I’ve spoken recently about how to think effectively, and given the significant impact this has on our lives I thought I’d follow up with something that gives a bit of insight into some of our common habits of thought that don’t serve us, also known as thinking traps.
If your thoughts are creating problems for you, it’s important to get a window into how to those repetitive habits might be contributing. If you’ve never thought about this before, it can feel a bit weird to think about thinking!
Our thoughts, beliefs and attitudes play a big part in how we feel and how we interpret the world, so as such we don’t see the world as it is per se, rather we see it through the various lenses of our perception, such as our values and belief systems, our thinking styles. In other words, we see the world very much through our own eyes. We are constantly and mostly unconsciously distorting, deleting and generalising the vast (in some cases overwhelming) amounts of information coming our way in any given moment. This allows us to function, but if we’re doing this in ways that work against our ability to feel good and function well, of course it can create problems.
We’re going to look today at some of the most commons thinking traps and how you can find helpful ways to disarm them.
This is where a relatively minor event is blown up out of all proportion into something much bigger and far-reaching, with significant impacts.
As with all of these thinking traps, catastrophising can become a habit that left unchecked can lead to a life of worry and anxiousness.
You can nip this type of thinking in the bud early on by recognising that the things you are catastrophising about aren’t real. They are just thoughts about reality. This is a small but powerful distinction. Learning how to do this is one of the central underpinnings of practices such as mindfulness where you learn to disguish between actual reality and a thought about reality and reminding yourself that thoughts aren’t real, they’re just thoughts.
You can learn to put your thoughts into perspective by thinking about the bigger picture. You can consider various evidence – what actual information do you have versus what are you imagining? Are there other possible explanations for what is happening that aren’t catastrophic?
All or nothing thinking
Also known as black and white thinking, all or nothing thinking involves thinking in extremes. And when you think in extremes it can lead to having more extreme emotions and behaviours. You can tell when this is happening by listening to your (or other peoples’) language. Words like: either, or, success, failure, always, never, perfect or terrible. If you’re thinking in extremes then you’ll be likely to act in extremes – avoiding something completely because it falls outside your criteria or going hell for leather to the opposite extreme.
You can probably imagine how this type of thinking can undermine goals very easily. If you’re on a diet and you eat one biscuit, well, you’ve “failed” now so might as well eat the whole packet! Studying towards something and fail one exam, might as well give up now because you’ll NEVER get there.
A couple of great ways to help bust this type of thinking trap are to consider varying degrees of things rather than a blanket all or nothing approach. You can think of it like a thermometer – it doesn’t just read hot or cold, there are many temperatures in between these two extremes. Yes you might slip up on that diet today, but that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. There’s no logical reason why you can’t eat better tomorrow, or even in the next 5 minutes. If you’re in something for the longer haul, recognise that the pathway will inevitably have moments of achievement and moments of not doing so well. This needn’t derail the whole project.
Develop your ability to see things in terms of “both X and Y.” Realise that things that seem to be extremes can co-exist. For example instead of seeing one group of people being “good” and another bunch as being “bad” realise that everyone in any group is both good and bad in some ways. These things are by no means cut and dried. Taking a more nuanced view of pretty much everything will help create acceptance and ease in your relationships, it will help you reach your goals more easily and it will also help you feel better about things altogether.
This is a goodie! Something many of us are guilty of is presuming to know the thoughts and feelings of another person and to credit them with thinking about us in a certain (maybe negative) way. If we’re already feeling a bit negative about ourself or vulnerable around others, we can sometimes assume that a behaviour they exhibit or a comment they make confirms our bad feeling about our self or that they have less than positive intentions towards us.
Think about a situation that’s relatively common, such as when we’re talking with someone and they’re yawning. We could mind-read that they think we’re boring and that they can’t wait to find someone else more interesting to talk to. Or, maybe, just maybe, they’re tired or preoccupied thinking about something stressful or concerning. It may not be anything to do with us. Something I like to think of in situations such as this is: I may not actually be the centre of their universe! Imagine that!
Another common thinking trap, where we can make blanket assumptions about something specific and extend our belief about this out to a far wider range than we have evidence to support. Have you ever found yourself thinking “these things always happen to me, this is typical” when your car doesn’t start and you run late… “Nothing good ever happens to me.”
Our mind will always look for evidence to support its various hypotheses and so it can be very easy to head down the slippery slope of thinking like this and ending up somewhere down a negative hole.
One of the ways we can counter this particular thinking trap is to gain some perspective. Get real and look for evidence to the contrary of your negative perception. For example, messing up a piece of work it can be tempting to consider our self to be useless – but maybe we’ve just made a silly mistake (and don’t mistakes happen from time to time?) and aren’t we usually pretty good at what we do?
A lot of this has to do with letting go of judgment – whether of self or others. Thinking that “people are nasty” deletes evidence of people being kind and applies this perception way beyond reality.
This is just a very small snapshot of some of the most common thinking traps. I hope you can see the benefits of devoting some time to understanding them and finding ways to avoid their harsh and limiting effects.