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  • Writer's pictureSharon Cunliffe

Six common thinking traps and how you can overcome them

Updated: Jan 21, 2023

“Negative thoughts are like weeds, the more we feed them, the more they grow"

(Unknown Author)

What are Thinking Traps?

Thinking traps are cognitive distortions, basically negative thinking patterns. Although we can all experience negative thoughts at times, for some it can be easy to get caught up in constant negative thinking patterns, despite the fact these negative thoughts can have a profound impact on how someone feels and behaves, they’re often irrational, exaggerated and distorted as opposed to being based on any factual information. They can be more prevalent in people who suffer from mental health conditions including anxiety disorders, depression and dysphoria.

Now let me ask you this….

What do you tend to think about at the end of the day?

All the amazing things you’ve achieved? The compliment someone gave you? How proud you are that you overcame a challenge? Or do you tend to focus on the one thing that went wrong? Beat yourself up at the one thing you didn’t do? Or overanalyse something you said to someone, or something someone said to you?

“Our brains act like Velcro to negative experiences and Teflon to positive ones”

Dr. Rick Hanson (Neuropsychologist)

According to neuropsychologist Rick Hanson (2021) our brains are wired to have a negative bias, making them act like Velcro to negative experiences and Teflon to positive ones. Hanson described how two-thirds of the neurons in a part of the brain known as the amygdala, (which is often referred to as the ‘alarm bell of the brain’), detect bad news and experiences, storing them immediately in the memory system. Whereas positive news and experiences need to be held in conscious awareness for much longer before getting stored in the memory system.

During evolutionary times, this would have served our ancestors well because it would have been more beneficial for them to have been hyperaware of anything potentially dangerous or threatening, rather than focusing on any potential rewards or praise. During that period, those more attuned to danger would have been more likely to have survived, therefore passing that strong survival gene down to the next generation.

Nonetheless, although our brains may have this tendency for a negative bias, this doesn’t mean we have to resign ourselves as powerless to it and live in a constant pessimistic state. Being aware of this human predilection for negativity can however be helpful. Recognising that although it may take some conscious effort to overrule the negative bias, the results can be incredibly beneficial.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

Many clients that come to my private practice have developed negative thinking traps. And many of them aren’t aware that this is the case. It’s not uncommon for clients to have had these negative thinking traps for years, sometimes even decades and it can often be hard for them to imagine not thinking in this way. It’s important to recognise although change may be hard and can often take time to master, you have a choice. As long as you’re prepared to put in the work, change is possible, and it can be very rewarding.

For example, using a form of therapy known as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), we can work together to help you to become aware of not only what your negative thinking traps are, but the impact they’re having on your subsequent feelings, behaviours and self-worth.

Our thoughts about ourselves, others and the world are one of the most powerful tools we have, and they can work in very opposing ways. Helping you to understand this connection is an important first step in working towards challenging and reframing these thoughts.

Six Common Cognitive Distortions with examples:

Although there are numerous thinking traps and cognitive distortions, here are six common ones that I tend to see at my private practice, with examples of each.

1. Fortune-Telling:

Fortune-telling is an extremely popular thinking trap in which people often predict a negative outcome will occur.

For example:

  • “I know no one will talk to me at the party”

  • “I just know I’m going to fail my driving test”

  • “I’m never going to get a job”

These sorts of thoughts aren’t based on any factual evidence but can have a significant impact on how you feel and behave. If you tell yourself you will fail your driving test, how’s that going to make you feel? What impact is that going to have on you during your driving lessons or driving test?

What we do know is this thinking trap is more likely to make you feel anxious and is more likely to shape your behaviour. For example, people who predict terrible things will happen are more likely to avoid the situation altogether.

For example:

If you believe you will fail your driving test, you’re more likely to:

1. Avoid driving altogether, therefore never get to learn that you could pass your driving test.

2. Get so anxious during your driving lessons and/or driving test which is more likely to have a negative impact on your behaviour, increasing the likelihood of failing or things going wrong.

How to stop fortune-telling:

Try to become aware of when you’re fortune-telling and the impact it’s having on your thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

Ask yourself this…

What do you think might happen if you thought differently about your driving lessons?

For example,

  • “It’s normal to feel anxious about driving at first, but I will do my best and take each lesson as it comes”

  • “Most people feel anxious at first, that’s normal. I will do my best and learn at my own pace”

These thoughts are kinder and less pressured. They acknowledge your feelings about feeling anxious without judging them and more importantly they don’t predict you will fail. Remember, none of us can predict the future, but if you write yourself off, it will affect your subsequent thoughts and behaviours, which is more likely to make it become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

2. Black-and-White thinking:

“The problem with black-and-white thinking is that you never get to see the rainbow"

Omar Cherif (Writer and Philosopher)

Black-and-white thinking is another incredibly common thinking trap. This occurs when people view a situation with very polar extremes. Either good or bad, success or failure, healthy or unhealthy, right or wrong. In black-and-white thinking traps there is no middle ground. Perfectionists often present with this thinking trap and if they don’t meet their rigid expectations, they often feel like a total failure. It can also be common in anxiety disorders or depression.

