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Psychology of Mind Traps- Thinking About your Thinking

There are common mind traps that negatively impact your mood

Psych Central- Psychology of Mind Traps- Psychology near me
Psych Central- Psychology of Mind Traps

I am very passionate about this topic as I started to realise the importance and essence of your mind - how our thinking patterns and some of our thoughts can really put us so down in the dumps. You can be your own worst enemy or your own best friend, and THAT is the power of your mind. It’s amazing how perspective can change the same situation drastically.

Just to set the stage – have you ever watched a movie that really made you feel something? Maybe you’ve seen a scene of surfers with their legs under water and for a moment the camera also went under water showing the big blue sea…and you just got a feeling that a shark might show up at any time, OR anger when the bad guy gets away, OR joy when everything turns out okay. It seems obvious that movies can make us feel something right? But why? I mean we are not actually in the ocean, and the victory isn’t really ours. The answer is as simple as this – it’s about what we THINK about being in the ocean and the possibility of a shark showing up, that causes the fear. In short, this shows you how your thoughts have power to control your emotions.

Have you ever wondered why two people in the exact same situation react differently? It is because each person has their own way of THINKING about the situation.

Person A Situation: Social gathering Thoughts: “I cannot wait, I cannot wait for a good catch up, I am going to wear my new jean and something nice with it” Emotions: excited Person B Situation: Social gathering Thoughts: “What if I humiliate myself, or stutter, they will think I’m dumb, or what if I don’t know what to say, they’ll think I am boring” Emotions: extremely anxious

Now you can start to see the links between their thoughts and feelings.

So for me, this is where the essence lies, to start thinking about your thinking - to become aware of your thoughts. To not believe everything you think, because not all thoughts are completely true. So what do I mean by this, some thoughts may be facts while others could be opinions or assumptions. You know what they say about assuming something…

The question might be, okay Lize so you say not all of my thoughts are true, but why am I thinking this…?

Firstly, I want to explain what automatic thoughts are. Most of the time, thoughts are overlooked because they happen outside of our awareness. When you have the same thoughts over and over, your brain begins to tune them out. Automatic thoughts are like a sound you can hear, but don’t usually notice, such as the hum sound of an air cone. To see these thoughts in action, I want you to think of something you do frequently. Over time it becomes like second nature, you do it in auto pilot. For example, in a new city you might need to use your GPS to find your way, but later on you are able not to think about each turn, you just do it. And this is the same with our thoughts.

Secondly, we have to look at the rationality of our thoughts, because with assumptions or opinions, not all thoughts are rational. I like to use the terms helpful or unhelpful thoughts. So this is a second trick the brain uses, to make sense of the world, and this trick is called = guessing. For example, you text your friend, but he/she hasn’t responded, and your brain will start to guess why…your brain could guess something mundane like “They are probably busy at work” or maybe guess something more extreme like “Maybe he/she is angry at me”. Sometimes these guesses are accurate, but sometimes they are not. Let’s say your guess was accurate - then you might need to problem-solve or accept the situation, for example you will have to accept that your friend is busy and they will respond to your text as soon as they have available time, or if you have evidence that your friend is angry at you, you might need to start thinking about solutions for that situation.

BUT, what do you do when a guess is not accurate. When guesses lack evidence, I like to refer to them as unhelpful thoughts. Overtime, this unhelpful thinking can become automatic. And then you have an automatic unhelpful thought in autopilot 

This means that over time your thoughts or beliefs that are not true can shape how you feel and behave, without you knowing.

Let’s talk about MIND TRAPS:

I want to share a quote that takes me exactly to the understanding of mind traps. So Albert Einstein said: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”. And I want to add on this quote, because sometimes the problem is not the problem, it might be your solution to the problem that is the problem. Sometimes you need a hammer instead of a spanner, to solve this problem.

There are common mind traps that have a negative impact on your mood:

1. All or nothing thinking

2. Catastrophising

3. Jumping to conclusions – mind reading

4. Disqualifying the positives

1. All-or-nothing thinking – also called the black or white thinking.

  • Example: “I only achieved 70%, I am such a failure” or “I’m always wrong”

  • The consequence of this mind trap is that your thinking is very rigid, it’s either all or nothing. So this mind trap, traps you in being either this or that, with no in-between.

  • To counteract this mind trap – you need to find the shades of grey. Ask yourself, “Am I being extreme/rigid now? Is there an in-between where things are not perfect but also not a disaster?

  • Appreciate the grey areas. With the previous examples it can sound like this:

    • “70% is good enough, I did not fail my test/assignment, and I did above average, which is already a good achievement” (it’s not perfect but it’s also not a disaster)

    • “There’s a lot of other things what I do right.” (I mean are you really ALWAYS wrong)

2. Catastrophising – Blowing things out of proportion or thinking about all the possible what ifs and worst case scenarios.

