Have you ever:
- Been extremely self-critical against yourself
- Dwelled unhelpfully on past, present and future problems
- Had a gloomy view of your life
- Made predictions of how everything will go badly
- Assumed that everyone is thinking badly of you
I know I’ve done these things, and more. Destructive thoughts like these are a result of thinking traps gone amuck — scripts we run in our heads that undermine our resiliency and destroy our mental strength.
Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte, PhD, reveal these thinking traps in The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles, which they declare to be the key barrier to mental strength.
Our research has demonstrated that the number-one roadblock to resilience is not genetics, not childhood experiences, not a lack of opportunity or wealth. The principal obstacle to tapping into our inner strength lies with our cognitive style, which we’ll refer to in this book as thinking style — ways of looking at the world and interpreting events that every one of us develops from childhood. Reivich, Shatte, The Resilience Factor
Here are seven thinking traps that destroy resilience, adapted from The Resilience Factor and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy1. See if you can hear yourself in any of them.
7 Thinking Traps that Destroy Resilience
1. Jumping to Conclusions
“He must think I’m boring,” “This meeting is going to be a chore,” “They all hate me, I know it.”
These are all examples of the thinking trap of ‘jumping to conclusions.’ Jumping to conclusions can come from either believing you know what others are thinking (mind reading) or fortune-telling (predicting the future).
It’s not that you can’t accurately guess what others are thinking or what might happen, it’s when you leap to an assumption that you know must be true, despite having little to no evidence, that you’re jumping into a thinking trap.
2. It’s Only Good or Only Bad
“Either it’s perfect, or it’s all wrong,” “I shouldn’t have made that mistake, now everything is ruined,” “This house is perfect, we should buy it!”
This thinking trap has been called ‘all or nothing thinking,’ as well as having ‘tunnel vision.’ It happens when you only focus on the good or the bad, without any room for the middle ground. It’s all or nothing, like how the character of Ricky Bobby says in Talladega Nights, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”
All or nothing thinking destroys resilience because swinging to either extreme makes you lose sight of the bigger picture. It prevents you from seeing what’s right in what’s wrong and vice versa, giving you a lopsided view of reality.
3. It’s Way Worse or It’s Way Better
“I forgot to turn off the lights, why can’t I do anything right,” “They smiled at me, we must be getting the contract,” “This is bad, I’m bad, my life is over.”
Blowing things out of proportion (‘catastrophising’) or shrinking things to make them seem less important (‘minimizing’) can both be thinking traps.
This thinking trap can destroy your inner strength when you magnify good things about other people while minimizing your own. It can even work against you if you minimize your mistakes while playing up what you did right, preventing you from learning from your mistakes.
4. It’s All My Fault
“I really wanted it to turn out well, it’s all my fault the day was ruined,” “It’s all my fault, I let everyone down,” “If I’d been better, I could have prevented this.”
‘Personalising’ happens when you believe that everything happens is your fault — hands up if you often feel guilty for everything. While it’s useful to take responsibility for your actions, there are things you just can’t control, like the weather, other people, and a million other factors.
5. It’s All Their Fault!
“They’re such assholes, they ruined this,” “The weather is out to get us,” “It’s not my fault at all.”
‘Externalising’ is the opposite of personalising; instead of blaming yourself for everything, you blame everyone and everything else for what happened. When we’re caught in this thinking trap, we blame others for causing us pain, for our troubles, for holding us back — without recognizing the parts we played.
6. Everything Is Ruined Now
“I got into a car accident once, I’m always going to be a bad driver,” “Dinner was bad, our entire date is over,” “I failed this test, why don’t I ever get anything right.”
‘Overgeneralization’ is a thinking trap when we think one thing means everything. A single incident means an entire event is ruined, or something bad happens once, and we think that it’ll happen again and again.
7. It Feels This Way So It Must Be True
“I’m so disinterested it must mean my career sucks,” “I felt good about that interview, I should be getting the job,” “My face is red-hot after that presentation, they must all think I’m an idiot.”
‘Emotional reasoning’ is the trap of assuming that because we feel a certain way, reality must be the way we feel. Emotions and intuition have their place, but so does reason. Just because we feel something is so doesn’t make it so.
Wait, Aren’t Those Thinking Traps Also Strengths?
Do these thinking traps sound also sound like thinking strengths to you?
After all, don’t you want to be able to accurately predict the future (jumping to conclusions), take responsibility for your actions (personalising), and trust you gut (emotional reasoning)?
If there’s one similarity that runs through all the seven thinking traps, it’s this: Taking things to the extreme, either extremely positively or extremely negative, is an unhelpful way to think.
Extreme viewpoints don’t provide you with an accurate version of reality, which is a combination of positive and negative. Without an accurate outlook, you can’t act realistically, which makes you less effective in the world.
For example, taking responsibility for your actions gives you the power to act, but feeling responsible for what you can’t control only adds unnecessary stress to your life.
The way to counter thinking traps is not to aim for being overly positive thinking, but to aim for balanced thinking — aim to see things as they are, no better, no worse.
How to Counter the 7 Deadly Thinking Traps
So how can you defeat these seven thinking traps?
After all, have you ever been wrong before? If you have, then there’s a chance that whatever crazy thought running through your head, ruining your day, might be wrong.
The next time you find yourself going through any of these thinking traps, ask:
- Could I be wrong about this?
- What’s another way I can think about this?
- How can I use this?
The key is to loosen the script and break out of the thinking trap, so you can start to see things in a different, more useful light.
What If You Can’t Catch Your Thoughts in Time?
It can be tough to see your thoughts in real time. What if you can’t catch these thoughts before they spiral into strong feelings which then take over the wheel?
I’ve found two tactics to work when dealing with thinking traps.
The first is meditation. Meditation works the ‘awareness muscle,’ helping you to become aware of your thoughts before they snowball into thinking traps.
Here’s how and why to meditate, even if you’re an absolute beginner.
The second is an iOS app, Moodnotes. Developed by clinical psychologists and an award-winning app studio, Moodnotes helps you identify the thinking traps behind your negative moods, and helps you to think healthier thoughts.
Discover more about thinking traps and the science of resilience in The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles, and pair these strategies with how to overcome pessimism.
- There are more than seven cognitive distortions if you want to go down that rabbit hole, but I find some on the list repetitive.