We all know when we are not feeling good, especially when these feelings are very acute or seem to be getting worse over time. Two common types of “bad” feelings can be generalized as anxiety and depression.
While the feeling of anxiety or depression might be hard to miss, the thoughts that are connected to them are often harder to identify. Identifying thoughts connected to our feelings is incredibly important as often these thoughts are biased in a negative way and may be in large part responsible for our feelings of depression or anxiety.
In counselling we can work backwards from the feeling to discover some of the thoughts connected to it. For example, when you get a work assignment from your manager, you may feel anxious. If we inquire into the thoughts or images that come up along with the anxious feeling, we may discover thoughts like, “here’s another assignment I won’t be able to do well enough” or “if I fail again, I might be fired” or there is an image in your mind of your bosses’ frowning face as he/she combs through your work for flaws.
Once these thoughts / images are identified it’s easy to see how these thoughts contribute to negative feelings.
The work from there is to question the truth of these thoughts and find ways to “change the peg” or replace negative thoughts with more balanced or accurate ones.
There are some common problematic thought patterns that can help us identify when we are falling into a thinking trap, rather than objectively viewing our situation. These are sometimes called thinking traps or cognitive distortions. Here are 8 common thinking traps:
Thinking trap #1 - All or nothing thinking (perfectionism falls in this category)
This trap involves an extreme judgement without a middle ground - it’s either perfect or a complete failure
Thinking trap #2 - Overgeneralization
This trap involves taking a negative result and generalizing across another area of life, i.e. everything in my life is a mess
Thinking trap #3 - Selective attention
With selective attention, one focuses exclusively on negative details, even when there are positives as well.
Thinking trap #4 - Disqualifying the positives
Positive evidence of self, such as compliments, are not validated and therefore negative views of self are maintained, i.e. thinking that a friend who says you did something well is just saying it to be nice
Thinking trap #5 - Jumping to conclusions
This trap involves assuming a negative interpretation without having facts to support it; this could show up as mind reading – making an assumption or jumping to the conclusion that someone is reacting negatively to you; fortune telling – assuming things will turn out badly and regarding the negative prediction as a fact.
Thinking trap #6 - Personalization
This thinking trap involves seeing oneself as the cause of a negative external event when there is no evidence to support it, or seeing oneself as a primary cause of an event when one’s role might be minimal or partial.
Thinking trap #7 - Should statements
"Should" or "must" statements indicate an expectation of oneself that is often not in line with reality. These statements imply a feelings of guilt, inadequacy or self-punishment when these expectations are not met.
Thinking trap #8 - Catastrophizing
Catastrophizing involves believing it would be catastrophic if a particular event happened or didn’t happen when the results would realistically be far less dramatic.
The benefits of identifying thinking traps
It can be helpful to notice which thinking traps you tend to fall into and then to identify them either when they are occurring or afterwards.
Once identified and made conscious, thinking traps cease to be “traps”. They may retain some power over you for a period of time as habits, but they will gradually lose influence over your feelings and behavior. This is the beginning of significant and lasting personal growth and change.