Thinking Traps - A Guide to Identifying and Escaping Them

Written by: Aleksandra Eriksen Isham – PhD
(Psychology)

Last updated date : March 30, 2022

Do you often compare yourself to others? Do you think that you are inadequate every time something bad happens in your life? Or do you tend to expect the worst from others or from the future? These styles of thinking are often referred to as thinking traps or unhelpful thinking styles, and lot of us engage in them. A lot of times, we may not notice that we engage in them. Yet, these ways of thinking can have a large impact on our well-being and how we go about with our daily lives. This article will help you identify some common thinking traps and how to escape them.

Chapter 1:
Judging Instead of Describing

In everyday life, we often evaluate our experiences. We may think that the man who bumped into us on the bus did it on purpose. That our friend has not responded to our text message because they do not care about us. Or that the woman struggling to deal with her child’s meltdown is a bad mother.

These evaluations are often so automatic that we may not even be aware of them, let alone question them. However, if we pause and pay attention to these thoughts, we may realize that they are in fact judgments rather than objective truths. That man on the bus may have bumped into us because he struggles with his balance. Our friend who did not respond to our text may have had a super busy day at work. And the woman struggling to deal with her child’s meltdown might also struggle with depression and is trying to do her very best.

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Chapter 2:
Blaming Yourself for Bad Events and Dismissing Positive Events

When we evaluate events, we often attribute them to either person or circumstance. For example, if we do very badly on an exam, we may either assume that we did not study hard enough, or that the exam was harder than normal. If you tend to attribute failures or bad events to your own shortcomings, you are not alone. However, people who frequently engage in this type of thinking are often being way too hard on themselves. Therefore, if you often blame yourself for bad events, you may be engaging in an unhelpful thinking style that makes you more miserable than necessary.

If you tend to blame failures or bad events on your own shortcomings, there is also a chance that you find it hard to acknowledge your achievements. Say you did very well on an exam. Do you acknowledge the hard work you put in to prepare for the exam? Or do you instead dismiss your efforts by convincing yourself that the exam was easy and that anyone could have done well on it? If you tend to dismiss your efforts when you achieve something, and at the same time blame yourself when you fail something, you are probably under-evaluating your efforts and exaggerating your shortcomings. When these unhelpful ways of thinking are combined, they may result in chronic feelings of not being good enough.

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Chapter 3:
Thinking that Everyone Else is Better off Than Yourself

When we evaluate our success, happiness, or other aspects of life, we often compare ourselves to others. And very often, the people we compare ourselves to, are people we view as better off than ourselves. We may compare ourselves to someone who earns more money than us. A colleague who we view as more successful than us. Or a friend who seems happier than us. These types of comparisons are not all bad. They may motivate us to work harder or make positive life changes. However, if we constantly compare ourselves to people who we think are better off than us, we may also end up feeling constantly dissatisfied, and like our life will never be good enough.

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Chapter 4:
Black and White Thinking Style

Another thought trap that many people engage in is black and white thinking. When people engage in black and white thinking, they are unable to see the “shades of grey” in between the black and white. This means that people, things, or events can only be viewed as either good or bad, right or wrong, success or failure. 

If we go back to the example of completing an exam, a person who engages in black and white thinking may believe that they are only good enough if they get an A on the exam. Anything less is a failure. Another person may believe that the only way to become happy in life is to be accepted by their dream university. If they are not accepted, they will never be truly happy. Of course, these conclusions are not necessarily true. Getting a B on an exam is still a great achievement. And while it may seem like it, being rejected by your dream university may not be the end of the world. However, for someone who engages in black and white thinking, this can be almost impossible to see. 

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Chapter 5:
Should and Must Thinking Style

A final example of common unhelpful thinking styles is thinking that you should or must rather than can or want. Of course, there are some things that you really should do, such as acting with respect and kindness towards other people. However, often our “shoulds” and “musts” put unnecessary pressure on us and lead to feelings such as guilt and inadequacy.

For example, we may feel that we should go for a run three times a week. If we miss out on a run, we feel guilty about it. Or we may feel that we should work more or spend more time with our parents. If we do not have enough time or energy for that, we feel inadequate. And even if we do succeed in sticking to our run schedule or spending more time with our parents, we might not be able to fully enjoy those moments, because there are always more “shoulds” or “musts” waiting to be completed.

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Chapter 6:
How to Escape Thinking Traps

The first step to escape thinking traps is to identify them. This may make it easier to realize when you are engaging in unhelpful thinking styles. Once you become more aware of your thinking traps, try to challenge them. Explore whether there may be other ways of thinking about yourself and the world, and be open to alternative explanations. For example, is it really true that you can never be happy unless you study at a particular university? That you failed your exam because you are stupid? Or that your friend did not reply you because they do not care about you? And what about all those “shoulds” and “musts”, is it possible to change some of them to “cans” or “wants”? By challenging your unhelpful thinking styles you may be able develop new and more helpful ways of viewing yourself and the world around you. Of course, this requires some effort and may not be easy. Luckily, there are available tools and techniques that can help you on the way. At Epsychonline we have a series of self-help courses, including one on “Overcoming Perfectionism“. You can visit our Courses page to find a course that suits you. You may also want to read up a bit more on “Should Statements: How They Affect the Way You Think” to get a better understanding of “Personalisation & Internalising Behaviour – Thinking Trap Guide”.