10 Thinking Traps & Tips to Overcome

10 Thinking Traps & Tips to Overcome

When I came across the concept of thinking traps nearly 10 years ago, I was shocked! It was tragicomic to read some of the definitions, as I could totally see myself in them. Being a reformed perfectionist, statements like “Unless it is a hundred per cent, it’s a disaster.” were familiar to me. Fast forward a decade and I still experience some of those mindset patterns occasionally, but thanks to my mindfulness practice and greater awareness they no longer have power over me.

The way we think directly impacts our relationships and our ability to perform well in a variety of roles in life. When we are upset, our thinking can change in unhelpful ways. People can often filter and distort information based on their preferences and beliefs, so our thinking can become unbalanced and lead to unnecessary stress and poor decisions. By recognising our unhelpful thinking patterns, we can begin to change them.

Sarah Eldeman, PhD, is an Australian author, former researcher with UTS and The Black Dog Institute. In her best-selling book Change Your Thinking, Sarah discusses several unhelpful thinking styles, also known as “thinking traps”. A thinking trap is an automatic way of thinking or responding to an event/stimulus that causes distress.

Below is a two-minute animated video that illustrates the concept of Thinking Traps.

Below are 10 common thinking traps:

1. Polarized / Black & White /All or Nothing / Dichotomous Thinking

Seeing only one extreme or the other – ie. no in-betweens or shades of grey. Evaluating things and people in absolutes: seeing everything as awful or great with no middle ground. Things are good or bad, safe or dangerous, perfect or a total failure; nothing in-between. According to this thinking style, you are either right or wrong, good or bad and so on.

2. Overgeneralisation

Taking one instance in the past or present, and imposing it on all current or future situations. Drawing sweeping negative conclusions on the basis of limited evidence. When we overgeneralise, we take one instance in the past or present, and let it define all current or future situations. If we say, “You always…” or “Everyone…”, or “I never…” then we are probably overgeneralising.

3. Mental Filter

A “filtering in” and “filtering out” process. A sort of “tunnel vision,” focusing on only one part of a situation and ignoring the rest. Usually this means looking at the negative parts of a situation and forgetting the positive parts – not seeing the whole picture. Biased perception of a person or event.

4. Disqualifying the positive

In this mindset style, positive experiences are rejected or ignored. For example, you receive positive feedback, but insist it does not count because your manager was probably just being nice. This is an extreme form of all-or-nothing thinking in which we filter out all the positive evidence for our performance, and only attend to the negative.

5. Jumping into conclusions / Mind reading

Assuming that we know what someone else is thinking (mind reading) and making predictions about what is going to happen in the future (predictive thinking).

6. Catastrophising

Catastrophising occurs when we “blow things out of proportion” and view the situation as terrible, awful, dreadful and horrible, even though the reality is that the problem itself is quite small.

In this thinking style, people magnify the positive attributes of other people and minimise their own positive attributes. It’s as though they’re explaining away their own positive characteristics or achievements as though they’re not important.

7. Emotional Reasoning

Basing your view of situations or yourself on the way you are feeling and therefore reasoning that if you feel a certain way, then it must be true. For example, the only evidence that something bad is going to happen is that you feel like something bad is going to happen.

8. Should Statements

This is about rules or beliefs that we hold about the way things must be, which can lead us to place unreasonable demands or pressure on ourselves or others. Sometimes by saying “I should…” or “I must…” you can put unreasonable demands or pressure on yourself and others. Although these statements are not always unhelpful (eg “I should not get drunk and drive home”), they can sometimes create unrealistic expectations.

9. Labelling

Making global statements about ourselves or others based on behaviour in specific situations. We might use this label even though there are many more examples that aren’t consistent with that label.

10. Personalisation

This involves blaming yourself for everything that goes wrong or could go wrong, even when you may only be partly responsible or not responsible at all. You might be taking 100% responsibility for the occurrence of external events. Assuming others’ reactions relate to you. Everything is about you. Your friend looks upset so you assume it must be your fault etc.

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5 Steps to overcome Thinking Traps:

  1. Reflect on the Thinking Traps described above and observe your thoughts. Establishing a mindfulness practice can help you to monitor your thoughts and recognise faulty thinking.
  2. Identify which thinking trap (s) you often fall into, if any.
  3. Acknowledge, accept and name them.
  4. Set up an experiment to challenge the way you think about the situation and your assumptions, dispute the unhelpful thoughts or beliefs and prove your hypothesis is wrong. Start with low risk/stakes situations.
  5. Journal your experiments to build evidence. Celebrate! 🙂

Top 10 questions to help you challenge your thinking:

  1. What is the evidence for this?
  2. Am I practicing self-compassion?
  3. How would I respond to a friend going through a similar situation?
  4. Is it helpful for me to think in terms of ‘shoulds’ and ‘should-nots’?
  5. Can I replace this thought with “I choose”, “I’d like to”, or “I’d prefer”.
  6. Am I looking at the whole picture?
  7. How likely is it that what I fear is going to happen?
  8. What is the very worst thing that can realistically happen? How would I go about coping with that?
  9. Am I confusing a possibility with a probability?
  10. Is this a helpful thought that contributes to my peace of mind and wellbeing, or is it taking me further away from this?

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