Pay attention to your thoughts

Updated: May 26, 2021

Have you ever thought: “This always happens to me” , “It’s hopeless”, “People only care about themselves”, or “I always screw things up!”? Psychology calls these kinds of thoughts an overgeneralization – one of many cognitive distortions. These thoughts can make us angry, frustrated, and impair our happiness, so you should be aware of them and do something about them.

The generalization process can be useful, as it helps to improve and broaden your knowledge based on your everyday experience by connecting one experience with another, but overgeneralization overdoes this. Overgeneralization is characterized by using overly broad language in our evaluations of events or people or extending the characteristics of a number of elements from a group or class to the entire group. Typical words used are “always,” “never,” “everybody,” and “nobody” that cause you to start responding to the pattern of events instead of just the one event that has just happened. This can cause inaccurate, sweeping conclusions, limiting beliefs or create artificial barriers between you and others.

However, in psychotherapy (and in particular Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), we have Reframing. Reframing is a process of identifying negative or unhelpful thoughts and replacing them with positive and empowering ones. It's a fairly simple process of changing the way you view something. In fact, there are only 3 steps to take in order to fight these thoughts:

Before you start, try paying conscious attention to your thoughts and the ideas that come to your mind. When doing this, become aware of the thoughts and ideas you have that are broad and general. This will allow you to start the process:

  1. Think about the accuracy of the statement. When you catch yourself using words like “always” or “never,” etc., stop and think for a moment: what evidence supports this thought, or what experience is it based on? Are you basing your conclusion on a good amount of relevant data, or just a few data points? Is there significant evidence supporting this particular thought? Usually, you might realize there is little to no evidence that supports your initial thought. However, sometimes there might be legitimate patterns of mistreatment, and it is unhealthy to minimize those and it is reasonable to acknowledge that pattern and respond with frustration.

  2. Sometimes, when we think about our thoughts in more depth during the previous step, we might realize that they are based on false beliefs or assumptions, are irrational, and we have in fact no evidence to support them. The second step consists of challenging our assumptions and looking at our problem from a different perspective. Ask yourself: What are the examples, experiences, and evidence that show that this thought is in fact not universally true? How would you challenge the thought? Or which experience or event contradicts your thought? What tells you that your thought or belief is not true all of the time? How would you fight back against the thought? This step helps you start to contradict your thoughts and to realize that your broad assumptions and conclusions are probably not true all the time. Once you achieve this, you can move on to the third step.

  3. This step might be a bit difficult, but try to formulate a more rational thought that is more realistic and balanced. Even a subtle shift in thought can lead to a change in emotions. In the beginning, your thought was probably overly generalizing. What would be the new, alternative thought that takes into account facts and experiences that show that your initial thought is not true all the time (as done in the second step)? Or what would be the new alternative thought that takes into account the experience against the initial thought? Formulating a more rational thought (and actually believing it for the most part) reflecting the true nature of things can help you to mitigate the problem and also decrease the intensity of the negative emotion connected to your thoughts.

Need an example? Let’s go through all the steps using the overgeneralization “I always screw things up!” that makes you sad, angry, and dissatisfied with yourself.

  1. The first step consists of gathering evidence that supports this thought. You might conclude and realize for example, that you think that you always screw things up because you’ve broken something at work, failed to deliver a solution at work in time, forgotten an important appointment, or insulted your family member out of anger. These events in your mind support the thought that you always screw things up.

  2. The next step consists of finding contradicting evidence – when didn’t you screw things up? You realize that you’ve managed to prevent losses at work by noticing a mistake, solved a long-standing problem at work, successfully managed to do your housework, and had a nice time together with your family. These events show that you in fact don’t screw things up all the time because otherwise they wouldn’t have happened at all!

  3. Now that you have some contradicting events, what is a more rational thought than “I always screw things up” that takes into account both sides? It’s ideal when this rational thought is personal, so you really believe it for the most part. Here are some examples: “Sometimes I screw things up, but more often, I don’t”; “I have a right to not be perfect all the time and sometimes make mistakes”; “I try to do my best most of the time, but sometimes I can fail”, “Failure is a part of life and it is natural to sometimes screw things up”, “I try to do a lot of good things, but I can also experience a bad day”; “Even though I made a mistake, I tried to fix it as soon as possible”; “Sometimes I make a mistake, but it doesn’t mean I’m a bad person”, etc. This new thought is more balanced than the initial one and reflects the true nature of your everyday experience. A balanced thought can also result in a more balanced emotional reaction, usually decreasing your negative feelings – in this example feeling happier and more satisfied with yourself.

I hope that if you manage to successfully go through all the steps, you will also experience that your negative emotions become less intense, and you also become more skilled in managing your thoughts. Keep in mind that this exercise (like anything) requires training and practice, and you might experience some failures and dissatisfactions during your first tries. This is natural. But long-term, consciously focusing on your thoughts and emotions and keeping them under control helps you to become more self-aware, and hopefully, happier and more satisfied with your mind and life.

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