Your clever brain can work overtime building worst-case scenarios. Here's how to recognize and avoid common thinking traps so you don't get stuck.
How can we make the perfect balance between positive and negative thoughts?
That was a trick question. The way to a healthy mental experience is not to control our thoughts. If we try to manipulate our thoughts, we’re being dishonest with ourselves. Not only that but we’d also be fighting an exhausting battle, since the mind has a pretty strong will of its own.
The mind likes to worry, criticize, complain, doubt, regret, downplay, and generally bring us back down to earth.
Trying to put all of our inner experiences in rose-colored boxes often either doesn’t work or doesn’t last very long. The truth is, our thoughts are not always positive, and they shouldn’t be. To help us navigate the world and make sound decisions, we need a variety of thoughts, not just positive ones. Right next to the peppy “I can totally do a triathlon!” we also need the sobering “I won’t be able to unless I start training.”
The mind likes to worry, criticize, complain, doubt, regret, downplay, and generally bring us back down to earth. It sometimes even goes too far and keeps us mired in muddy, unhelpful swamps, and in those moments, we could use a positive lift.
Here's a better question to ask yourself: How can I gain better awareness of the tricks my thoughts play, and how do I get out of unhelpful thinking traps for better mental health and more successful living?
In this two-part series, we’ll look at a few of the most common thinking traps we all fall into.
Thinking trap #1: Black-and-white thinking
- "I bombed this presentation because I messed up the order of two important slides."
- "My friends have partners, so they're lovable. I'm single because I'm unlovable."
- "Your parents were perfect because they supported your dreams, but mine ruined my life because they didn’t let me go to art school."
Have you had thoughts like these? You certainly wouldn’t be alone. We're very good at making contrasts and comparisons. From a young age, we’re taught about the concept of being tall by comparing it with being short, and the concept of old by comparing it with young. No wonder we often draw all-or-nothing lines that put our situation in the “awful” box while others seem to be in the “awesome” box.
We're very good at making contrasts and comparisons. No wonder we often draw all-or-nothing lines that put our situation in the 'awful' box while others seem to be in the 'awesome' box.
But is there really no middle ground, no room for mistakes, between a perfect presentation and a “ totally bombed” one? Does the line between married and single perfectly map onto the line between lovable and unlovable? Does such a firm line even exist? And how do these lines make you feel?
How to avoid this thinking trap
The first tip for healthier thinking is to allow natural nuance. The goal isn’t to convince yourself that you like a situation you don’t like. Rather, it’s to acknowledge that there are gray areas and caveats, to-be-fair’s and I-guess-it-depends'.
It sure sucks that your parents didn’t let you go to art school! And there might be other ways in which your parents were supportive—perhaps they taught you how to do things around the house, modeled responsibility, gave you warmth and comfort, paid for your accounting degree, or worked hard to be nice to your significant other. They’ve certainly made mistakes, but there's a whole football field of distance between being perfect parents and ruining your life, isn’t there? Would you rather live in perpetual resentment, or allow yourself mixed feelings of appreciation and disappointment?
Would you rather live in perpetual resentment, or allow yourself mixed feelings of appreciation and disappointment?
Next time your mind tells you a story that seems to only present two forks in the road, slow down and ask if you might be missing some options. The more of those you see, the clearer the picture will be.
Thinking trap #2: Jumping to conclusions
- "She didn’t answer my text, so she must be mad at me."
- "If I'm not absolutely stellar at this interview, they'll write me off for good."
- "The doctor is frowning at my chart, so there must be something terribly wrong with my test results."
For better or worse, our brains are faster than the speed of sound, always racing ahead on the fabric of time-space to see what might lie ahead.
Sometimes this is very helpful! If we waited while we deliberated each thought carefully and rationally, we wouldn’t be fast enough to duck a baseball flying at our head. But sometimes, this eagerness to think ahead lands us in trouble. Sometimes, even before a situation fully unfolds, we’v already convinced ourselves that we know what’s going to happen. Not only can this cause anxiety, but sometimes it even becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Is your thought based on facts that have already happened? Or is it based on what you fear might happen?
For example, if I’ve convinced myself that nobody at this party is going to like me, I’ll be nervous, sullen, or even defensive all evening. If the new people I meet end up not being fans of this crabby version of me, could you blame them? What if I had gone in with an open mind and a more relaxed attitude?
How to avoid this thinking trap
If you feel yourself feeling nervous or discouraged about an upcoming situation, ask yourself if you’re time-traveling or mind-reading. Is your thought based on facts that have already happened? Or is it based on what you fear might happen? No matter how confident you are in your prediction—and to be fair, you might be accurate!—it’s helpful to remember that, at the very least, what you fear is not yet true. There’s no need to spend time wrestling with this thought right now.
Thinking trap #3: Mental filter
- "Every time I have an insomnia night, my brain is useless the next day."
- "My partner is always leaving dirty clothes on the floor. She's hopeless!"
- "I suck at art. I've only ever drawn stick figures!"
In addition to being lightning fast, our brains are also naturally good defense lawyers. Without even knowing it, we often stake out a claim and automatically start searching for evidence to back it up. If I only had a dollar for every time a patient with insomnia has said that their daytime mood is 100 percent tied to last night’s sleep!
Sure, last night you slept poorly, and you feel awful today. And last Friday, you slept poorly and felt awful on Saturday. And last Tuesday you slept poorly and felt awful on Wednesday… there certainly seems to be a pattern. But have there been any days when you’ve felt fine after a bad night of sleep? Or any bad days even after you slept well?
We remember the instances that prove our point—we were on the look-out for this evidence in the first place. But we have a harder time noticing or remembering evidence to the contrary.
When we blame our moods on sleep, of course, we’ll remember the instances that prove our point—we were on the look-out for that evidence in the first place. But we have a harder time noticing or remembering evidence to the contrary. Sometimes we go even further by not even allowing ourselves to find contrary evidence.
How to avoid this thinking trap
Perhaps it’s true that you’ve only ever drawn stick figures, but have you tried to draw more seriously with an open mind? Van Gogh himself would never have become a great artist if he had constantly told himself he couldn't be one.
Notice how the key to avoiding these thinking traps is slowing down, adding nuance, and completing the picture? None of them are about changing your thoughts from negative to positive with brute force.
Next time you feel stuck or despairing about something, see if you’re looking at the situation with blinders on. Put on an independent investigator’s hat instead of a defense lawyer’s, and let yourself explore the evidence. Suspend your belief and ask if there’s anything you’re missing.
Notice how the key to avoiding these thinking traps is slowing down, adding nuance, and completing the picture? None of them are about changing your thoughts from negative to positive with brute force. That’s one wrestling match you won’t win anyway, so why spend the effort? Instead, remind your brain to be fair and open, curious rather than judgmental.
With practice, you might find yourself working with your thoughts instead of against them. And isn’t that more fun?
The second part of this two-part series will bring emotions into the mix. We'll see how they can help or hinder you on the quest to balanced thinking.