course, but they are easily misapplied and go unchecked. A rule of thumb easily slips into a prejudice, some kind of fear, enabling an escape from opportunity…

 

It wasn’t hard to realize and accept that I pull this distortion all the time…oops, I mean a lot. But once I was aware Ifound out how hard it is to stop—how pervasive it is, how rampant it is in my family. It enables my self-sabotaging “don’t bother trying” thoughts. How many times have I missed out on opportunities to do something new and add value to my world because of this language? I just discovered Joel Runyan the other day—people like that are fascinating to me because they blew the cap off of the realm of possibility long ago.