Any thought that makes you feel unhappy, frustrated, sad, angry or guilty will almost certainly fit into one of the 12 common thinking traps that I cover in this article.
We take in information from our five senses and it goes through a mental filter. This distorts some incoming information, deletes other bits and then generalizes the remaining information so that it makes sense to us.
This happens all the time, but sometimes the information gets filtered through one of the 12 common thinking traps. When this happens, you can feel negative, pessimistic and stuck.
In this article, I cover the 12 common thinking traps in detail. I also provide some great information to help you steer clear of these thinking traps so that you feel happier, less anxious and more at peace with yourself and others.
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What is a Thinking Trap?
A thinking trap is when you perceive your experience differently to how it really is and that results in you feeling negative and pessimistic. The technical term for this is “cognitive distortions”.
Cognitions are your thoughts, perceptions, beliefs, and values. They represent how you interpret the world. They can also be called TFB loops, which stands for thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. We have a thought that generates a feeling and that in turn generates a behavior or action.
So let’s get into these 12 common thinking traps or cognitive distortions so that you can identify the ones that you do and start making changes to address these.
1. All-or-Nothing Thinking
This is also known as black and white thinking. It’s about thinking in extremes. Either something is really good or absolutely terrible. There’s no middle ground, only extremes.
Here is an example that came from one of my hypnotherapy clients. She said, “I am a complete failure as a mother”. Deep inside, she believed that she was responsible for her son’s behavior. Now, in reality, there are lots of factors that influence how a child grows up. These include the father, teachers, friends and other kids at school.
Other examples include saying to yourself “I’m a total loser” after making a mistake or saying “my diet is completely ruined” after being tempted by a little bit of chocolate. How about “nobody likes me” after one person took a dislike to you.
So what is happening here? One experience or just some small part of life is creating a negative belief that is very black-and-white.
How do you overcome this? Start by noticing that your experience is not black or white, right or wrong, it’s shades of grey. Most things are good or pretty average with the occasional negative experience thrown in every so often.
When you find yourself falling into this all-or-nothing thinking pattern, simply say “really?” This will force your brain to think of counter-evidence. For example, if you hear yourself saying “I’m a total loser”, then say to yourself “really?”. Your thinking might then change to – “Well, I made that mistake just now, but I’ve already done these things correctly today”.
Catastrophizing is imagining the worst-case scenario without any assessment of how likely that worst-case scenario really is. It’s also about believing that you won’t be able to cope if this scenario did happen.
This cognitive distortion is also called magnifying because you are magnifying errors, fears, and imperfections. Here are some examples to help you understand this cognitive distortion better.
You’re a child at home and you hear your mom and dad arguing. You instantly think they are going to get a divorce and then you wonder how you’ll cope if they do.
A student might say “if I fail this test, my life is over”. The reality is that failing a test is not the end of the world. You can normally re-sit the test or use this as a reason to move your life in a different direction. Failures also help you learn and become better over time.
To overcome this common thinking trap, look at the likely reality. Ask yourself: “How likely is this event to happen?”. In most cases, it’s very unlikely. Also, look at the unexpected things that have happened to you in the past and how you’ve successfully coped with them. This will help you feel that if the worst-case scenario did happen, you would find a way to cope, just as you have done so in the past.
3. Negative Brain Filters
Negative brain filters are about noticing and focussing on negative experiences only and ignoring the positive ones. This is one of the most common thinking traps.
Examples of this include beating yourself up for eating chocolate whilst ignoring all the salads and other healthy foods that you have eaten recently. Or flunking a golf shot and then spending the rest of your golf round focussing on that duff shot, whilst ignoring all the great shots.
To overcome this thinking trap, become consciously aware of the entire experience and notice both the good, average and bad aspects of any activity. Also, focus on gratitude. Think about how well your life is going and all the good things that are happening. This will shift your focus towards what is working in your life and less on what is not working.
4. Mind Reading
Mind Reading is assuming that you know what other people are thinking about you, when there is no real evidence to back that up. You might say: “I know she hates me”, after seeing a certain facial expression in another person or after something they said. However, it is impossible to read the mind of another person. You do not know what is going on in the other person’s mind and their life. Perhaps that person that seemed unfriendly had just been through a major argument with her husband or is currently dealing with a life-threatening illness.
Another example of this common thinking trap is “Others think I’m stupid”. Again, this could be based on a comment someone made, or on a feeling you have around certain people. You might also think “I know they are talking about me behind my back” based on noticing someone saying something to another person and assuming it’s about you.
To overcome this, begin to understand that you are not a mind reader. It is impossible to read someone else’s mind. You get an idea of what others are thinking, but you can never be completely sure.
Instead, test the evidence. So when someone says something negative about you, ask yourself “what else could this mean?” Your answer might be that this person is having a bad day or has a habit of being negative to lots of other people besides you due to their own insecurities or low self-esteem.
5. Fallacy of Change
One of the key common thinking traps is the fallacy of change. This is about wanting or expecting other people to change to make you happy.
The underlying belief behind this is that your happiness depends on someone else. A great example of this thinking trap is “If you really loved me, you wouldn’t spend every Saturday on the golf course”, or “If you really loved me, you would buy me flowers every week”.
You need to realize that happiness is not dependent on other people and their actions. Remember it can be hard for other people to change. If you’ve struggled to change, then its highly likely that other people find changing difficult as well, especially if they don’t have an awareness of self-development.
