• Cameron M. Clark

Thinking Traps

When you're cooking, sometimes things go wrong - and usually in some fairly predictable ways. You may have overcooked or undercooked your entree. Or maybe you added way too much salt to your side dish - or maybe you didn't add enough salt. Or, maybe you mixed some ingredients together that really had no business being mixed together in the first place. You might think of these as 'cooking traps' or, the most general types of mistakes that you want to avoid each and every time you put on that chef's hat.


Well it turns out that what's true of cooking is also true of our thinking, at least in one important way. When our thinking goes wrong, just like when our cooking goes wrong, decades of psychological research support the idea that it does so in some fairly predictable ways - all too often leading to the emotional equivalent of overcooked, undersalted, or inappropriately paired food.


Here is the definitive list of 10 forms of twisted thinking or 'thinking traps' that often go unnoticed and lead to needlessly negative mood, regret about the past, and/or worry about the future. In no particular order:


1) All or nothing thinking: seeing things as black or white, either as perfect or total failure when the truth is usually something less extreme. Example: you consider yourself either perfect because you were able to stick to your diet today, or you're a complete failure because you had that bowl of ice cream you told yourself you wouldn't.


2) Overgeneralization: generalizing one negative situation to a broader pattern of negative things - often via use of terms like "always" and "never". Example: you can't find a parking spot at the grocery store and think "Why does this always happen to me!?"


3) Mental filter: dwelling on one negative thing to the exclusion of all other (potentially positive) things. Example: you get a lot of compliments on your new haircut, and one negative one. You can't stop thinking about the negative one, and completely forget anyone ever said anything positive!


4) Discounting the positive: refusing to accept positive experiences by convincing yourself that they "don't count". Example: You help a friend friend figure out a problem they are having with their phone or computer, but you think it 'doesn't count' because anyone could have figured that out for them.


5) Jumping to conclusions: interpreting things negatively in the absence of good evidence for that negative interpretation. Jumping to conclusions comes in two flavours: 1) Mind reading: concluding what someone is thinking without any evidence; and 2) Fortune telling: concluding that things will turn out badly before you know if they will. Example of mind reading: forgetting a word in conversation, and believing that your conversational partner thinks you are stupid. Example of fortune telling: believing that your conversational partner will want to converse with you less because of your apparent ineptitude.


6) Magnification: exaggerating the importance of your problems and shortcomings, and/or minimizing the importance of your more desirable qualities. Example: dwelling on the fact that you missed your daily walk today, when it's actually quite an achievement that you've gone for your walk every other day this week.


7) Emotional reasoning: assuming that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the actual truth of a situation. Example: Exaggerating the threat of cognitive decline and/or dementia because you are fearful of it.


8) Should statements: convincing yourself that you 'should' or 'shouldn't' have done something, 'should' or 'shouldn't' be doing something now, or 'should' or 'shouldn't' do something in the future - often leading to guilt and frustration. Hilariously, sometimes often also referred to as "musterbation" or "a shoulddy lifestyle". Example: feeling guilty about only getting 6 hours of sleep per night when you know you should be getting more.


9) Labelling: attaching a negative label to your whole self rather than to a specific situation. Example: labelling yourself as dumb or stupid for not being able to remember a person's name one minute after they introduce themselves to you.


10) Personalization and blame: holding yourself (personalization) or another person (blame) responsible for an event that is not completely within your/their control - often leading to feelings of inadequacy or anger. Example: believing yourself to be a terrible friend for not being able to host a good friend's birthday party due to COVID-19 social restrictions.


Do any of these sound familiar? I'll bet they do. Unfortunately you can't directly should yourself out of using them, but noticing when they arise is solving half the problem. Again - notice it, sit with it, put it in perspective.


This week's sharp thinking question is:

"What's one thing you constantly think is within your control, but actually isn't?"


References / further reading:



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