Negative Thinking Traps…

…and how they distort our reality

An Overview

Whether or not we want to, we are always thinking. Always, isolated within our own minds where thought after thought endlessly stream to the point where research has suggested a range of daily thoughts from 6,000 to upwards of 70,000! That is a lot of time spent with ourselves. It makes sense then with so many thoughts, how much of it may just come off as noise. But how come certain thoughts stick with us? Why do we sometimes we get stuck in our heads, unable to be liberated from painful or stressful ideas?

If a thought does resonate to a higher level, then we can assume that it is important to us in one way or another. If we struggle to stop thinking about how much we just embarrassed ourselves after a karaoke bar, maybe we care about what others think. If we keep imagining the worse possible outcome about traveling somewhere, then we obviously value our own safety and experience to be had. Compare this with thoughts that just come and go. It may even be hard to recall off the top of your head, but from the time you woke up, our brains were guiding us through the motions of our daily routine. It is when we find ourselves returning to our minds, taking us out of our present moment that perhaps we have found ourselves in a thinking trap.

Getting Lost in Thoughts

Negative thinking traps otherwise known as cognitive distortions can be unproductive, detrimental to our self-esteem, and surprisingly, sometimes go unnoticed. Whether due to their regularity, or again just the nature of having so many thoughts in a day. However, they can be considered a trap for a reason, and if we don’t even know we are in one, then how are we expecting to get out? Knowledge can surely be powerful, and in this case, a great way to gain insight whether our thoughts are skewing our reality and producing additional stress.

In future blog posts, I will detail strategies and specific details of each cognitive distortions, but for now, I will list them. You may be surprised how many of these you may have experience with, I know I have. However, when I identify a thought of mine as a cognitive distortion, I have an easier time reframing it in a way that supports my decision making and wellbeing.

Blowing Things Up

Let’s start with catastrophizing, also known as magnification. This is when a thought begins to unwind until it blows out of proportion. Say during a job interview, you stumbled on a sentence. Then, afterwards, you think about how because of an incident like that, you won’t get the job. More so, you will stay unemployed until you end up on the streets without a home. Now that might sound like quite the leap from one mistake to worse case scenario, and you are right, which is exactly why it is not helpful.  Conversely, there is minimizing, where we inappropriately shrink something, making it less important. Such as ignoring potential unprofessional behavior during an interview.

No Room for Grey

There is also thought patterns known as all-or-nothing thinking where we put things into the perspective of black and white. Like your favorite sports team making it to the championship only to lose on the final play. Would you consider the whole season a failure? Or even with ourselves. Are we failures if we aren’t perfect. Similar, is a common cognitive distortion known as overgeneralization. It can be easily identified by words such as always, never, everything, or nothing. Thoughts such as ‘I’m always messing up,” or “I’m never good enough.” Those can be hard thoughts to have, and not true to reality. It might feel like your partner never listens, but again, that’s not possible on a literal level. Now, I understand that might sound nitpicky, but it is important to realize the power our thoughts have on our feelings and perceptions of things.

Another couple of cognitive distortions are known as mental filtering and disqualifying the positive. The first highlights the idea that we are only noticing certain types of evidence. Noticing only our failures but neglecting to see our successes. Disqualifying the positive is similar, but more overt in practice. Saying things like ‘that doesn’t count,’ or ‘anyone can do that.’ The second example contains an overgeneralization as well. These negative thinking traps often overlap and feed off each other.

Forcing an Answer

Thoughts that attempt to predict the future in a certain way can also be detrimental. Known as jumping to conclusions with subtypes fortune telling and mind reading. When we spend time assuming what others are thinking, or assuming a certain outcome, we can find ourselves removed from the moment, and mapping out thoughts that may be far from the truth.

The last few I will review (yes there are a lot!) include labeling, where we slap on a label to ourselves or others. Calling ourselves stupid, worthless, or damaged affects our motivation and self-image. There is also something known as personalization, where we hold onto the blame whether or not we actually bear any fault. All the previously mentioned cognitive distortions can add a lot of emotional weight to ourselves. Sadness, anger, guilt, shame, anxiety. When we are experiencing negative emotions, we may find ourselves susceptible to our last distortion. Emotional reasoning is when we are feeling a certain way, we assume our thoughts are more accurate. For example, if we are angry, and our thoughts are filtered through an angry lens, then we must realize that our thoughts could be channeled through that.

There is a lot to absorb with the information provided. These quick descriptions only scratch the surface of how each of these can manifest in our lives. Look forward to in depth looks at each of these with more examples, and ways to positively reframe them in a healthier way.

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