Our minds are incredible machines. They allow us to do so much!
Recently, I went to The Chicks concert here in Denver. Though I haven’t heard one of their songs in over a decade, I could (and did!) belt every word. It’s fascinating what our minds can do! We can predict, remember, organize, categorize, evaluate, and so much more.
Our minds can also lead us into mental traps that contribute to stress, our choice to disconnect from others, and just make our lives more difficult. These are called “thinking traps.”
Thinking traps are common patterns and ways of thinking that distort reality and feed us negative emotions.
And what we know about thoughts and emotions is that we, as humans, have the capacity to feel deep emotions and with those emotions our minds can jump to extreme, and sometimes negative thinking.
We can then start to believe and act as if those thoughts are facts, which can make us more emotional. What is important to note is all thoughts and emotions are valid and authentic. It doesn’t mean all thoughts and emotions are facts.
In psychology this is called “real but not true”. In therapy, CBT or cognitive behavioral therapy, is a widely used technique rooted in the idea that the way you perceive situations influences the way you feel, and that with intention and consistency, you have the ability to change your thought patterns to feel better.
Psychologists Paul Rozin and Edward Poyzman coined a similar concept called Negativity Bias. Negativity bias causes our emotional response to negative events to feel amplified compared to similar positive events. It is thought to be a survival adaptation in response to environmental threats thousands of years ago.
Negative Bias occurs even when adverse events and positive events are of the same magnitude. What that means is we feel negative events more intensely. This is why the media focuses on negative events because humans are more activated by negative news stories than positive ones. It’s like adding fuel to an already raging fire.
What’s also concerning is that negativity bias and thinking traps impact how we make decisions, motivate ourselves, and interact with one another.
So how do we notice our “real but not true” thoughts to break the cycle of negative emotions, thoughts and behaviors? First, we must name the thinking traps that are happening. Once we name it, we can claim it and make a choice in how we respond.
Let’s review some common thinking traps:
Black and White thinking – this is also called All or Nothing thinking. Things are either
all good or all bad. There’s no in-between.
•Example: When a difficult situation arises, you only see the negative aspects and none of the solutions or opportunities that it presents.
Jumping to Conclusions - Overestimating the probability that something negative will happen.
•Example: You believe that you’re in danger of being fired despite no indication to support your belief. Maybe simply because your boss put an unexpected meeting on your calendar. Or because earnings were down last quarter.
Filtering – or Personalization - Overestimate your influence on negative events; or in other cases taking a negative bias when taking things personally.
•Example: When your partner is having a bad day, and you automatically jump to assuming it’s all your fault.
Fortune Telling - Assuming you know what people are thinking, and what will happen in the future.
•Examples: you’re sure your children’s lives will be ruined if they don’t get into the right school. Middle school, high school, college, or heck choose not to even go to college.
Mind Reading - Assuming you know what people are thinking
•Examples: You’re certain you know a colleague’s motivations for leaving you out of a meeting.
Catastrophizing - Overestimating the consequences of something negative happening. I do this all the time, especially on a playground, thinking my kids are going to get abducted.
•Example: You imagine that if you get a bad review or your project isn’t approved, you won’t be able to handle it.
One that isn’t on here but is very common are the Should statements. Rigid rules for how the world should operate and for how people (including yourself) should think, feel, and behave.
•Examples: “Things shouldn’t be this way.” “I shouldn’t feel so stressed.” “I should eat a salad instead of that sandwich.”
•I regularly tell people “Don’t should all over yourself”
Another one that’s not on here that I see often is the “If only…” statements where you Over-focus on an imagined outcome as the solution to all your problems.
•Example: If only I get a promotion or find a life partner, then everything will be better.
**Which ones of these do you notice going on in your head? Take a moment to write about a situation where your mind was caught in a thinking trap. Notice what you were feeling in the moment, what thoughts you had and what actions you took as a result of those thoughts and feelings.
Now that we know what thinking traps are and where they come from…what do we do about them? My advice: N.A.P.
While taking a nap might be tempting, what I mean is to Notice, Acknowledge and gain Perspective.
I’ve created a guide for you. The purpose of this guide is to both challenge and distance yourself from the thinking trap. Click here to download the free guide!