Do you often find yourself jumping to conclusions, seeing only the negative, or taking things personally? If so, then you may have fallen into a thinking trap. Thinking traps, also known as cognitive distortions, are common patterns of thinking that are inaccurate. They impact our perceptions of self, others, and the world around us. These automatic thoughts tend to lead to avoidant behaviors, influence emotions, and set off a vicious cycle of negativity. They make situations worse and have the potential to cause psychological harm.
Our brains are designed to protect us. Its default is to overestimate threats and underestimate resources and opportunities in order to keep us safe. It stores "dangerous" situations in order to avoid them in the future. However, it can inaccurately make connections between thoughts, actions, sensations and consequences. It assumes things are connected even when they are not. This is how thinking traps develop. They are the result of our brain trying to protect us from harm. By creating these traps we jump to conclusions to respond quickly. We see only the negative which keeps us from harm. We are reminded when we do something incorrect so that we don't do it again.
When thinking traps become ingrained in our minds they can lead to distress, suffering, and a negative bias. Don't get me wrong - a negative bias is great for survival in harsh conditions. However, it's terrible for your quality of life, relationships, personals growth, and long term health. So what can you do about this?
The first step is to recognize thinking traps. This creates self-awareness, which presents an opportunity to effectively deal with the trap. If we learn to change the way we think then we will also change how we feel and act. Take a moment to look at the different types of thinking traps below. Do you fall into any of them?
Types of Thinking Traps
Coming to a general conclusion based on a single incident or a single piece of evidence. If something bad happens just once, you expect it to happen over and over again.
Example: "My boyfriend broke up with me. No one will ever love me."
Predicting the absolute worst case scenario, AKA snowballing.
Example: "If I fail this test then I’ll fail the class and never get into college!”
Seeing things as absolutes with no grey areas (black/white, yes/no, good/bad, success/failure).
Example “Anything less than perfect is a failure.”
Believing that you know what another person is thinking or feeling.
Example : “She looked at me and then turned to her friend to whisper something. She’s gossiping about me. I just know it.”
Making negative predictions about the future.
Example: “I’ll get rejected,” “I’ll make a fool of myself.”
Believing that you are responsible for things that are out of your control.
Example: “My neighbor did not speak to me this morning, therefore I must have done something to upset them; or my boss is irritable today so I must have annoyed her.”
Seeing only the negative (or positive) in a situation, which leads to unrealistic views on reality.
Example: You think someone is only being nice to you because they don’t want to hurt your feelings, not because they actually like you and enjoy spending time with you.
Refusing to accept accountability in a given situation, and instead blaming others and outside circumstances for your shortcoming.
Example: “It’s your fault we didn’t get the presentation done.”
Using your emotions or mood as a means of interpreting what’s happening around you.
Example: “I feel worthless, therefore I am worthless.”
Making a blanket statement about ourselves or others based on a specific situation.
Example: “I’m a failure,” “He’s an idiot,” “I’m useless.”
“Shoulds” and “Musts”:
Assuming that things have to be a certain way and that we have to abide by certain rules.
Example: “I should always give everything I do 100%, I must not fail, and I must not be rude.”
How do I Challenge Thinking Traps?
Now that you’re able to recognize and identify your thinking traps, it’s time to challenge them and create a more realistic picture. How? Put on your detective cap and change your perspective. Some questions to ask yourself are:
Is this thought helpful?
Is this though bringing me closer to the life I want to live or further away?
What would I tell a friend who had the same thoughts?
What is the very worst that could happen? What is so bad about that? What would I do if the worst happened?
Am I looking at the whole picture?
Am I being objective?
Have I heard this story before?
You will find that questioning these thoughts will give you more clarity. It will provide you with a fresh new perspective on life that is balanced, accurate and promotes wellbeing. You deserve to be your best self, living your life to its greatest potential and feeling confident in the face of adversity. It's time to thrive and not just survive!
Sarit Fassazadeh is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker based in Los Angeles. She specializes in childhood anxiety, body focused repetitive behaviors and panic. She prides herself on taking an ACT approach when working with clients. Want to learn more? Check out her website healingwithpurposetherapy.com