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Creating Unnecessary Pain for Yourself: Overgeneralizing and Catastrophizing

Creating Unnecessary Pain for Yourself: Overgeneralizing and Catastrophizing

Do you often find yourself anxious over events that you later realize were misunderstood or rather miniscule? If yes, then you may be guilty of overgeneralizing/catastrophizing.

Here’s how the thought process goes.

In Career:

My presentation was bad…

I am not good at giving presentations…

I’ll never give presentations again.

In Relationships:

This person didn’t show any interest in me…

I must not be an exciting & interesting person…

I won’t go on another date.

In Fitness:

I’ve tried going to the gym before and ended up quitting…

I cannot lose this extra weight ever…

I’ll eat that whole tub of ice cream now.

If you make broad conclusions on the basis of one event, then you overgeneralize/catastrophize.

What Causes Overgeneralizing and Catastrophizing?

“People will do more to avoid pain than they will do to gain pleasure,” said Tony Robbins. And this is what causes overgeneralizing/catastrophizing.

It’s the fear of failure.

It’s the pain associated with failure.

It’s trying to avoid failure.

Cue Formation

Most of the actions we take, we take on cues, which, when recognized, cause us to function in a specific way. It’s as if we’re machines.

Our habits are generally based on repetition and cues.

Cues associated with overgeneralizing create fear and anxiety because of the associated pain of past trauma.

So we respond automatically and do everything in our power to avoid the pain and move towards pleasure, even if this means quitting on our goal.

Pessimistic View of Life

Many people who overgeneralize often have a pessimistic view of life, ie, they’ve a negative perspective on most things. They’re also more likely to ruminate on past events.

Any failure or setback is seen as a pattern of past behaviors. So they often quit even trying.

Underlying belief: “You either have it or you don’t.”

So it’s neither about improving at relationships or public speaking, nor about failure being a part of learning.

Here’s What Overgeneralizing Leads to

Behind overgeneralizing/catastrophizing, there lies a fear of failure, which is often triggered by a cue.


Because of a fear of failure, people who overgeneralize often try too hard to please others: boss, family members, friends, partner.

They’re often afraid that…

their partner will leave them…

or their boss won’t like their new idea.

So they try too hard, and when they don’t get the validation they desire in turn, they become angry and resentful.


Again, because of a fear of failure, many people decide to simply quit on their goals, saving themselves from anxiety and pain.

Thought Pattern: “If I’m going to fail, then why even try.”

However, it also prevents them from enjoying fulfilling careers and relationships.

How to fix Overgeneralizing & Catastrophizing?

Step 1: Identify your thinking patterns

If you constantly think that you’ll fail in an event, then simply pause and identify your pattern of thinking.

Step 2: Analyze your thoughts

Ask yourself “Is this true?”

Write down each and every detail about the thought, including:

  • Write down the pattern.
  • Identify:
    • What thought makes you quit?
    • What emotions arise because of the specific thought?
    • What is the fear associated with the thought?
    • What past experience does the thought invoke?

Step #3: Replace your thoughts

Cognitive restructuring requires you to deliberately create narratives that run counter to your negative viewpoint.

So you can transform…

I’m a terrible speaker to…

I’m motivated, and I’ll improve at public speaking with practice.

Further, you need to reshape your pessimistic views and realize that failure is just an essential part of life, and as you practice a skill, you’ll become better at it.

Here’s an example:

Thought analysis:

What am I worried about?

I failed at giving the presentation today. The boss seemed completely uninterested. I must not be good at it, so I won’t do it ever again.

List the evidence for this thought to be true.

  • Boss was staring at his phone the whole time.
  • Genette from accounting was looking outside the window.

List the evidence for this thought to be false.

  • 3 senior managers seemed genuinely interested in my idea.
  • Everyone applauded when the presentation was over.
  • Boss must be preoccupied with the recent scandal at the office.

What’s the worst thing that could happen if this thought is true?

This plan may not be taken up by the company.

What would I tell my best friend if they had this thought?

That there are other opportunities in the future and that she shouldn’t worry. She should focus on crafting more plans, as rejection is simply a part of learning and growing.

List the past experiences connected to this thought.

When I was in school, I bombed at a debate competition, in which I couldn’t speak properly. I lost the competition and felt really bad. So I always feel self-conscious when speaking to a group.

Download this template to analyze your thoughts when you feel that you’re overgeneralizing/catastrophizing an event: Overgeneralizing/Catastrophizing Worksheet

You can go into more detail while analyzing your thoughts. The idea is to critically analyze the thought, find reasons to back it up, and list alternate narratives.


Cognitive distortions, including overgeneralizing/catastrophizing, create a lot of emotional pain and hinder your development as an individual. They can harm your health, relationships, and career. Use the tips provided in this article to restructure your thoughts and live a more productive and fulfilling life.

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