7 ways to combat negative thinking traps
Do you ever make a silly mistake and scold yourself with ‘I’m such an idiot!’?
Or assume that you know what people must be thinking about you?
Perhaps you find yourself negatively predicting the outcome of an exam or a proposal you’re about to give?
If any of these sound familiar, you’ve stumbled into a negative thinking trap and it may be responsible for holding you back.
The way we experience the world around us – processing the things that have happened in the past and making predictions about the future – is influenced by various filters inside our heads. Your beliefs about what’s important, beliefs about how people should behave and beliefs about yourself. Your past experiences, prejudices, pre-judgements and assumptions. Your personality, values, sense of identity… all of these filters change the way you process information, make meaning of it, and then tell yourself a neat little story that fits.
But what happens when these filters become skewed? What happens when the stories we tell ourselves don’t accurately reflect reality?
These negative thinking traps can influence the decisions we take and the way we act, which means that what goes on inside your head also tends to show up in the real world through our behaviours.
The good news is that by creating greater self-awareness of this inner voice, learning to spot your most common thinking traps and understanding how you can challenge and change them, you can start to improve the quality of your thinking.
Here are 7 of the most common thinking traps you may find yourself falling into, and a suggestion for how to upgrade the quality of your thinking:
1. Mind Reading – When you believe you know what somebody else must be thinking or feeling about you. These judgements can be based on how we have interpreted something that an individual has (or hasn’t) said or done, or our own beliefs about ourself or the way the world works.
For example, “He obviously thinks I’m boring otherwise he’d have messaged me back”, or “Nobody’s liked or commented on my Facebook update… they don’t care about me!”
CHALLENGE & CHANGE: “Can I know for sure that this is really true?”
By taking a moment and asking yourself this question you may realise that whilst there’s a chance that is what the other person may think, you cannot absolutely know it for a fact.
Use this to start introducing some alternative and more expansive perspectives, or at the very least eliminate the certainty that you know what they are thinking.
2. Labelling – This is where you make a mistake or experience a setback in one area of your life, and wear it as a label that potentially impacts all other areas.
For example, if you get turned down for a job and conclude that you’re a failure, this might negatively affect your willingness to put yourself forwards for other challenges, such as dating or improving your diet.
CHALLENGE & CHANGE: “That’s not true because…”
Completing this sentence stem can help prompt you to find evidence to counter this belief. Think about times you have been successful in something and even though this current setback may still hurt, it should protect you from wearing it as an identity.
3. Catastrophising – This is where you imagine the worst case scenario coming true, and how unprepared you will be to cope with it. Thoughts like this can fuel anxiety and amplify the perceived risk of a particular course of action, stopping us from stretching ourselves and growing.
For example, “If I miss this deadline I’m going to get fired and everybody’s going to know what a loser I am.”
CHALLENGE & CHANGE: “A more likely outcome would be…”
Completing this sentence stem is a great way to gain a better perspective. The catastrophic outcome is an outcome, but there are many other more likely ones.
4. Fortune Telling – Similar to mind reading where you predict what other people are going to think or feel about you, fortune telling is where you predict a negative event is going to occur in the future.
For example “I just know I’m going to mess this up.”
Holding onto this belief not only potentially holds you back from stepping outside of your comfort zone, but it sets you up for failure if you do because you already believe that it’s going to happen!
CHALLENGE & CHANGE: “Can I know for sure that this is really true?”
This question can help you gain a better perspective on your future predictions. How can you possibly know for sure that you’re going to mess up, fail the exam, get rejected or any other negative prediction you may make about the future?
5. Black & White Thinking – Thinking in extremes of success or failure is the black and white thinking trap. There’s no room for error, and it’s either really good or really bad. This is the all-or-nothing mindset that many people have around diet.
For example, you have one biscuit and say “I’ve completely ruined the diet now, so might as well just start again on Monday”.
CHALLENGE & CHANGE: “Is that really true?”
Asking this question gives you a better perspective by forcing you to stop and think for a moment, bringing you back to reality. One or two biscuits in an otherwise solid day of healthy eating really isn’t going to make a difference to your results.
6. Filtering – Humans have a negativity bias which means we’re more likely to pay attention to the bad things that happen to us than we are the good things. Filtering is where we filter out the positive information and filter in the negative.
For example, when nine people give you positive feedback and one person criticises you, all you can focus on is the negative comment.
Often we use generalisations such as ‘everybody thinks I’m foolish’, or ‘this type of thing always happens to me’. Allowing yourself to believe these thoughts skews your perception of reality, which may in turn impact how you feel about yourself in general.
CHALLENGE & CHANGE: “What evidence is there to prove that this may not be the case?”
Asking yourself this question doesn’t discount the evidence that supports the belief, but it puts things into a better perspective by examining all of the facts.
7. Should – When you tell yourself that you should, ought to, or must do something, you automatically place a restriction on your freedom of choice. Some things you really must do – like get up on time to make your train – but much of the time when we use should statements we’re judging ourselves against some arbitrary and undefined criteria.
For example, ‘I should go to the gym more often’, or ‘I ought to be more confident’.
When these judgements don’t match how you really do act or feel, it can feel like disappointment and elevate anxiety levels.
CHALLENGE & CHANGE: “According to whom?” or swap ‘should’ for ‘could’.
When you catch yourself ‘shoulding all over yourself’ (or ‘mustabating’ as Albert Ellis puts it!), stop and ask ‘according to whom?’
If you can come up with a credible answer, such as ‘the train is going to leave at 7am whether I’m on it or not!’, then there might be some validity. But if your answer has anything to do with comparing yourself to what other people are doing or feeling then continue to probe and pick holes in this belief.
WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED?
The quality of your thinking determines the quality of your life. This isn’t about positive thinking, and Pollyanna, head-in-the-sand optimism. It’s about remaining grounded in reality, and increasing the accuracy of the thoughts that you allow yourself to believe.
Changing your mindset starts with becoming more aware of what’s going on inside your head. The ultimate goal is to be able to challenge and change the thoughts as and when they enter your head, what positive psychologist Karen Reivich calls ‘real time resilience’.
As you build this skill you may find that it helps to journal – without judgement -–some of the unruly inner ramblings that take place during the day in the quiet calm of an evening. The more attention you pay to these thoughts in post-mortem, the easier it becomes to catch them in the moment and get to work upgrading them for more limitless thinking.
Remember, it’s never too late to change your mind.
George Anderson is a wellbeing, mindset and performance expert. A speaker, coach and writer, he works with individuals to help them take more action towards thriving in their physical and mental wellbeing.
He has shared his messages with organisations such as Oxford University, Dell, Experian, British Land, Wickes, Travis Perkins and the NHS.
Over the last 20 years George has run successful personal training and boot camp businesses, and produced a number of online wellbeing programs and books for running, weight loss, confidence and wellbeing.