This episode features a re-release of one of my favorite episodes of all time. I go through 10 of the most common thinking traps. Also called cognitive distortions, thinking traps are patterns of unhelpful thinking that we all fall into at times. For those with mental health issues, they can become quite common.
Thinking traps, or cognitive distortions, are patterns of unhelpful thinking that we all fall into at times and cause you problems. Incidentally, I’ve actually made a FREE ebook about common thinking traps, which you can get when you subscribe to my mailing list! It’s a great tool if you really want to dive deeper into this yourself.
We all fall into thinking traps, but when you struggle with something like anxiety or depression you probably tend to fall into these traps a lot more. The trick is learning to recognize these so you can take their power away. Let’s take a look at ten of the most common thinking traps:
1. Mind Reading
This is where you assume that you understand the private thoughts of other people. At some level, this skill can be helpful such as when trying to be empathetic and understand where other people are coming from or what they are going through. But it can get us into trouble when we try to over-interpret the behavior of other people and actually try to read people’s minds, which often leads us to make incorrect, negative assumptions. The trick for this one is to catch yourself and acknowledge that, while your guesses may be true, they are just guesses and you don’t actually know the reason behind a certain behavior or action from another person. These guesses are biased toward making you feel bad, when in reality there are many possibilities that would not be so negative.
Personalizing is very related to mind reading. With personalization, you assume that you are the cause of a given situation, event, or for someone else’s behavior. You can also feel that these things occur as a reaction to something you’ve done or action you’ve taken. You’re inserting yourself into the equation instead of assuming that they are happening for some other reason. This can lead to self-blame or being super hard on yourself because it makes you feel responsible for what is going on around you. Like with mind reading, you are assuming you know the reasoning behind a situation, leading to incorrect and negative assumptions when in reality, there are many different factors that influence someone’s feelings and behaviors. By personalizing the situation you’re not giving yourself the chance to investigate what that real reason may be.
3, Just World Fallacy
This is the belief that the things that happen to people in the world somehow reflect the person they happen to and their moral character. The idea that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people, and we often think that someone “deserves” what happened to them. This one can definitely get you in trouble when you apply this to yourself and perhaps start analyzing why you’ve had a string of misfortunes – what did you do wrong to deserve what is happening to you – when this just isn’t the case. Good things can happen to bad people and bad things can happen to good people…the world is random and can be chaotic. Unfortunately, the world is not a just place, and to apply this very selective rationale to these situations doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
4. Emotional Reasoning
Emotional reasoning is a very common thinking trap and one that I guarantee many of you will identify with. This is where you make the mistake of thinking “if I feel it, it must be true”. Rather than looking at the facts of a particular situation, we look to our gut feelings and use these to guide our interpretations of it. In effect, it is using your internal state to filter a situation, so if you are feeling bad you are more likely to interpret a situation as bad. But your emotions are not always intricately tied with the truth of the situation or your behavior. The trick comes in trying to separate the feeling from the circumstances and facts of the situation. You need to pull it apart and see whether you’re coming to a conclusion because of the way you feel, or is this a conclusion that you came to because you’re noticing x, y, z (evidence) in your situation or environment.
5. Shoulds and Musts
Albert Ellis, one of the founders of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, calls this “musterbation” – We apply ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ to ourselves and we create an unreasonable standard to hold ourselves accountable to, a somewhat arbitrary rule set outlining how people ‘should’ act. When you apply those standards across the board without really discriminating between one situation and the next, it can lead to a whole lot of guilt for you. When you don’t live up to these rules or standards that you set yourself you tend to feel really bad, upset and guilty, or irritated and angry when other people don’t meet them. In reality, these are unreasonable standards and no one, including yourself, can meet them.
6. Black and White Thinking
This is the tendency to think in “all or nothing” terms. Basically, you either write things off as either one category or the other (e.g. good or bad, success or failure). We engage in black and white thinking all the time when, in reality, there are many shades of gray and rarely do things fit neatly into one category or the other. Things are not that simple and often stepping back and taking stock of a situation can really help us to appreciate that is isn’t so black and white!
This is when you take one piece of evidence or one example of something happening and apply it as a rule to everything else. You overgeneralize a single event and apply it to other situations or events without any real evidence. This can get you into trouble and again lead you to draw the wrong conclusions. Sometimes, things are just one isolated event. You need more than one event, or piece of evidence, for you to be able to see what the true trajectory is.
If you look at the world through shit colored glasses, then everything will tend to appear… a bit crappy. In everyday life, we tend to filter out the good details and only see the negative aspects of a situation. This one hardly requires explanation. Your attention is biased toward things that support the way you already feel about yourself. When you engage in filtering, you go through the day and cherry-pick out only the actions or events that support the way you feel about yourself or a situation. In reality, there are a lot of other things going on as well, positive things, and you are ignoring those…you’re filtering those out. It can become extremely unhelpful if you get stuck into this way of thinking so you want to be careful not to go about with the blinders on and only pull in the information that supports your hypotheses.
Catastrophizing is when you make a huge deal about things that are not really that big of a deal. It’s not all that bad. Basically you take a situation that does definitely suck, but then you multiply it until it feels like the worst thing ever. Yes it’s bad, but it’s not THAT bad. But having a tendency to catastrophize means you can take that piece and really run with it, blowing it up out of proportion. This ultimately only makes you feel worse. So we need to try and avoid catastrophizing and step back if we notice ourselves falling into this trap.
10. Overestimating Power of Thoughts
This is the impression that your thoughts influence outcomes in the real world. People are allowed to have faith and beliefs, but I am definitely in the practicality camp and not the optimistic camp because I feel it will serve you better to be realistic and practical. We can really run into trouble when we feel out thoughts have the ability to shape reality. We can certainly change our perception of things and try to encourage positive thinking in terms of training our attention bias and looking for positive things to bring into the fold, but when we think that our negative thoughts are actually going to make a negative outcome, it can become really unhelpful. The world is really random and much of it is beyond our control. Just thinking about something happening doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to happen. We have this worry that if we think about something too much then it might happen and we might actually be able to influence the outcome. In reality, no matter what we think about a situation it’s still going to happen in a certain way (or not happen at all!). Just because you have a bad feeling or thought about an event or situation doesn’t mean that a bad outcome is more likely to happen.
Now you’re armed with the facts, you can keep track of how often you fall into these traps and start challenging them in your own life. Don’t forget, if you want to dive into these in more detail and make use of my handy worksheet to help you challenge these thinking traps, you can now get my FREE ebook when you subscribe to my mailing list!
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