“Our research has documented that the negative thoughts almost always contain gross distortions. In fact, it’s your twisted thinking that’s causing your unhappiness.”Dr. David Burns, Psychologist & Researcher
I grew up a couple of miles down the road from the Longleat Estate in Wiltshire, home of the UK’s largest hedge maze. At the time it was the world’s largest hedge maze, with over 16,000 English Yew trees forming almost 2 miles of twists and turns. I’ve spent hours in that maze wandering round and round in circles trying to find my way to the middle, sometimes succeeding and other times giving up and getting hopelessly lost.
Trying to solve the maze by any logical means is pretty futile. Unless you are tall enough to see over the top (which I most certainly am not) you are at the mercy of luck; each pathway looks the same as all of the others. Sure, there are strategies you can try like always turning left or always turning right, and I’ve seen broken branches and makeshift arrows from other maze explorers trying to mark the paths. Everyone you pass (usually the same people multiple times) will tell you “don’t go that way!” with a chuckle and a ‘we’re all in this together’ vibe.
However you attempt to tackle it, the simple reality is that the deeper into the maze you go, the longer you’ll be stuck in there.
Just like the hedge maze, we can sometimes find ourselves trapped by our patterns of negative thinking, unable to find our way out and ending up lost deeper and deeper into our thoughts. The more we try to ‘think’ our way out, the more we become entangled in its twists and turns, until eventually everything starts to look the same – bleak and miserable.
There are a number of common thinking traps that once you have fallen into them can be difficult to navigate your way out of. Unless you can identify the nature of the trap and see it for what it is – a distortion in your thinking – you’ll end up stuck in an endless maze of self-perpetuated negativity and unhappiness.
Luckily for us, thanks to the work of Dr. Burns and other positive psychologists many of these negative thinking traps have been identified and can be easily escaped once you know what they are. Below are five of the most common thinking traps to look out for.
“Look, I know what you’re going to say, so before you say it, let me just…”
How many arguments have you had that started like this? How many arguments have you had with others in your head before you even speak to them because you know exactly what they are going to say or how they are going to react right?
Mindreading, or believing you already know how what another is thinking, is one of the most common and potentially damaging thinking traps to fall into. We often prejudge a situation and believe that we already know how another person is going to react, tying ourselves up in a negative spiral of thoughts without actually giving them a chance to respond for themselves.
We can spend literally hours torturing ourselves imagining all of the awful things they will think and say to us, or the horrible arguments that are inevitable, and how terrible we are going to feel afterwards. It feels like a foregone conclusion, because we convince ourselves we know how they are going to respond and it’s not going to be pretty.
Whenever you find yourself doing this, remember – YOU ARE NOT A MINDREADER! The reality is you don’t know exactly how they are going to respond. Going in with a preconceived belief immediately sets a negative tone. It disempowers the other person from formulating their own opinion and response and puts them in a defensive state. If you can communicate clearly and without prejudging the situation you open space for them to react in a much calmer, more considered way, reducing the possibility of conflict and creating room for a positive outcome.
It’s all about ME
This thinking trap revolves around the center of the universe – YOU. Or more accurately, your mistaken belief that you are in fact, the center of the universe. Sometimes we get totally wrapped up in ourselves and assume that everything is about us, even when it’s not. We become consumed with our part in the situation – how it will impact us, the negative consequences for us, and how much of it was our fault.
When we fall into the trap of ‘me’ we often forget that there are other people involved who may be suffering more. The term ‘first world problems’ perfectly describes this frame of mind, and if we can take a step back and look at it from a larger, less self-centered perspective, we’ll be able to disrupt our ‘poor me’ negative thought patterns with a healthy dose of reality and perspective.
It’s all THEIR fault
Ugh, other people are the WORST. If only they’d just stop with their annoying, frustrating behavior! It’s just so frigging infuriating dealing with their problems and their mess. My life would be so much easier if OTHER PEOPLE would just stop causing me problems!
Almost the complete opposite of the ‘me’ trap, the ‘it’s them’ trap places the blame squarely on someone else. When we place the blame for our problems on other people, we disempower ourselves and lose our ability to see how we might resolve our issues ourselves. It is extremely easy, and therefore tempting, to place blame on someone other than ourselves, especially if we are feeling angry or hurt. But doing so leads us down a rabbit hole of bitterness, misery, and frustration.
If you’re familiar with Dr. Martin Seligman’s work on learned optimism and explanatory styles, you’ll recognize that being able to accurately identify your share of responsibility for both negative and positive situations is essential to shifting towards a more positive, optimistic frame of mind. When you find yourself digging in negative thoughts about how other people are to blame for your woes, recognize that you could be falling into the ‘it’s them’ trap and shift yourself by thinking about where you can take responsibility and take action to change things for the positive.
Are you guilty of always jumping to the worst-case scenario? Do you panic that you’ll be fired every time you make a mistake at work or that your partner will leave you if you forget to put the top back on the toothpaste? Catastrophizing occurs when we allow our negative thoughts to become like a runaway train, barreling down the track to certain doom. What starts as a small problem grows bigger and bigger as we imagine increasingly devastating possibilities, leaving us feeling stress, overwhelmed, and unable to face the issue head on.
The key to escaping this thinking trap is recognizing how unlikely it is that your doomsday prophecy will occur. Realize you are blowing things out of proportion and dispute your negative thinking with more feasible, fact-based scenarios. Remember, you’ve survived 100% of your worst days so far, and many of them were nowhere near as bad as you thought they might be. You’ll survive this too.
The fifth and final trap is helplessness. Believing you are helpless is a conditioned response, brought about through repeated exposure to situations and circumstances over which you have no control. Over time, the more we experience a lack of control and an inability to positively affect our surroundings the more we develop the belief that we are indeed helpless. Eventually, we give up trying, believing that whatever we do will not make a difference.
Helplessness therefore is a learned response. And if it can be learned, it can be unlearned. Dr. Seligman’s work on learned helplessness showed that consciously challenging our helpless thoughts and disputing them with fact-based alternatives can help shift you out of the helpless state into one closer to optimism and action. Whenever you recognize yourself falling into this trap, ask yourself if you really are helpless or if there is something you can do, no matter how small, to begin to regain some control over the situation and your thinking.
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