Some examples of black-and-white thinking are:

  • Someone may view themselves as a total failure because they skipped one day at the gym.

  • Or view themselves as failing their diet because they ate one slice of cake.

  • Or may think “my boyfriend is perfect or he’s the worst person ever.”

The problem with this thinking trap is that the world and situations in it are often not black or white, in fact most things in life are complex, nuanced, and full of a variety of shades between the two extremes.

When people view the world in a polarised way it can cause huge problems in not only their view of themselves (as in the examples above), but in their subsequent relationships. People are complex creatures and come with a variety of emotions. An inability to see this, means living by very rigid rules or extremes which aren’t realistic or sustainable.

How to stop black-and-white thinking:

It's important to try and recognise that although thinking in polar extremes might feel like a safe way to function, it’s doing you more harm than good.

Again, CBT can help you to try and separate what you do from who you are. For example, trying not to measure your worth by one single incident.

  • Such as recognising that missing one day at the gym doesn’t mean you have failed. You can go tomorrow instead.

  • Or enjoying one slice of cake in a balanced diet doesn’t mean you’re unhealthy or have failed your diet.

  • Or your boyfriend being grumpy one day or saying something not nice, doesn’t mean he’s evil, everyone goes through ups and downs.

It can also help if you try to think beyond the extremes. For example, try to think about what other options might there be between the extremes. What might fall into the middle ground. What might fall between good and bad, right and wrong, healthy and unhealthy etc.

3. Catastrophising:

The word catastrophise comes from the word ‘catastrophe’, which means complete disaster. When people catastrophise, they over-exaggerate or imagine the worst-case scenario will happen, when thinking about a situation or event they’re faced with. Whilst in addition, completely discounting their ability to cope with this. Although we can all catastrophise from time to time, when this mind trap is consistent, it can be overwhelming and have a detrimental impact on thoughts, feelings, and subsequent behaviours. Although it can be common in a variety of mental health conditions including anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), it can also antagonise these conditions, making them worse.

Some examples of catastrophising are:

  • “If I don’t do the task perfectly, my boss will think I’m not capable and I will get the sack”

  • “If I’m not interesting enough at the party, everyone will think I’m boring and no one will want to be friends with me”

  • “If my baby doesn’t put on enough weight, everyone will think I’m a bad mum and he will be put into care”

When collaborating with clients who catastrophise, I make a point of asking them how often their worst-case scenarios come true. The vast majority of clients say never. This is an important first step in getting them to recognise their thoughts are coming from the fear part of their brain, as opposed to the rational part of their brain that draws on factual evidence.

Although, it’s important to acknowledge that bad or difficult things can sometimes happen, when you consistently dread and underestimate your ability to cope with these challenging situations, it simply feeds your fear of them more.

How to stop catastrophising:

Although overcoming your tendency to catastrophise might take a while to master, recognising the impact it’s having on how you feel and behave, is an important first step.

So, next time you catch yourself falling into a catastrophic spiral, say aloud STOP, thenask yourself questions like the following:

1. How does the catastrophising make you feel?

2. How often has the worst-case scenario come true?

3. How often have I come away from a situation that I catastrophised about, that wasn’t anywhere that bad?

4. If the worst-case scenario did come true, what have I got within my control to cope with it?

5. Is it possible I'm underestimating my ability to cope?

Finally, learn to self-sooth. When you find your thoughts spiralling out of control, try to re-direct your focus to some gentle breathing exercises. Start by breathing slowly in through your nose and out through your mouth. Try to focus your attention on your breath, paying attention to the sensation of the inhalation and the exhalation within your body. Imagine yourself breathing in calm and blowing out the stress or anxiety. Give yourself permission to relax and be curious about the sensations present when you do so.

4. Personalisation:

Personalisation is another common thinking trap. People who personalise tend to interpret certain circumstances as their fault, despite the fact that it may have actually occurred by a sequence of events outside of their control. When this type of personalisation takes place, it can contribute to a variety of negative emotions such as anxiety, guilt and shame, and can negatively affect self-worth.

Personalisation can also involve blaming others for a situation or event that occurred, again discounting any broader factors that may have contributed to it outside of their control. This type of personalisation can cause you to feel a variety of negative emotions towards another person such as anger or frustration, which can subsequently affect the relationship.

Some examples of personalising are:

  • Feeling like you're to blame when your boss snaps at you. You tell yourself “If I was better at my job, they would like me more and be more patient with me.”

  • You feel upset when your friend cancels a dinner date. You tell yourself “I must have done something wrong to upset them.”

