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Overgeneralization | A Cognitive Distortion That Can Kill

Overgeneralization is a type of thinking that emerged from a single event; this thinking is then applied to all similar events, especially ones in the future.

Perhaps you had to give a big speech at your job or college graduation. Both you and the people around may think that you gave an absolutely horrendous speech.

Big deal, right? In this example, overgeneralization might look like, “I always mess up speeches. No matter what, I always do terrible things when giving speeches.”

Over a period of time, if this cognitive distortion is applied to several events, then being a failure will become your mindset.

This contributes to low self-esteem and can lead to the onset of chronic depression and anxiety. And as we all know, depression and anxiety can lead to drug addiction.

But we’re not just talking about overgeneralization paving the way to drug addiction, we’re looking at how an overgeneralization can affect an addict both in active addiction and in sobriety/recovery.

You’ve probably heard that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Perception is the screen in which we all experience reality as it pertains to our daily lives. Cognitive distortions are faulty beliefs based on someone’s perception.

Drug addicts usually have negative thought loops going on in their minds which can make them victims of cognitive distortions like overgeneralization.

In this article, you’ll read about the cognitive distortion known as overgeneralization and how it pertains to an addict; but first, we need to ask “What are cognitive distortions?”

What are Cognitive Distortions?

Cognitive distortions like overgeneralization usually have negativity as an underlying theme. Incorrect beliefs about the present moment lead to errors in the thinking mind. These thoughts influence emotions that then dictate behavior.

You may think that thoughts are not that big of a deal and everyone has an overactive mind that doesn’t affect us. Well, I’m here to tell you that all of us have an inner dialogue that does impact our daily lives.

This is why affirmations like “I’m becoming my best self” or “I am the love I am seeking” are so important to say aloud to oneself. These affirmations create positive vibes that attract abundance to the individual.

Let’s say you’re in school and have a big English test to take. You take the test and you get an F. (Yikes! You probably should have studied a bit more.)

You may say to yourself: “I’m the worst person to ever take an English test in the entire world!” 

This may be a fleeting thought that you’re able to let go of and conclude that indeed you just need to take more time to study next time.

This type of thinking is an overgeneralization and can become a pattern of thinking. For example, constantly saying you are the worst at something can affect your life, relationships, and certainly your behavior.

This type of thinking can lead to behavioral problems such as drug addiction, and drug addiction can also exacerbate cognitive distortions.

Whether it was the chicken or the egg first, the marriage of cognitive distortions and drug addiction can create real problems in your life.

Overgeneralization and the Addict

It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about an addict in the depths of their addiction or an addict who is sober and in recovery: both will probably have to deal with overgeneralization.

To best illustrate this, I can use myself as an example.

When I first started abusing substances, I was around 15 and was already playing jazz piano in local restaurants/bars. I was being hailed by the music community in Dallas, and naturally, that led to me putting a ton of pressure on myself.

If I didn’t feel like I played “perfectly,” I would usually think “I really played terribly. I’m always fucking up when it comes time for me to take a solo. I’ll never succeed because I’ll continue to mess up every time I play in the future.”

This may seem like an excessive overgeneralization, but it’s how my mind can work, and if you’re an addict too, you can probably relate.

I needed relief from these thoughts that produced negative feelings about myself. The negative feelings led to behaviors. At this point, I couldn’t get drugs in my system fast enough as they quieted my mind down, and I had less anxiety when I performed.

Problem solved, right?

Wrong!

Drug addiction came with its own onset of problems, and what first seemed like a solution was anything but.

Overgeneralization Made Me Feel Like My Addiction Couldn’t Be Helped

As I progressed in my addiction, my grades began to suffer, my family relations began to be strained, and eventually, I was someone who couldn’t keep a needle out of my arm to save my life.

I felt dirty and assumed that everyone in my life saw me as a bottom-barrel degenerate.

I would legitimately think, “I’m the worst drug addict, and I’ll continue to get worse and worse, and there’s nothing I can do about it.  Every time I try to achieve a goal I always fail. I might as well give up! ” 

I’m pretty sure this is textbook “addict” thinking. The cognitive distortion overgeneralization can keep an addict stuck.

Feeling stuck, an addict may think they can never change and that any help is just a waste of time. This will keep them from going to rehab, attending meetings, getting a sponsor, working the 12 steps, and the like.

So, what about the addict in recovery? Drugs have warped our minds and bodies, so when we get sober, we can be all over the place emotionally and otherwise.

Often we are overly sensitive and get offended easily. Maybe you go to your first meeting and no one comes up and introduces themselves to you.

You may say to yourself, “I knew I was the most awkward person in the world. I’m always going to get ignored at meetings. I’ll never make any friends.”

This is a generalization that can get you killed.

Perhaps your story includes relapse in it. You get 2 to 4 months sober and then use again, only to end up back in rehab, or at the very least having to go to a meeting and get another desire chip.

I know I would get a few months and relapse several times. I started to think that I would always relapse and that I would never stay sober.

This is a dangerous example of overgeneralization and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In this way, overgeneralization has the power to kill us addicts!

So, what can we do about overgeneralization?

Frame Change!

There is nothing to fear as recovering from a pattern of overgeneralization is simpler than you think (I said simpler, not necessarily easier).

Reframing is where you stand back from your thoughts, examine them, and then challenge them in the effort to replace these with positive self-affirming thoughts.

Starting a thought journal is a great way to identify how your thinking is characterized by overgeneralization. You may be able to see how overgeneralization is keeping you from certain activities because you “know” you’re going to fail.

Asking whether these thoughts are true or not will bring you to a place where you can start replacing these negative thoughts.

You may come up with helpful statements and affirmations such as, “I know that I’m nervous about doing this and that I may not do it perfectly. I also know that my worth is not determined by what I can and can’t do. I will allow myself to see this in a new light and have a new experience. I deserve to enjoy myself, and I know that just by trying, I’ll be growing as a person.”

Overgeneralization Keeping You Down?

Are you or someone you know struggling with cognitive distortions such as overgeneralization? If so, I hope that reading this will have a positive impact on your life, and as always, we would love to hear from you!

Leave us a message about your experience with overgeneralization in the comments!

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Michael Palma

Michael Palma is a drug addict in recovery who is passionate about recovery and recently has taken to writing about his own experience, strength, and hope and hopes to share this with as many people in recovery as he can. He has been a professional jazz pianist for over 20 years. He has performed with Wynton Marsalis, Jimmy Cobb (drummer for Miles Davis), Daniel Platzman (drummer for Imagine Dragons), Robert “Sput” Seawright (drummer for Snoop Dogg and Snarky Puppy), Greg Osby, and Terri Lynn Carrington to name a few.