Getting to know your thinking traps

Jan 19, 2018

By Matt Boone, LCSW

Do you ever wish you could turn off your mind? Just make it stop churning out all the predictions, judgments, and worries for a little while? Me too. I’d love to spend a day without constantly judging myself and everyone else. And I’d especially love to be free from mentally inhabiting a worrisome future all the time. But aside from brief moments during meditation, I never really get that freedom.

You can’t turn off your mind, but you can learn to develop a new relationship with it, one in which it doesn’t have so much power to generate pain and suffering. Before I talk about that, however, I’d like to talk a little bit about how the mind works and how it tends to confine us in patterns of thought called “thinking traps.”

Perception is not reality

Our minds are constantly appraising the world around us. Appraisals are adaptive: our ancestors needed the ability to identify, interpret, and problem-solve the events in their lives in order to survive. In contemporary life, this skill is no longer just about survival. It influences everything we do – planning for the future, negotiating relationships, finding love, and so on. But sometimes, this amazing skill can also get us into trouble.

Here’s how: It’s probably no surprise to hear that there is always some difference between what’s going on in the world around us and how we perceive that world. There’s only so much the five senses and the brain can process. Furthermore, there is always some information that’s not available to us at any given time. Thus, the mind inevitably constructs its appraisals with limited information. We develop shortcuts and heuristics (rules of thumb) to make sense of things.

These imperfect appraisals get woven into a greater narrative about ourselves, other people, and the world. With only limited information, it’s probably inevitable that we will fall into patterns of thinking that are maladaptive in some way. These patterns are the thinking traps I mentioned earlier. And when this happens, we can feel anxious, angry, or depressed. We can also engage in behaviors that are not so useful, like procrastinating, arguing with significant others, or judging ourselves harshly.

Thinking Traps

Here is a list of thinking traps that you might notice your mind falling into. Take a look and see if any of them resonate with you.

Probability overestimation. Overestimating the probability that something negative will happen. For example, constantly have the thought that you are in danger of being fired despite no indication to support your belief.

Catastrophizing. Overestimating the consequences of something negative happening. For example, you imagine that if you get a bad review or your project isn’t approved, you won’t be able to handle it.

All-or-nothing thinking. Seeing things in black and white. Things are “all good” or “all bad.” For example, when a difficult situation arises, you only see the negative aspects and none of the solutions or opportunities that it presents.

Should statements. Rigid rules for how the world should operate and for how people (including yourself) should think, feel, and behave. “Things shouldn’t be this way.” “I shouldn’t feel so stressed.”

Personalization. Overestimating your influence on negative events. For example, when your partner is unhappy, you feel like it’s all your fault.

Mind-reading. Assuming you know what people are thinking without the facts to back it up. For example, you’re certain you know a colleague’s or a loved one’s motivations.

“It’s not fair.” Over-focusing on whether things are just, fair, or right. “It’s not fair that other people don’t have the same health problems I do.” “It’s not right that someone else got the job I wanted.”

Emotional reasoning. Basing your interpretation solely on your emotional reactions. “I feel anxious, therefore something bad must be happening.”

Do you see any of your own thinking patterns in these examples? This list isn’t exhaustive. There are lots of other patterns the mind can fall into that might not be useful for certain situations — self-blaming, dwelling on the past, getting wrapped up in “if only” thoughts, etc.

Escaping the Traps

The good news is you can learn to escape these traps. You can develop strategies to notice when they show up and prevent them from having undue influence on your mood and your behavior. Here are just a few:

Get to know your thinking traps. When I notice I’m struggling with a lot of stress, or I’m doing things that are not so good for me, like skipping the gym, I make a practice of regularly looking over the list above and making note of what’s going on in my mind. I might say to myself, silently or in writing, “I notice my mind is overestimating the probability of something bad happening (probability overestimation) and telling me I shouldn’t be feeling the way I’m feeling (should statements).” That usually helps me get some distance from the thoughts I’m having. Doing it regularly makes it more likely that I will notice my thinking traps the moment they arrive and less likely that I’ll buy into them.

Treat the mind like a thing that is separate from you. In the example above, I didn’t say, “I’m overestimating”; I said, “My mind is overestimating.” This small linguistic shift is another way you can get a little bit of distance from your thoughts. It allows you to see them as just thoughts, not truths. You can incorporate this shift into your self-talk when you are looking for thinking traps. When you notice yourself having uncomfortable feelings or engaging in unproductive behaviors, you might ask yourself, “What did my mind say to me just before I started feeling anxious?” or “What showed up in my mind right before I started checking social media again?”

Observe the distinction between thoughts and actions. Notice that you can think one thing and do another. Thoughts do not have to lead to action. Even if you think, “My colleague is useless – he never does anything productive” (all-or-nothing thinking), you can treat your colleague with respect and kindness. Even if you think, “I should check my email one more time before bed” (should statements), you can keep your laptop closed and enjoy the rest of your evening with family.

“Even if you think, “I should check my email one more time before bed” (should statements), you can keep your laptop closed and enjoy the rest of your evening with family.”

Look at the usefulness of your thoughts. Almost all thoughts are adaptive in some situations. Take, for example, a thought such as “It’s not fair!” Sometimes it’s very important to focus on fairness, such as when people discriminate against others. But sometimes focusing on fairness just makes you angry at things that are not worth getting worked up about.

Check the facts. It can be helpful to deliberately pause and tease out the facts from your appraisals. I tend to do a lot of mind-reading – assuming I know what other people are thinking. And sometimes those assumptions can feel pretty real. Therefore, it’s helpful to check in with myself by checking the facts. My internal dialogue might sound something like this: “My colleague responded with a terse email, and she didn’t acknowledge a few of the points I brought up. Those are the facts of the situation. My mind is telling me that she’s mad at me or I’ve done something wrong. That’s my appraisal.” Then I can decide what to do about my appraisal. Sometimes I let it go. Sometimes I check in with my colleague about my concerns if I have that kind of relationship with her.

A word of caution

Addressing thinking traps is a skill that can be self-invalidating if not used carefully. No one likes to be told that they should think differently. No one likes to have a deeply held “truth” challenged. And no one likes to be accused of being “too emotional.” Be gentle with yourself. Avoid arguing. In a future blog, I will go over basic skills for gently challenging the truthfulness of your thinking traps without getting into a tug-of-war with yourself. This is called “reappraisal.” In the meantime, start getting to know where your mind traps you.

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Matthew S. Boone, LCSW is the Creative Director of Clinical Content at Lyra Health. He is a nationally recognized trainer in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and the editor of the book Mindfulness and Acceptance in Social Work.