Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Cracking the Code of Overgeneralization

photo by Sam Wethern
So today an interesting thing happened. I am sitting in my cubicle and feeling very anxious about eating breakfast. I can’t even eat my entire egg because I just feel so uptight. Then I go into a meeting and after a couple hours someone brings in snacks and I am suddenly munchin' on licorice and strawberries feeling hardly any anxiety at all. Whats that all about? Now here I am back at my cubicle for lunch and I am procrastinating it for some reason. It all has to do with what I talked about before- overgeneralizing. I do this every day. I think to myself that because I have felt anxious over breakfast or lunch before, that I am going to feel it now, and so my body responds to the situation as if it is a true threat. So I know that I am overgeneralizing, but how do I stop? I did some research and found an interesting article by Adam Khan (click here for the entire article: I am attaching some of what he said that I think is helpful for me to remember.

"Overgeneralizing causes despair and hopelessness. The researcher Martin Seligman and his colleagues have discovered that the two most deadly assumptions you can make about a setback is: The cause of the setback is permanent or pervasive. Permanence and pervasiveness are both overgeneralizations — and dangerous ones at that.

Permanence says, "This is always going to be here," or "There's no way out of it." Pervasiveness says, "It has ruined everything," or "My life is over." These are overgeneralizations that evoke feelings of demoralization. They make you want to give up. That's usually not a very useful response to make to a setback.

Interestingly, one of the things Napoleon Hill hammers on in his books (Law of Success, Think and Grow Rich, and Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude) is that failure is only temporary defeat. Hill and Seligman are trying to get their readers to do the same thing: Don't jump to the conclusion that this setback is permanent. It's a deadly overgeneralization. It stops action. It kills motivation. It destroys dreams. Don't ever do it again!

The word always [is] a generalization.

Stressful moments are more memorable than emotionally-flat moments, and because of that, we can overgeneralize — falsely see a negative pattern that doesn't really exist. It's an illusion caused by the way our brains selectively store memories.

In Consumer Reports on Health, they had this to say:

'Mundane happenings can be difficult to remember. But upsetting events are often hard to forget...A separate, more durable system for storing emotionally charged memories has survival value, the researchers pointed out, enabling animals to remember and avoid threatening situations. Presumably, the stronger the emotional response, the stronger the memory.'

what to do about it

When you feel doubtful or anxious or angry or frustrated or worried, look into your thinking and see if you can find an overgeneralization.

They are hard to detect because you assume whatever you think is true. It would be easy to detect if someone was angry at you and said something like, "You never wash the dishes." The first thing you'd think of is all the times you washed the dishes! But when you say something like that to yourself, you don't question it. You just feel bad.

But if you stop and look, you'll be able to find your own generalizations. The moment you discover an overgeneralization in your thinking — the moment you recognize a thought as an overgeneralization — your negative feelings start to diminish. The negative feelings were being generated by your mistaken assumption. When you recognize your mistake, your feelings change — immediately.

Remind yourself that your feeling of certainty might not mean anything. It'll allow you to place less confidence in your conclusions. When your conclusion is giving you negative feelings, your skepticism can make you feel better and act more sanely.

Pessimistic assumptions change the way you feel which changes the way you perceive the world to match your assumption. You are less likely to see contradictory evidence.

The tendency to overgeneralize is built into our brains. But there is a cure for it. The cure is simple: Catch yourself overgeneralizing. Over and over and over. Keep it up and your tendency will gradually diminish.

The real trick is to keep reminding yourself to catch yourself over a period of time. It won't work to remember it for a week and then forget about it. Extended effort is what is required. Here are some ideas to help you remember over time:

1. Ask your spouse to catch you. We often say our overgeneralizations out loud.

2. Put a message on your screen saver using the Scrolling Marquee.

3. Write OVERGENERALIZING on a card and carry it with you.

4. Post a note on your bathroom mirror.

The possibilities are endless. But the principle is important: Use a system to remember to catch yourself overgeneralizing again and again over a period of time, and your tendency to overgeneralize will dwindle. As it does, you'll experience negative feelings less often and less intensely. In other words, you'll feel good more often. And who doesn't want that?"

With yesterday's post I wanted to work on trying to make my attitude in the mornings better, and this morning I was able to do that with taping a few of the affirmations I liked around- one on my alarm clock, bathroom mirror, and closet. I also want to work on not overgeneralizing breakfast. Some of the suggestions mentioned above were the same approach I took yesterday. I think what I will try to do to stop my overgeneralization is to notice when I am doing it and try to think of times when I had good experiences with breakfast or lunch. Maybe I will put an O on my monitor with an X through it as another reminder.

1 comment:

Sam Wethern said...

I ran across your blog and the picture attributed to Cadmium14, which is me. I assume you obtained this from Flicker, based on the link, which is an account I closed. My work, including "anxiety" shown on this entry, is posted at my blog site:

Thanks for posting my work and for the attribution.

Sam Wethern aka Cadmium14

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