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Addressing Thought Distortions: Filtering, Overgeneralizations, and Personalization

Mar 08, 2021

Thought distortions, also referred to as “thinking traps”, “cognitive distortions”, and “stinkin’ thinkin’”, are faulty ways of thinking that hold us back, cause us to experience negative emotions, and/or impact our self-esteem and overall confidence. There are many different forms of thought distortions. What is helpful is to understand them, to take the time to notice if you fall into any of these thinking patterns, and then to start to challenge them. If you do notice that you fall into some of these patterns, there is no shame. Most of us do at least some of the time, however, by reading this, you will start to be able to recognize the problematic patterns and begin to shift them.


In this article, I will review 3 common thought distortions that were identified by psychologists Aaron Beck and David burns in the 1970’s and 1980’s. In subsequent articles I will review additional thought distortions so be sure to check them out in the Live Your Best Boss Lady Life blog. I will offer you suggestions for managing each type of thought distortion so that they no longer hold you back, cause you to experience discomfort, or impact your self-esteem and confidence. I encourage you to take your time and really think about each thought distortion, if you think you fall into any of them, and how you can apply my suggestions for overcoming them.  Use the worksheet, Overcoming Thought Distortions: Filtering, Overgeneralizations, and Personalization, I created so that you can get the most out of these activities. You can get it HERE. The key is to challenge these thinking patterns, which will start to force your brain to consider alternatives that work for you, and not against you.


These thought distortions can apply to any area of your life including career, business, relationships, health and wellness, learning new skills, money, etc. If you have multiple thoughts distortions in multiple areas of your life, that is okay. Just go through the same process for each one. To get the most out of this work, use the worksheet, Overcoming Thought Distortions: Filtering, Overgeneralizations, and Personalization, I created so that you can get the most out of these activities. You can get it HERE.


Filtering, Overgeneralizations, and Personalizing Thought Distortions and how to manage them.

Filtering. This thought distortion occurs when your brain “filters” in the negative possibilities and aspects of a situation and “filters” out the positive possibilities and aspects of a situation. Your brain is designed to protect you. If left to its own devices, it will look for all the things that could potentially cause you frustration, discomfort, hurt, sadness, or danger. It will highlight those things and offer them to you as the only possibilities. If you listen to your brain and take the information it is giving you at face value, you will likely hold back from challenging yourself in any way. You will likely experience fear, worry, sadness, and uncertainty. It will cause you to doubt yourself and your abilities and to keep you very much in your “comfort zone”, even if you say you want something different in your life.

How to overcome Filtering. The first step is to notice if you do this. When presented with something new or challenging, is your initial response to outline all the reasons why that won’t work for you, or why you are not capable or worthy of it? Do you notice feelings of anxiety, fear, sadness, or a lack of confidence? If so, you may be filtering. When this occurs, notice what information your brain is providing you and ask yourself if that is the only option. Force yourself to consider what could happen if things turned out perfectly. Dig deep and if possible, write down these possibilities to reinforce them further.  

Example of filtering. If you are wanting to earn more money, your brain will give you all the reasons why you are not capable of starting your own business, getting the promotion you want, or finding a new job where you will make much more money. It will encourage you to stay right where you. If you believe what your brain is telling you at face value, you will likely feel discouraged. Your self-esteem may be hurt, and you will lack the confidence to take action that will help you earn more money. If, however, you take the time to notice what you are thinking, you can ask yourself if it is actually true. Is it possible that you could start your own business and earn some extra money? Is it possible that you could do what it takes to put yourself in a position to be promoted at work? Is it possible that you could start looking for jobs online or work with a recruiter to help you find a job you enjoy that would pay you more money? Of course, it is…but you will have to take the time to challenge the initial thoughts that your brain filters in and help it to see that there are other possibilities that result in you feeling hopeful and energized and willing to take the action necessary to make any of these a reality.

Overgeneralizations. This type of thinking involves taking one event that has happened to you and concluding that because it happened once it will “always” happen. This also applies to situations where things didn’t happen the way you had hoped and concluding that they will “never” happen for you. If you allow yourself to fall into this type of thought distortion without challenging it, you will miss out on opportunities and experiences throughout your life. You will rule things out as possibilities for you based on a single experience. Thinking like this may cause you to lack confidence and/or to feel hopeless, depressed, or pessimistic.

How to overcome Overgeneralization. As is the case with all thought distortions, the first step is to notice that this is happening. If you notice yourself saying, “this always happens to me”, or “things like this never happen for me”, you could be overgeneralizing. When you notice this, the key is to ask yourself, “is this absolutely true?”. You want to question if there is any possibility that the outcome could be different if you allowed yourself to try something again. Take some time to reflect on this and if you think the outcome(s) could be different, write out all the ways that you could have the outcome that you desire.


Example of an overgeneralization. You are really excited to start a new health regime in order to lose weight. You are highly motivated, and you have mapped out exactly what you will do. You feel good about it…and then after a few weeks or months, you are not seeing the progress you hoped for, so you give up. You then tell yourself that you will, “always be overweight”, or that you will “never be in the shape you want to be”, or that you will “never have time to eat and cook healthy” because of your busy lifestyle. In this scenario, you should challenge your thinking. You tried one thing, one time, and did not get the results that you wanted. Is it true that things will “never” change and that the only option is for things to be as they currently are forever and ever? Write out what the other possibilities there could be.

Personalization. You experience this thought distortion when you blame yourself for things that are not within your control. You take responsibility for situations that are not yours to be responsible for. This often involves placing blame on yourself for the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of others. This can also involve you taking full ownership for the outcome of a situation that involved many factors. When this type of feeling goes unexamined, you may feel anxious, unhappy, not worthy, and/or experience increased stress.


How to overcome personalization. When you notice yourself blaming yourself for something, ask yourself, “am I really 100% the cause of this outcome?”. Further ask yourself, “What other factors could have contributed to this outcome?”. And finally ask yourself, “Why do I feel that I am the only one with any responsibility for this situation?”. Asking yourself these questions will help you take a step back from yourself and consider other factors that could be at play. Our brains are inclined to make everything center around us; however, this is often not the case. Questioning situations as they arise ongoing, will help you get out of the habit of automatically blaming yourself for all situations and outcomes in your life.


Example of personalization. You start dating someone and you are really excited about the relationship. Over time, you start to notice that the individual you are dating does not want to spend as much time with you. You then start to see warning signs that they may be seeing other people. Eventually, despite your efforts to improve the relationship, they end it. After the relationship ends, you spend lots of time considering what you did “wrong” that made them not want to be with you. You replay scenarios in your mind and try to figure out what you could have done differently so that they would not have wanted to be with anyone else. You consider what is “wrong with you” that made them not want to stay with you. In this scenario, you are making this all about you. You are taking 100% responsibility for the outcome of a relationship, when the reality is, the individual you were dating could have done this ten times before. You can’t be responsible for how someone else feels or behaves. In this scenario, this was not the right person at the right time, however, it does not mean you did anything wrong or that there is anything wrong with you.


Stay tuned for future articles where I will dig into additional thought distortions. Understanding each of them and learning how to manage your mind when they come into play, can be life changing. It can result in you feeling much better and it can also change the outcomes you are getting in your life. Use the worksheet I created to help you go through each thought distortion so that you get the most out of this information and see the best results in addressing any thought distortions you may be experiencing. You can get the worksheet HERE.


Live your best boss lady life.

~ Karen

Karen Vincent Solutions

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