My brain is the worst! My brain can feel like a horrible friend who won't stop criticizing all day: "Why did you say that? What were you thinking in that meeting? You better stop procrastinating!" The comments go on and on. Comedian Mark Norman puts it best "thoughts are not good! This whole time, I thought I liked music. It turns out I hate my brain."
In this article, we are going to discuss five common thinking traps. These thinking traps were coined by Dr. David Burns, who wrote about them in The Feeling Good Handbook. Falling into these thinking traps can weaken our mental resilience in the face of challenge and adversity. It is vital to identify them as they occur and develop a strategy to replace this thinking. The five thinking traps are:
1) All or nothing thinking
2) Mental filtering
3) Exaggerated thinking
5) Personalization or center of the universe thinking.
Let's go into more detail.
1. All or nothing thinking. All or nothing thinking is the mindset that perfection is the only thing that defines success. For example, if you received 99% on a test, you are a failure because it was not 100%. If perfection is the only thing that defines success, then you're going to feel like a failure. This feeling is devastating! Here is a solution to consider: labeling the thinking trap. As soon as you feel like a failure, pause, and say out loud "all or nothing thinking." Labeling the thinking trap enables you to pull yourself outside of yourself and see the situation objectively. This may help to snap out of destructive thinking and improve resilience.
2. Mental filtering. Mental filtering is when you dwell on a single negative factor. For example, you have a job interview where you make one mistake. Afterward, you can only focus on the one mistake, rather than any of the positives from the discussion. Mental filtering is like watching a movie with no sound; it's missing a massive part of the movie experience. The solution is to pause and say, "I'm doing it again, watching a movie with no sound." Another solution is to call a friend who can help pull you out of this negative death spiral. A great friend will call you out by saying you're obsessing and focusing only on the negative!
3. Exaggerated thinking. Exaggerated thinking is if your brain takes something that happens one or two times, and then you exaggerate by saying it happens all the time. We love to use this type of thinking in our relationships. For example, if I don't see my partner put the dishes away once or twice, my brain believes she never puts dishes away. My partner becomes a villain.
Next time we get into a disagreement, what is going to come up? Yeah, honey! Well, it bothers me that you NEVER put the dishes away! In the work context, if your boss doesn't provide you with positive feedback once or twice, then it's easy to think they never have anything positive to say. Here is a solution to consider for exaggerated thinking. After you say "always" or "never," force yourself to prove yourself wrong by reflecting on a time your partner cleaned up. In the work context, find a past email where your boss provided positive feedback.
4. Shoud'ing on yourself. We do this to perfection. For example, right after a client meeting, you think of all the things you should have said. After your annual review, you reflect on all things you should have done over the year. If your kids aren't as happy or successful as you hoped, you think about all the things you should have done as a parent. Should'ing is a recipe for feeling terrible. The solution here is to treat the word should like a curse word. Avoid saying the word should and consider replacing it with an alternative phrase, such as "it would have been better." If you insist on using the word "should," I recommend using it as a form of learning rather than to feel terrible about yourself.
5. Personalization or center of the universe thinking. Personalization is where your brain thinks something only could have happened because of YOU. For example, your friend or colleague isn't calling, responding to your text, or emailing you back because of you. It couldn't possibly be because they are busy, stressed, frustrated, or dealing with their problems, it must be YOU. Your boss is not talking to you because of something you did and nothing else. It's a lot of responsibility to be the center of the universe. The solution here is to write down why someone else isn't responding that has nothing to do with you. If you only write reasons that have to do with you, then you fall into the trap of being the center of the universe. Ask what else could be going on in their world that has nothing to do with me.
When we fall into thinking traps, it decreases our resilience and ability to handle setbacks. Why? Because we feel terrible, we exaggerate, and we cut off our ability to develop solutions. Rewiring your brain takes work, but if you do, you can increase your ability to bounce back from rejection, setbacks, frustrations, or difficulties. With a little effort, you will be able to change the impact of these traps.