  • You walk into a room and notice everyone stops talking so you tell yourself “They must be talking about me because they don’t like me or find me weird.”

  • You go on a double date with friends. You notice the other couple seem sombre and bored. When you get home, you blame your husband because he wasn’t making enough effort to entertain them or make them feel comfortable.

How to stop personalising:

Overcoming this cognitive distortion can be challenging and can take time to master, therefore it’s important to be patient with yourself. One of the first things I do when I collaborate with clients who personalise, is introduce them to the concept of ‘the bigger picture.’ Basically, getting them to see other factors outside of their control or that of others, which may be contributing to the problem.

Try to become aware of these things….

  • What do you have control of in the situation?

  • Is it possible you're taking responsibility for all the factors involved?

  • Is it possible someone else’s behaviour may be the result of a factor you’re unaware of. For example, is it possible they may have something going on in another area of their life that is shaping their behaviour?

5. Labelling:

Another cognitive distortion is labelling, which involves assigning a global negative label to ourselves or others as a result of one negative characteristic or action.

For example,

  • I didn’t pass my driving test therefore “I'm a failure”.

  • I lost my temper with my partner, therefore “I’m an awful girlfriend”.

  • My colleague turned up late to work, therefore “she’s really irresponsible”.

Again, labelling causes us to view ourselves and others in a distorted way, resulting in the development and maintenance of negative feelings towards ourselves and others.

If you view yourself as a bad girlfriend because you lost your temper with your partner, it implies that you’re inherently bad which Isn’t likely. Inherently you may actually be a very good girlfriend that occasionally loses her temper (because you’re human). It’s important to recognise that we all make mistakes sometimes, or act in ways which might not be ideal, but these don’t necessarily define us as people.

How to stop labelling:
  • Try to recognise the labels you assign to yourself and others.

  • How do these labels make you feel about yourself and others?

  • Do you have any evidence that contradicts the label. For example try to recognise evidence you are a good girlfriend. Or evidence your colleague is responsible.

  • Practice more compassion……Trying to be more compassionate to yourself and others can be very beneficial. Compassion enables us to be kinder and more understanding with ourselves and others and has numerous benefits for our emotional well-being.

For more information on self-compassion and the importance of it, please see my blog

6. Filtering:

“Don’t focus on negative things; focus on the positive, and you will flourish”.

Alek Wek, (Model and designer)

Filtering is a cognitive distortion quite similar to black-and-white thinking. Filtering occurs when people only focus on negative aspects of a situation, whilst completely discounting any positives that may have occurred. Over a period of time, this behaviour can become so automatic that eventually everything can feel negative and this can lead to negative feelings, thoughts and behaviours.

Examples of filtering:

  • You get home from work and all you can think about was the fact that your boss chased you on an email you were meant to send the day before. It’s all you can think about all evening. Your brain keeps torturing you, as you replay it over and over, completely disregarding the fact the rest of the day went really well, including several compliments from your boss and other colleagues about your work performance.

  • You go for coffee with a friend and they mention you look tired. Despite the fact you had a lovely afternoon catching up, all you can focus on is the fact you look tired.

  • In a heated row, your wife calls you lazy. Despite the fact she compliments you all the time, for weeks after all you can think about is that she thinks you’re lazy.

How to stop filtering:
  • Start by trying to recognise when you’re filtering and how it makes you feel.

  • Does it leave you feeling sad, angry, inferior, a failure or not good enough?

I often use the analogy of a jigsaw puzzle to help my clients to recognise how many positive aspects of their day they’re completely disregarding.

Imagine your whole day was a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle. Realistically how many pieces went wrong, or not to plan? How many pieces of the 1000 piece jigsaw would be bad. By viewing your day in this way, it can help you to see that even if somethings weren’t ideal, or didn’t go quite to plan, many things did, yet your brain chooses not to remember these.

Try to make a conscious effort when you get home, or at the end of the day to focus on 3 positives. Write down 3 good things that happened that day and allow yourself to reflect on them. At first you may find this hard, after all your brain is used to focusing on the negatives. But stick with it. Make time each day to do this. And it will get easier. You can even do it as a family during dinner time, to encourage your loved ones to think more positively too.

Finally, Remember…change takes time.

At first all of these thinking traps will be difficult to overcome, which it is why it’s important you continue to practice the techniques to overcome.

Despite the fact our brains may be wired to have a negative bias, this doesn’t mean we have to resign ourselves to it. Being aware of this natural tendency, can help us to not only recognise how easy it is to get stuck in a cycle of negative thinking traps, but also the importance of making a conscious effort on a daily basis to try to override this tendency, by thinking more positively and trying to be more compassionate and patient with ourselves and others. The plasticity of our brains is incredible, therefore the more we make a conscious effort to retrain our brains, new neural networks can be laid down, making these new ways of positive thinking become more habitual.

“Change your thinking, change your life”

Ernest Holmes (Author, 1984)


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