In therapy, we often talk about “thinking traps.” Also called cognitive distortions, these negative thought patterns keep us from seeing things as they really are. The habit of twisting our thoughts is hard to overcome; it can force us to ignore the bigger picture, jump to conclusions, or make a series of bad decisions. Today, we’ll outline a list of thinking traps for people in recovery to avoid in the new year.
Many of us struggle to look at an entire situation objectively. If you’re depressed, for example, you may focus only on the negative aspects of your day. By ignoring the positives and acting as if only the bad parts exist, you are filtering.
How to Quit Filtering: If you’re able, reach out to a loved one or counselor for a full view of your situation. This “reality check” will help you to see the previously hidden positives. Then, record those insights in a journal for continued reflection.
Do you ever see things in black and white, with no shades of gray in between? This cognitive distortion forces you to view the world in extremes and doesn’t leave room for much-needed nuance. As far as thinking traps go, this is among the most concerning; all-or-nothing thinking can reduce your self-efficacy and self-esteem.
How to Overcome All-or-Nothing Thinking: Practice self-compassion and focus on what you did accomplish in instances of black and white thinking. By being kind to yourself and acknowledging your successes, you can start to find some gray area in your view of the world.
Do you ever assume that you know what your friends, family, or coworkers think of you… and it isn’t good? If you make these negative assumptions about others, you may be mind reading. This cognitive distortion makes you behave as if others are thinking negatively about you, when in reality, you have no evidence to back this up.
How to Stop Mind Reading: “Check the facts,” a technique from dialectical behavioral therapy, can be very helpful here. With this approach, you should pause and take inventory of the things you know for sure – what your friend has said to you, what they have done, and how your interactions have gone recently. Usually, checking the facts will dispel even the most insidious of thinking traps.
Disqualifying the Positive
Do you ever discount the positive things that have happened? When a friend tries to remind you of a good deed you did, do you brush it off and say that it “doesn’t count” or “doesn’t matter”? If so, you may be disqualifying the positive. This reduces your motivation to make a change.
How to Embrace the Positive: When you need to stop disqualifying the positive, the three C’s of cognitive restructuring are helpful. First, categorize: identify the self-defeating thought by writing everything out in a journal. Then, challenge it. Make a list of all the good things that “don’t count” and reframe your perception of them; how would someone else view your thought? Is it true? Finally, change it by choosing an optimistic one. Believe in your ability to enact positive change.
People who get caught up in emotional reasoning convince themselves that feelings are evidence of truth. For example, if you find yourself to be awkward, you may assume that others perceive you as awkward; if you feel lonely, you may believe that you don’t have any friends.
How to Rise Above Emotional Reasoning: In recovery, we learn a very important lesson – feelings aren’t facts. Lean on this tenet and the literature supporting it when you feel swept up in your emotions.
This tendency is reflexive; when we personalize a situation, we attribute problems to ourselves and our own actions. This way of thinking is especially concerning for people in early recovery, who should focus on taking accountability for the things they can control, not the things they can’t.
How to Stop Taking Things Personally: Before jumping to conclusions, practice being mindful of this tendency towards self-blame. When things don’t go according to plan, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, or that it’s your fault. Sometimes in life, our plans simply don’t work out. If you find yourself feeling upset about these events, speak to a loved one for reassurance.
Think about a car accident, job loss, or breakup. A single negative event may be distressing, but we need to recognize it as a one-time problem. People who over-generalize assume that one instance is an indicator of a larger pattern. If they don’t get a promotion at work, they may jump to the conclusion that nothing “ever” goes their way, or that they “always” mess things up. These broad phrases are common among over-generalizers.
How to Control Your Generalization: Focus on the big picture for a moment and try to imagine how someone else would see it. How important is this one event, really? Which good things have happened for you? How do these contradict your worldview? Spend some time journaling about your experiences to highlight where your thinking traps are deceiving you.
General Tips for Avoiding Thinking Traps
The best guidance we can provide for avoiding thinking traps is to work on your mindfulness. When you are able to identify harmful thought patterns, it is easier to recognize them early, stop the spiral, and replace those tendencies with positive thoughts.
Additionally, keeping a journal can help you to recognize cognitive distortions more quickly. A typical writing prompt for this exercise would be…
- What happened? (What was the event?)
- What emotion did I experience?
- What did I say to myself?
- How did I react?
- Which thinking trap did I fall into?
Finally, remember your escape routes. The techniques we outlined beneath each cognitive distortion are all tools in your toolbox. In addition to these, we encourage you to try the following.
Slow down. If you’re anxious or jumping to conclusions, take a moment to think about what evidence you have to support your assumptions. Are you sure that you’re correct, or are you guessing?
Change your perspective. Focus on the big picture and don’t be afraid to look outward. Did anyone (or anything) else contribute to the situation? How much of the problem is due to you and your actions? How much was caused by others, the environment, or random chance?
Speak up. If you’re worried about an interaction, consider whether you have conveyed all the information to the other person. Do they know everything they need to, or are you expecting them to figure out your needs? Be sure to clarify your thoughts and feelings with others.
Seek professional help. Thinking traps are difficult to overcome; changing the way we think may be challenging, but it is possible. Contact a center like Lakeside-Milam for cognitive-behavioral therapy and other avenues of support in your recovery.