Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Cognitive Distortion #2: Overgeneralization

From Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David Burns

When I was eleven years old, I bought a deck of trick cards at the Arizona State Fair called the Svengali Deck. You may have seen this simple but impressive illusion yourself. I show the deck to you--every card is different. You choose a card at random. Let's assume you pick the Jack of Spades. Without telling me what card it is, you replace it in the deck. Now I exclaim, "Svengali!" As I turn the deck over, every card has turned into the Jack of Spades.

When you overgeneralize, this is performing the mental equivalent of Svengali. You arbitrarily conclude that one thing that happened to you once will occur over and over again, will multiply like the Jack of Spades. Since what happened is invariably unpleasant, you feel upset.

A depressed salesman noticed bird dung on his car window and though, "That's just my luck. The birds are always crapping on my window!" This is a perfect example of overgeneralization. When I asked him about this experience, he admitted that in twenty years of traveling, he could not remember another time when he found bird dung on his car window.

The pain of rejection is generated almost entirely from overgeneralization. In its absence, a personal affront is temporarily disappointing but cannot be seriously disturbing. A shy young man mustered up his courage to ask a girl for a date. When she politely declined because of a previous engagement, he said to himself, "I'm never going to get a date. No girl would ever want a date with me. I'll be lonely and miserable all my life." In his distorted cognitions, he concluded that because she turned him down once, she would always do so, and that since all women have 100 percent identical tastes, he would be endlessly and repeatedly rejected by any eligible woman on the face of the earth. Svengali!

{end quote}

My son does this. When he's upset with something that happened, he claims "this always happens to me!" It isn't true, but it is his perception. It's a little tricky to validate his feelings of frustration while pointing out that his claim of it always happening isn't reality, but perception. I'd probably have an easier time of it if I hadn't taught him to think that way in the first place. :(


  1. I want to make it clear that when I said things here were funny, I meant that, Lisa, even tho she is hurting, she still has her sence of humor and can write funny things. Never for a moment do I think that what you are going thru is funny.

    I'm going to stop writing now. And leave.

  2. Do you really think that this is a learned behavior? Where did you learn to think like this? Could you be predisposed to depression or do you think it is learned? I am looking forward to talking to you about this when you come.

    Brandon has the same tendendcy and it makes him give up,when it is not hopeless. I do not know how to stop him from feeling this way.


  3. Dad don't leave! Gosh! :)

    Kris - I don't know if it is all learned. But if it is, it doesn't mean he learned it from you, necessarily. He could have picked it up from a classmate, or TV character, or maybe just the whisperings of the Spoiler. And somehow, his use of it got reinforced and it becomes a destructive habit.

    But I am just guessing. I'm not some expert.

    I think that some strictly chemical types of depression could be hereditary, but I think the vast majority of depression is caused by negative thinking and warped perceptions of reality. I believe that I am in the latter category. Which is a hopeful thing, because it means that I can DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. And having something to do, something I can control, helps me a lot.