It is safe to say that most us have fallen into a thought trap at some point in time – whether we realize it or not. Thought traps can happen when we are in conversations with others or when we are assessing experiences that we may be about to have, have had recently, or have had in the past. Thought traps or cognitive distortions impact how you view yourself and the world around you. As such, they will affect how you communicate, how you feel and what you do in your day-to-day activities.
The term “cognitive distortions” was coined by Dr. Aaron Beck because of his extensive work with depressed patients and is the foundation for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Dr. David Burns has expanded on this research and focuses his work on depression by working with people to identify and correct their cognitive distortions and his book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy is widely recommended by therapists for their depressed clients to use in their work together.
What are common thought traps?
All-or-nothing/Black-and-white thinking: This is when we look at things in terms of extremes. Things are either good or bad. Right or wrong. Always or never. You end up trying to live up to standards that don’t exist while judging yourself and others for not living up to an impossible standard. Example: “If I don’t get 100% then I have failed” or “I said I would quit drinking and I had a glass of wine so I failed.”
Fortune-telling: This is when we predict the future and that things are going to end badly. Example: “I know I’m going to screw this up.” “I am positive I’m going to fail that exam.”
Mindreading: This happens when we assume we know what someone else is thinking and that they are thinking the worst about us and our motives. You make snap judgements about others’ thoughts and feelings and interpret their responses to you in a negative light. Example: “She/he doesn’t like me.” “The boss didn’t say hello this morning, they must be getting ready to fire me.” Your partner slams a door and you assume they are upset with you even though you have not had an argument.
Over-generalization: This can be identified using “always”, “never”, “everyone”, “nobody”, etc., to describe situations and events without taking all situations and events into consideration. Example: “I always screw up.” “Everybody thinks I’m a loser.”
Labelling: We sometimes refer to ourselves or others in unflattering terms. Example: “I’m a loser.” “He’s a total jerk.”
Magnifying (Catastrophizing) or Minimizing: You see negative or difficult things as worse than they really are, or positive things are less important than they really are. This is what happens when you look through a telescope – either making things bigger or closer than they are or, when looking through the other end, smaller or farther away than they truly are. Time to get rid of the telescope! Example: You hear a comment or criticism and cannot stop thinking about it or someone pays you a compliment and you don’t believe it. Magnifying language may use words such as “huge” or “overwhelming”.
Filtering (Tunnel Vision): This occurs when you are only paying attention to the bad things that happen while ignoring or overlooking all the positive things. Fears, losses and irritations become overemphasized. Example: When you are giving a speech or presentation, you focus on the individuals who appear to be bored or disengaged rather than the many others who are actively engaged and paying attention.
Personalization: This is when you assume that others’ thoughts, feelings and/or actions are a reaction to you. You are comparing yourself to others without considering the complexities of a given situation. You take the blame for any negative events that may happen to you without acknowledging the impacts of others’ actions to that same event. Example: Your team loses the company softball game and you blame yourself for the loss.
“Should” statements (“Shoulding on yourself”): Focusing on what you or someone else “should”, “must” or “ought” to believe or feel without acknowledging how or what you, or what someone else, ACTUALLY believes or feels. You feel anxiety or anger when someone else “breaks the rules” and beat yourself up when you do. This ends up causing a shame cycle which is not a motivator for any change. Example: “I should be busier” “I shouldn’t be angry with my family/friends/coworkers right now” “I should be able to quit drinking on my own.
- Emotional reasoning: You base your views and opinions on what you are feeling rather than an objective review of what is actually going on. Example: You feel sad and angry after an argument with your partner, so you think “My marriage is over.”
This is not an exhaustive list and you will find various versions of thought trap lists. These are the ones I tend to see walking into my office and that I have also engaged in throughout my own life. The trick to all of this is to begin to recognize when you have fallen victim to a thought trap and engage in some strategies to “spring” yourself from its clutches.
Coping strategies for thought traps
As I noted above, we all get caught in thought traps at various points in our lives and this may not necessarily cause any long-term issues. However, thought traps are habits of thought and may be impacting your mental and/or emotional health and wellbeing. We are currently seeing examples of thought traps in political discourse around the globe, which are causing increasing levels of polarization between “right” and “left”. This is causing problems within families, workplaces and friendship groups. If you are looking at how to change this dynamic in your life, then you may want to try some strategies to challenge your own thoughts and assumptions.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) employs a worksheet to help identify cognitive distortions. An example of a thought record can be found here. If you want more information or assistance with this, talking to a therapist can help you dig deeper into the process. This is just one tool within a comprehensive treatment method.
Challenging Rules and Assumptions
We develop “rules” for living based on a variety of considerations: moral, ethical, religious/spirituality, traditional, cultural, generational, and more. As we move through our lives, we will find our assumptions and rules challenged on a regular basis. Sometimes you will change your stance and sometimes you won’t and neither of these positions is right or wrong. The litmus test is your sense of wellbeing. Do you find yourself engaging in arguments and debates more often? Do you find yourself feeling frustrated, angry, distressed after a conversation with a friend or loved one? These are just a couple questions that may help you decide whether to challenge yourself. Again, you can explore this with a counsellor in more detail and work through the process of identifying your own assumptions in a safe and non-judgemental environment.
Are your thoughts based on fact or opinion?
This is very common, and we can easily get caught up in identifying our opinions as facts depending on the strength of the rule we have in place for ourselves. For example, “I’m a failure” is an opinion while “I failed that test.” Is a fact. The first option can have lasting effects of shame, anxiety, and depression, to name a few, while the second statement can allow you the space to investigate what can be improved upon for the next time you take a test.
Are you able to be your own best advocate and challenge these opinions? Of course, you are able!! This is a skill that can be learned over time and takes practice – like all skills. All it takes is a desire to want to make the change. You will continue to be imperfect and that’s okay, we all get caught up in the heat of the moment and fall back into our default position. Notice when you have done this, forgive yourself and move forward with the desire to continue trying.
You may be thinking that this all sounds easier said than done and you would be correct. Habits are hard to break and developing new habits can be just as difficult. The decision is yours as to whether it is worth it for you to change your thinking.
Do you need help with challenging your thoughts?
If you need help, contact My Wise Self Counselling for a FREE 30-minute phone consultation to discuss your situation and find out how I can help. Call me now at 778-242-1124 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to book your free phone inquiry.