Mind Traps

Cognitive Distortions in Thinking

Adapted from: A. Beck et al. (1979, p. 261); J. Beck (1995, p. 119); Ubell (1984)
 

 

Many feelings such as sadness, anxiety and anger are caused and kept alive by the conclusions that we make. Sometimes we make wrong conclusions over and over because we get stuck in mind traps that rob us of our ability to be logical. Here are some of the thinking traps we can fall into.

 

All-Or-Nothing Thinking

Trap: You see things only in extremes. You don’t see any middle ground. You conclude something or someone is an extreme such as good or bad, wonderful or horrible.

Example: “If I’m not a total success then I’m a horrible failure.”

Escape: Recognize that things often exist in degrees.  Rate the current situation on a scale of 1 to 10.

 

Catastrophizing

Trap: You think the very worst of a situation even when there are other possibilities. You overreact.

Example: “My heart is beating fast! I’m having a heart attack!”

Escape: Look at the real probabilities. Focus on evidence that the worst did not happen, that things might not be as bad as they seem.

 

Arbitrary Inference & Temporal Causality

Trap: Drawing a conclusion without having evidence to support it. Believing that if two things happen around the same time then one causes the other.

Example: “Nobody has phoned me in the past month. That means nobody cares.”

Escape: Recognize the faulty logic. List other things that could have been the cause.

 

Overgeneralization

Trap: Believing that if something is true in one case, it's always true. Making a sweeping conclusion about things such as your ability, performance, or worth on the basis of a single incident.

Example: “I made a mistake on that project. I’m such a failure.”

Escape: Look at the evidence or proof. Is there evidence that it is not true?

 

Mind Reading

Trap: You jump to a conclusion on the basis of what you assume someone else is thinking.

Example: “He’s thinking that I’m an idiot.”

Escape: Realize that the person may rather than must be thinking that way. Consider other interpretations of the situation. Ask the person.

 

Filtering or Selective Abstraction

Trap: Paying too much attention to one or more negative details instead of seeing the whole picture. Only looking for negatives such as failures, mistakes, weaknesses, dangers, etc.

Example: “Nobody has ever been nice to me.”

Escape: Take time to remember your successes and recognize your abilities. Keeping a log or diary of these may help. Ask yourself if you are ignoring some aspects of the situation.


Self-References

Trap: You are convinced you are the centre of

everyone’s attention. They are especially looking at your mistakes.

Example: “That person just smiled. That means she is laughing at me.”

Escape: Look for evidence that it is and is not true.  Remind yourself you are not the centre of the universe.


Emotional Reasoning

Trap: You are sure something is true just because you feel it so strongly, even if there is evidence that it is not true. You feel it, therefore it must be true.

Example: “I felt hurt when he said that. That means he wanted to hurt me.” “Because I feel afraid there must be danger.” “Because I feel sad, everything is hopeless.”

Escape: Acknowledge your feelings but ask yourself what thoughts are causing them. Consider evidence that it is and is not true.

 

Excessive Responsibility

Trap: Feeling guilty and responsible for misfortunes that are beyond your control. Relating outside events to yourself when there is no basis for such a connection.

Example: “If he gets angry it’ll be all my fault.”

Escape: Consider other possible causes. Remind yourself that just because you could have prevented something, this doesn’t always mean it was your fault.

 

Labeling

 Trap: You place yourself or someone else in a negative category by applying a permanent or rigid label. This is not based on looking at all the data.

 Example: I’m a loser. He’s a jerk. She’s an idiot.

 Escape: Remind yourself that a person’s actions in one moment don’t define that whole person. Open your mind to seeing both the positive and negative sides of yourself or the other person. Tell yourself that even though you believe you have the person (or you) all figured out, there are people who don’t see that person in the same way.

 

Poisoning the Positive

 Trap: Something positive happens and you find a way to dismiss it or turn it into a negative.

 Example: You do something well and you convince yourself that it doesn’t count. Your friend givesyou a compliment and you tell yourself that she’s just after something or is trying to manipulate you.

 Escape: Give yourself permission to accept the positive this time. Experiment for one day by finding a positive side to every negative thing that happens.

 

Magnification or Minimization

 Trap: You exaggerate or downplay the significance of an event rather than seeing it realistically.

 Example: I absolutely have to get this project finished today or my career is over. Even though it went well this time it’s not good enough.

 Escape: Put it in perspective. Ask yourself how you’ll look back on this in 1 or 5 years from now.

 

Fortune Telling

 Trap: You expect that a certain future event will be negative and you act as if it’s already true even though there is no evidence to support it.

 Example: Before starting a new activity you think that it will be too hard so you don’t even try it.

 Escape: Tell yourself that your negative expectation is just one possibility and then think of other possible outcomes. Remind yourself of a time in your life when things turned out better than you expected. Keep a record of your forecasts and see how accurate you are.

 

I Should

 Trap: You motivate and punish yourself by focusing on how you think you should be rather than how you actually are. Then you feel guilty.

 Example: I should be able to do this without having problems concentrating and that means I’ll never get well or I’m useless.

 Escape: Tell yourself you’d like it if you could live up to all your shoulds but that for now you can survive without it.

 

They Should

Trap: You continually impose your standards or expectations on others by thinking about how they should act. Then you feel angry.

 Example: They should know how I feel and help me more.

 Escape: Let go. Tell yourself you’d like them to be different but that you can choose to accept reality.

 

Unfair Comparisons

Trap: You keep comparing yourself to exceptional or unusually successful people. You set unfair  standards for yourself.

 Example: I have less money than Bill Gates so I’m a failure. I’m not as attractive as (your favorite movie star) so I’m ugly. I’m not as popular as (the most popular person you know) so I’m not likable.

 Escape: Start comparing yourself to regular people.  Have somebody help you set realistic standards for yourself. How are you doing compared to other people with the same problems and life circumstances?

 

Thoughts as Things

 Trap: You have a thought about something and start to believe that it must be true just because it came into your mind.

 Example: I can’t do anything right. I think my friend doesn’t like me.

 Escape: Tell yourself that it is just a thought, not reality. Remind yourself that there are other ways of looking at the same thing or situation and that you don’t want to be so closed minded.

 

 
Cognitive distortions were originally described by Dr. A. Beck in 1963.

Colleen Sullivan, 2006

 

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