To overcome this, realize that someone else changing is NOT within your control. You can influence their behavior by what you say and how you act. However, you cannot directly control their behavior. Also, realize that your happiness depends on you and the decisions that you make each day.
6. Fortune Telling
Fortune Telling is thinking or predicting that things will turn out badly. An example of this common thinking trap is “I’ll never be able to change” or “I know I messed up my interview” or “No one is going to talk to me at this party”. It’s basically telling yourself what is going to happen. It’s attempting to predict the future and in a very negative way.
In reality, we cannot predict the future. In fact, thinking about the future in a negative way is more likely to result in the negative thing happening, because that is what you’re mind will now focus on. So it’s totally pointless to think in this way, especially when there is no concrete evidence that this negative experience will actually happen.
The solution is to ask yourself: “What’s the evidence that I’m going to flunk this interview or that I’ll never be able to change?”. When you start asking yourself these questions, you’ll discover that the evidence behind this thinking trap is quite flimsy.
7. Always Being Right
WARNING! This common thinking trap can ruin relationships.
Always being right is constantly proving that your thoughts and actions are the correct ones. You go all out to prove that you’re right, even if you upset others, especially the ones you love. It’s when you think or say “I know I’m right, I’m going to prove I’m right, I’m going to do this at all costs”. It comes across to the other person as not really caring about what they think, or displaying a lack of interest in them.
A great question to ask in this situation is: “Would I rather be right or would I rather be happy?”. When you ask this question, it’s pretty easy to answer. Most people would rather be happy than right, especially if it helps someone close to you feel that you are listening to them and that they have a voice too.
When I overcame the need to always be right, the number of arguments I had with my wife reduced dramatically! I realized that I didn’t need to prove whether I’m right or not and that trying to be right would simply cause more harm. Instead, I now just let go and be happy instead. If you really want to be happy in your intimate relationship (or relationships in general), then this is a really good cognitive distortion to let go of.
Of all the common thinking traps, this is one of the best ones to work on if you want to improve your relationships and how you interact with other people.
Labeling is describing yourself or your sense of identity with just one word such as “stupid”, “fat” or “disaster”. This is one of the most dangerous common thinking traps, because all behavior stems from your sense of identity. So, if you see yourself as a stupid person (and that becomes part of your identity), then you’ll start doing more stupid things more often.
In reality, we are far too complex to be summed up in a single word. Choose positive phrases and words that are believable and more realistic instead.
This is exaggerating the chance that something bad will happen. This cognitive distortion is a little bit like catastrophizing, but it’s more exaggerating the possibility of something bad happening, rather than completely believing it will happen.
For example, if I forget to lock the front door at night, it is very likely that my house will get burgled, even if I live in a low-crime area. The reality is that, if you forgot to lock the front door, you probably wouldn’t get burgled and you would be perfectly safe.
The belief here is that if I forget to do something, then something bad will happen. This is a fundamental belief that is behind people that suffer from OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).
What about “The next plane that I fly on is going to crash!”. Now we know that in reality, you are far more likely to win the lottery than to be on a plane that crashes. Nevertheless, if a person really believes that the plane that they are on is going to crash, then they won’t enjoy the flight and have a high level of anxiety instead.
The way to deal with this is the same as for catastrophizing which is to realize that the situation is extremely unlikely to happen. More importantly, if it did happen, you would find a way to cope or deal with it.
This is making sweeping judgments about yourself based on one or two experiences. It is often characterized by the use of the words “always” and “never”.
This is not helpful, because it takes one or two experiences and applies them to all situations and events. For example, let’s say that you flunk a few words in a presentation. You then think or say “I’m never going to be good at public speaking.” Did you notice the word “never” in there?
Here is another example. Your boss criticizes you for one specific task, so you say to yourself “I always make mistakes”. Notice the word “always” in there.
The way out of this common thinking trap is to realize that you can’t judge yourself based on one or two negative experiences. Look for counter-examples, such as times and situations where you performed well and had good experiences.
This is refusing to accept your part in a situation or outcome, and instead blaming others. When you blame others, you are not taking responsibility for the situation and how you react to it. When you don’t take responsibility, you have no control or influence, so you feel powerless.
In a business situation, you might say: “It’s not my fault that we lost out on this opportunity”. However, the reality is that it usually takes several people for something to go wrong in a business environment.
To overcome this cognitive distortion, you need to take responsibility for your own mistakes. Understand that you can change your approach and have a part to play in influencing the outcome of any situation.
12. Should Statements
This is when you tell yourself that you “should”, “ought”, or “must” do something, feel something or behave in a certain way. However, this is not how you actually feel and it goes against what you really want to do. It’s thinking about what you should be doing, rather than being true to yourself. Also the words “should”, “ought”, or “must” indicate a lack of choice.
As a result, you feel anxious, frustrated and disappointed with yourself and feel that you are being pressurized by other people or things you “should” do. It can also cause you to have an unrealistic expectation of yourself.
Getting around this simply involves changing your language. Instead of the word “should”, use the word “could”. This makes you feel like you have a choice. You don’t have to do something, you can choose to do it instead.
Other words that give you a feeling of having choices and options are, “choose” and “will”. For example, “I choose to” or “I will do”.
So these are the 12 thinking traps or cognitive distortions that steal your happiness and success in life. These thinking traps are a core component of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). An important part of CBT involves challenging these thinking traps or cognitive distortions.
When you challenge and then overcome these thinking traps, you’ll be able to attain more success in life and start living each day to the fullest.
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