Overgeneralization

by Monica Ross

Next up—overgeneralization. Overgeneralization involves drawing generalized and global conclusions based on a handful of evidence. What do I mean by “global” conclusions? It’s another way of saying all-encompassing. Instead of coming to a conclusion about this specific incidence, I might take this specific incidence and generalize it across all incidences. So the way that this would come into play is a spouse might come home and say to her partner “You always leave the dishes for me to do at the end of the day when I come home from work.”

In reality, there are some days that her partner may leave the dishes to be done and other days in which the partner actually does the dishes before she comes home, but to use language like “always” is to illicit a defensive response.

In a way, it puts the other person in the position of responding with “Well I don’t always do that. Yesterday when you came home I had the dishes done and the kids were fed.”

If there is an exception to the rule then things are not as absolute as they may appear on the surface. Other examples might be “never” as in “You never give me credit for any of the stuff that I do, instead you’re always talking about how much so and so has accomplished in life.”

Or maybe, “Every time we go out, you leave it up to me to socialize with people and you find the nearest corner to duck away into in order to avoid talking to other people. I’m so over being the one to carry on all of the conversation single-handedly.”

Or even, “I never seem to be able to finish what I start. I enroll in classes and then by the third or fourth class I always drop out. I’ve just always been like that.”

Or how about this one, “All the people who live in the town I grew up in are ultra-liberal.” These statements can’t possibly be true because there are exceptions to the rule. Sometimes the mother or father in the example above might give the other child the credit that they deny they get.

Or sometimes when the couple goes out, there will be moments when the spouse finds one or other person that he does end up socializing with. The student in the example of above may have finished a craft project they were working on last week, which means that they in fact do finish at times what they start.

Not everyone in the town that the person in the last example grew up in are in fact liberal. You get the point.

It may be common sense, but I still find that there is a propensity for some to use this type of language—“never,” “always,” “every,” “all.” And if this is common sense and we know these things, then why do we do it?

People sometimes use polarizing language in order to magnify their point and get a reaction. But we don’t need to resort to that in order to get our point across. Another way of approaching the issue might be to qualify the statement in someway when delivering the message. That could sound like this “I notice that sometimes when I steer the conversation towards talking about your family, you tend to shut down.”

Or, “There are moments when I feel like the responsibility for cooking falls on me and if we could work together to share in some of that responsibility so that I don’t feel like I need to be the one cooking dinner all the time, then I think I would feel less stressed out.”

“Occasionally, when I ask you to turn the video game off and go to sleep I can hear that you’re still playing it late at night and on a school night. I thought we talked about how your teacher told me that she noticed you were tired in class. I thought we agreed to work on that.”

In these examples, the person relaying the information comes off as less threatening and the person on the receiving end gets credit for the exceptions to the rule. It moves the dialogue further because the person on the giving end doesn’t focus on the negativity of being annoyed or irritated or frustrated in the moment.

They give up the focus of an “every time” which ends up seeming more relentless than it in actuality it is when you think about it. The person on the receiving end can relax and not feel discouraged or depressed at the prospect of repeating the unwanted behavior because the other party acknowledged there are exceptions to the rule.

They can give up feelings of being depressed at the idea that they are stuck in repeating the unwanted behavior without the possibility of escaping the cycle.   Win-win all around.

This topic of not gravitating towards absolutes or extremes in thinking or in our communicating with others will come up over and over again. It’s just a more relaxed way of living.   We may be creatures of habit, but we can also break habits and allow others the freedom and movement to grow and change as well.

I had a professor once who said that a lot of the disorders in the DSM which is the tool that therapists use as a guide to give clients diagnoses can be classified as one of two things—behaviors related to rigidity or behaviors related to chaos.

So the aim, in a way is to go for the middle path. Or another way of looking at it is the balanced path.