  • Example: “If my partner leaves me, I will never find anyone else, and I will never be happy again and I will probably die alone” or “I am going to fail this exam and be expelled from University, this is the end of my career or even being successful one day”

  • The consequence of this mind trap is that it leads to more anxiety. You catastrophize the consequences and believe that it WILL happen, it’s just a matter of time.

  • To counteract this mind trap – you need to put it in perspective. Ask yourself: “What are the possible outcomes - look at what will be the best outcome, the worst outcome and then the most likely outcome?”

    • With the previous examples it can sound like this:

      • “How likely is it that if this relationship is not going to work out, that I will really die alone? This is probably my worst case scenario thinking, and my best outcome will be that I will be happily married one day, and most likely we will sort out this conflict and be happy again.”

      • “How likely is it that if I am going to fail this one exam that I will be expelled from university?”

3. Jumping to conclusions – There are two key types of jumping to conclusions: the one is mind reading and the other one is fortune telling. Let’s talk about mind reading today.

  • Mind reading is when you imagine you know what the other person is thinking

  • For example: “They think I am stupid”

  • The consequence of this mind trap is that it leads you to assumptions. Again, you know what they say about assuming…This can really have an impact on relationships and/or your performance, because you assume what the other person is thinking about you

  • To counteract this mind trap – don’t guess. Ask yourself “How do I really know this? What are some alternative explanations for this?”

  • With the previous example it can sound like this:

    • “I can’t read minds, who knows what they really think”

4. Disqualifying the positives – Discounting the good things that has happened or that you have done

  • Example: “I passed the exam because it was easy”

  • The consequence of this mind trap is that you do not give the credit that you actually deserve. This can put you in a complete state of never feeling good enough, feeling hopeless or worthless.

  • To counteract this mind trap – acknowledge the good. Ask yourself “Am I downplaying or ignoring some evidence? What are the good things in this situation?”

  • With the previous example it can sound like this:

    • “I passed the exam because I studied hard”

Other mind traps:

- Mental filter/negative filter = you only pay attention to certain types of evidence

- Emotional reasoning = assuming that because we feel a certain way, we think it must be true

- Should/must = using critical words like should/must can make us feel guilty, or like we have already failed.

- Labelling = assigning labels to ourselves or other people, example, “I am useless.”

- Personalisation = blame ourselves or take responsibility for things that wasn’t completely your fault.

I think it is important to become aware of these mind traps, because sometimes we can put ourselves in a dungeon for no particular reason. I do not know about you, but I don’t want to feel this way for no actual reason. I don’t want to feel this intense down feeling because I was guessing with no evidence, and I believed something that is not true…

So, what is the process of trying to get a grip on automatic negative/unhelpful thoughts that stand in your way: It is called the check, challenge and change process.

CHECK your thoughts. Identify your thoughts to become cognitively aware of what you are telling yourself. How do you this practically?

Ask yourself: What did I feel? (emotion). Describe the event that triggered the strong response in you (situation). Imagine someone putting a microphone in your head, and you write down all the thoughts that went through your mind before, during and after the situation (automatic thoughts). While you identify your thoughts, try to identify possible mind trap(s).

Situation Emotion - Automatic thoughts and mind traps


Emotion - Situation -Automatic thoughts and mind traps

Then you CHALLENGE your thoughts. You evaluate your thoughts, asking yourself what is the factual evidence FOR or AGAINST your thoughts. I usually tell clients to imagine themselves having to represent themselves in a court, to think about factual evidence that this thought of yours is 100% true? Then you ask the same about factual evidence you have that this thought is not a 100% true?

If there is a lot of unhelpful automatic thoughts, try to establish the hot thought. Look at the thought that has the strongest link to your emotion and challenge that thought. Also, if you were able to identify your mind trap, use specific questions to counteract them. This process is called thought restructuring.

The last step is to CHANGE your thought: Asking yourself after the court trial, if your friend was in the exact same situation as you, what advice would you give him/her? Or you could ask yourself, what is the alternative explanation for this? Or Is there another way of looking at the situation? Describe how you feel now.

Situation - Emotion - Automatic thoughts & mind traps - Evidence - Alternative response

To end with:

Your self-talk or your best friend/worst enemy thoughts plays an important role…Saying something like “I am a failure” - has a direct negative feeling towards yourself, rather say something like “I made a mistake, I now know better” or If you struggle with something instead of saying “I am just going to give up, I’ll never be able to do this”  rather say “This is really hard, but I am going to keep trying”

Your words/thoughts really influence the way you feel.

Lastly, the goal would be to see some of the unhelpful thoughts as leaves falling from a tree, noticing that there’s the “I am useless” thought, just passing, acknowledge it with no judgement, and then realise, I am not useless, this is just a difficult task at hand, but I am going to keep trying

“If you always do what you’ve always done

then you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

Jessie Potter


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