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The Trauma-Related Risks of Overgeneralizing

To the degree a person overgeneralizes, they may still be living in the past.

Key points

  • The ultimate fallout from early trauma is that children derive too much meaning from quite possibly atypical situations and events.
  • Their (juvenile) appraisal of their experience determines whether they’ll feel sad and desolate, angry and outraged, or almost frozen with fear.
  • They’re unable to realize that other seemingly similar experiences can differ vastly in what they imply about the world they live in.
  • Adults need to convince their anxiously vigilant inner child that their norm deviates markedly from what’s now normal or adaptive.
Source: Alina Grubnyak/Unsplash
Source: Alina Grubnyak/Unsplash

Redefining Trauma as It Relates to Children

It’s sad and often tragic that children don’t—and can’t—embody the same logical viewpoint as adults. Lacking judgment attainable only through myriad experiences, they can hardly help but conclude that a single experience, however atypical, implies meaning applicable to things in any way similar to it.

Consider the popular expression: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” Might it be hardwired in all of us to search for ways to protect ourselves from further abuse after being victimized by it once? That whatever happened at the time was so threatening to our (naive) notions of survival that, however unconsciously, we swore we’d never allow it to happen again?

Human nature is such that disillusionment can arise unpremeditated, making us feel desperate to control what earlier felt totally uncontrollable.

Stretching the standard definition of trauma for children, a child (particularly a very young child) is likely to suffer from powerful feelings of insecurity after they’ve experienced being treated badly—whether by their caretakers or almost anyone else. Such feelings of vulnerability can override their rational thinking, making them erroneously conclude that others harbor malignant intentions toward them.

To be sure, it’s almost never what literally happens to a child (or anyone else) that leaves them traumatized. It’s how they interpret it. And a child’s admittedly juvenile assessment also determines whether they’ll feel sad and desolate, angry and outraged, or frozen in terror.

How Overgeneralized Childhood Trauma Impacts the Now Negatively Sensitized Adult

Summarizing the above, the ultimate fallout from early trauma is that children derive too much meaning from quite possibly unrepresentative situations and events.

Having limited experience, children are doomed to think in simplistic, non-relativistic terms. They’re unable to realize that other seemingly similar experiences can differ vastly in what they imply about the world they inhabit. And so they’re compelled to connect things not really connectable.

Without such trauma in our history, as adults, we generally know better than to prematurely reach conclusions not warranted logically. But if momentous emotional disturbances in our past were never fully resolved, the overgeneralizing of the child within us—about what we should anticipate from others and ourselves—can generate all kinds of pessimistic present-day assumptions and misconceptions.

Just a single experience can give birth to unconscious defense mechanisms that, going forward, prompt us to make false associations between happenings apparently related but essentially distinct.

This is where overgeneralization becomes synonymous with oversimplification. In cognitive behavioral therapy, this phenomenon is alluded to as the rationally distorted “always-never” syndrome, which highlights a child’s naively reductive assessment of experiences in which they were implicated (e.g., see S. Lissek et al., 2010).

The Dilemma of Overgeneralization

As adults, we’ve developed resources that render our cardinal need for psychological self-protection obsolete. Still, as children we all needed to erect strong defenses against what otherwise could gravely impair our functioning. It's when these now archaic defenses continue to constrain us as adults that we suffer.

Here are some examples:

  • If you had a traumatic experience related to defeat, you may be prone to depression, possibly conjuring up worst-case scenarios and self-sabotaging beliefs like: “I’ll never succeed, so there’s no sense trying.” And, through inaction, you become your own most self-defeating enemy.
  • If you experienced parental or peer criticism as grossly unfair, you may believe: “People are vicious and always trying to make you feel bad.” So you become determined to “give them a taste of their own medicine.” Rather than moving forward, scrupulously planning a more satisfying future for yourself, you shift your life vindictively into reverse, devoting yourself to getting even with your alleged perpetrators (and with would-be “perpetrators” to come).
  • If you experienced a tearful rejection from your best friend, taking it way too much to heart, you may have become afflicted with social anxiety, believing: “As much as I crave friends, they’ll only rebuff me, so I better distance myself from them.” Attempting to escape your anxiety, you’ll prevent yourself from growing the mindset and social skills that could enable you to develop relationships that would help you feel you do fit in—with others reasonably similar to you.

As this dilemma has been summed up by C. Beth Ready at al. in Behavioral Therapy (2015):

Generalization of maladaptive cognitions related to traumatic [childhood] experiences (overgeneralized beliefs) have been demonstrated to be associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in adult populations.

This research article focuses on the single worst outcome of “conditioned fear” by discussing its link to panic disorder. And anyone affected by such disabling attacks knows firsthand how horribly out-of-control these symptoms can make you feel.

Yet it makes sense that anything reminding a person of a much earlier fear-laden experience might precipitate an excruciatingly exaggerated reaction—all the more painful because the person can’t begin to fathom from where their pronounced terror emanates. This perplexity only contributes to their anguishing over whether they might be losing their mind.

What, Then, Is the Cure for This So-Distressing Malady?

Because the unconscious habit, or defense mechanism, of overgeneralization typically comes from our reactively rationalizing child self, we need first to discover how to gain access to this wounded part of us. The good news here is that what, neurologically, has been programmed into us can also be deprogrammed and reprogrammed.

We need to convince our anxiously vigilant inner child that what became their norm—for, in many respects, it felt adaptive—now deviates significantly from what’s normal or adaptive for us as adults. This cognitive transformation can’t happen overnight because the child’s negative beliefs have long existed below consciousness and been repeated hundreds—if not thousands—of times.

So incessantly repeating more rational responses to ourselves can’t really be seen as redundant. Psychologically, it’s unrealistic to think there could be a “one-off” remedy for something so deeply entrenched that it’s become automatic, or involuntary, for us. Mouthing positive affirmations about ourself isn’t likely to take hold when our negative self-talk has persisted for years, maybe decades.

Understanding the issue as a primary manifestation of PTSD necessitates addressing it accordingly. Many therapies exist that center on trauma resolution, so it’s possible that to help yourself, you could utilize the one most appropriate to your needs.

Nonetheless, depending on how acute, or diffuse, your trauma may have been, you may need to spend some time in counseling with a well-trained and experienced professional to guide you in the process. Two modalities that I personally have found effective are Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS).

But there are many other modalities that might work for you, including Jeffrey Young’s Schema Therapy (an expansion of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and, much more recently, Gabor Maté’s Compassionate Inquiry.

Since there’s a plethora of books and articles written for the layperson on these and other trauma-resolution approaches, it definitely could be worth your while to start exploring what might, individually, assist you in your quest for the contentment and happiness that, till now, may have eluded you.

To find a therapist near you, visit Psychology Today's Therapist Directory.

© 2023 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.


Lissek, S., et al. (2010, Jan). Overgeneralization of conditioned fear as a pathogenic marker of panic disorder.The American Journal of Psychiatry, 167(1), 47-55.

Ready, C. B. (2015, Sep). Overgeneralized beliefs, accommodation, and treatment outcome in youth receiving trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy for childhood trauma. Behavior Therapy, 46(5), 671–688.

Seltzer, L. F. (2017, Sep 13). “Never again!”: The psychological fallout of trauma.

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