Thinking Traps: 12 Cognitive Distortions That are Hijacking Your Brain
Cognitive distortions are the ways that our mind convinces us of one thing when in reality it’s completely untrue. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking patterns — telling ourselves things that sound rational and truthful in the moment, but in reality only serve to trigger feelings of negativity and pessimism. These thoughts are irrational or just plain wrong. In fact, it’s not the event itself that causes feelings of negativity; it’s your response to the event – your mindset.
Yet don’t you worry, you can overcome these thinking traps by learning to notice and identify when you’re using a cognitive distortion, acknowledging the negative thinking pattern, and refuting it. As you continue to dispute this negative thinking over and over again, it will slowly diminish overtime and be automatically replaced by more rational, balanced thinking. Techniques like hypnosis can help you change these thinking patterns more quickly by guiding you into a suggestible state where these automatic thinking patterns become more malleable and open to change. To help you identify these thinking traps when they occur I’ve listed the most common ones below:
I’m definitely guilty of this one; this is a trap that happens when we believe that we know what others are thinking and assume that they are thinking the worst of us. The problem is that no-one can read minds and we can never really know what others are thinking! Worst still, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy where we act as if they dislike us which makes them understandably pull away which is further evidence for the negative belief (“I knew they hated me”).
Examples: “They are all making fun of me behind my back”. “She’s bored of hanging out with me”.
Similar to mind-reading, fortune-telling occurs when we predict that things will turn out bad. When we believe the future is already set in stone and negative, we often act like it is which can be a self-fulfilling prophecy once again.
Example: “I just know I’m going to fail my exam”
This trap occurs when we only look at situations in terms of one extreme or the other. A situation is either good or bad, success or failure – there is no middle ground. And if you fall short of your expectations, you view yourself as a total failure. But, in reality, most situations are somewhere in the middle – missing the gym once doesn’t mean you have failed your exercise goals completely. You had a small setback and all you need to do is go back tomorrow.
Example: “I planned to eat only healthy foods but I ate a piece of chocolate. Now my diet is ruined forever!”
Similar to black and white thinking, filtering involves only paying attention to the negative aspects of a situation while ignoring all the positive. When you only focus on the negatives, you end up viewing the entire situation as negative and so, in your mind, everything is negative. This stops us from looking at all the aspects of a situation and drawing a more balanced conclusion.
Example: “Everyone hated my presentation because Jack looked bored even though a lot of other people looked engaged and gave me compliments”
This trap involves imagining that the worst possible thing is about to happen, and predicting that you won’t be able to cope with it when in reality the worst-case scenario usually never happens and even if it did you’d probably be able to cope. This cognitive distortion is also known as magnifying, and can also emerge as its opposite, minimizing. Magnifying occurs when you exaggerate the importance of insignificant events or the possible outcomes. Minimizing occurs when you incorrectly shrink the importance of significant events or positive qualities until they seem small and insignificant.
Example: “I’m going to fail this test and be kicked out of school and disowned by my parents” or “Although I’m good at school I’m nowhere near as good as everyone else’
Over-generalization is when you conclude that a single negative event is actually part of a series of unending negative events. If something bad happens, you believe it’s likely to happen again and again.
Example: If you have one bad date and then conclude you’re a terrible dater who won’t ever find love.
An extreme form of generalization, labeling occurs when you attach a negative label about yourself or someone else rather than acknowledge it was just a single event or mistake. Everyone makes mistakes and we’re way too complex to be described by one word.
Example: “I’m a failure” instead of “I failed that time”
Personalization is a distortion where you believe that everything others do or say is some kind of direct, personal reaction to something you’ve said or done. You end up taking everything personally when in reality it’s nothing to do with you. Additionally, you might also see yourself as the cause of some negative external event that happened even though you were definitely not responsible.
Example: “My boyfriend is upset, I must have done something wrong” when in reality he is just tired from work.
This is when you have ironclad rules for how you, or others, should and shouldn’t behave. When our expectations fall short, we feel disappointed, frustrated, anxious, even angry with ourselves. You might think that these shoulds and shouldn’ts ‘rules’ are helping to motivate you but in reality they end up preventing you from taking meaningful steps towards improving your life, similar to black and white thinking earlier.
Example: “I shouldn’t eat any junk food again”
One of the most common thinking traps we fall into is emotional reasoning: taking our emotions as evidence for the truth. When you use emotional reasoning, whatever you’re feeling at the time is believed to be true automatically and unconditionally, regardless of the evidence. This can be really harmful because it creates a loop: you think something negative, it makes you feel bad, so you think something negative, which makes you feel even worse – it’s dangerous, circular logic.
Example: If I feel stupid and boring, then I must be stupid and boring.
This thinking trap involves two similar beliefs about being in complete control of pretty much everything in your life. The first type is called external control fallacy, where we see ourselves as victims of fate with no direct control over our lives. The second type of control fallacy, internal control, occurs when we assume we are completely responsible for the pain and happiness of everyone around us.
Example: “I can’t help that I was late, I slept through my alarm” or “Why are you unhappy? Is it something I did?”
Fallacy of Fairness
If you suffer from the fallacy of fairness, you often feel resentful because you think that you know what is fair, and no one is abiding by it. It may sound obvious to say, but “life isn’t always fair.” People who go through life assessing whether something is ‘fair’ or not will often end up feeling resentful, angry, and unhappy because of it. Because life isn’t fair — things will not always work out in a person’s favor, even when they should and it’s something we all need to deal with.
Example: “Sarah got a promotion and I didn’t, that’s not fair!”
Always being right
When someone falls into this trap, they tend to put other people on trial to prove that their own opinions and actions are the absolute correct ones. If you use this distortion, being wrong is unthinkable and you’ll go to any length to prove your right. Often being right can be more important than the feelings of other people, even close family and friends. If an oncoming car is in the wrong lane and about to hit you, do you stick to your guns and stay in your lane because you’re right and they’re wrong?
Example: “I’m right and you’re wrong Sandra just admit it!”
A Word from Mindset Health
If you’re like us and some of these thinking traps seem awfully familiar then don't worry, that's a good thing. The best way to combat these cognitive distortions is just to become aware of when you’re using one and to take a step back and see if you could do or say something different and better. Cognitive distortions are just one way we shape our mindset and in the coming weeks we’ll be exploring the other ways we can improve our mindset and our lives. If you’re interested in a more direct way to change your mindset, you should try Mindset – an app which uses hypnotherapy to help you retrain these automatic thoughts.