How to Recognize and Avoid Common Thinking Traps - Part 2

Emotional reasoning, catastrophizing, and "shoulds" can keep you stuck and unhappy. There's a reason these common mental snares are called "thinking traps!"

Jade Wu, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #282
The Quick And Dirty
  • Emotional reasoning is when the way you feel about a situation convinces you that's how reality must be. Just because you feel the hot flush of embarrassment doesn't mean that you've really made a fool of yourself. Pay attention to your emotions for clues about a situation, but don't let them be the final word.
  • Catastrophizing is making one unfortunate moment into a huge catastrophe. Plenty of successful people have had regrettable moments without letting it define them, and you can too.
  • Holding onto "should" is something we do when we feel strongly about a righteous position, but it can also keep us stuck because "shoulds" often don't reflect reality. Let go of rigid expectations by picking your battles and allowing some disappointment. Replace "it should be" with "I wish it were."

Do you remember the last time you went down a rabbit hole with worry, tumbling down and down until it felt like all was hopeless and unfair? I do! It’s a situation we all find ourselves in from time to time. Our brains are designed to look for problems and anticipate threats. We can’t blame them for sometimes going overboard.

In part one of this two-part series on thinking traps, we talked about three unhelpful (but all too common) patterns our thoughts can fall into:

  • Black-and-white thinking. You see things as one way or the other with no shades of gray.
  • Jumping to conclusions. You convince yourself that something is true despite any evidence.
  • Mental filter. You only look for evidence that supports your beliefs. 

You can stop struggling and find balance if you learn to catch yourself when you start forgetting about middle grounds, time-traveling and mind-reading, or acting like an over-zealous defense lawyer.

In Part 2, let’s look at three more common thinking traps that keep us hooked to the struggle:

Trap #4: Emotional reasoning

  • "I feel so embarrassed. I must have made a fool of myself."
  • "My hands are shaking, and my stomach is in knots. I must be totally not ready for this conversation."
  • "I feel so 'blah' about this project. It’s probably not worth pursuing."

Our emotions are powerful guides. A sense of foreboding can warn us of danger, a burst of joy can reaffirm a relationship, and sadness can tell us where our spiritual priorities lie. But sometimes we end up reading too much into emotions, imbuing them with more meaning than they were supposed to convey.

For example, just because you feel embarrassed doesn’t mean you actually made a fool of yourself. We often judge ourselves more harshly than others do. Stuttering a line in the wedding toast or making a conversational faux pas with a stranger might send heat rushing to your cheeks. That automatic response reflects your body’s knee-jerk reaction and not necessarily your brain’s careful consideration of the facts. So, just because you feel embarrassed doesn’t mean you actually did something embarrassing.

Sometimes we end up reading too much into emotions, imbuing them with more meaning than they were supposed to convey.

It’s a similar story with other emotions and situations. Just because you don’t feel excited about starting a new project at work doesn’t mean it’s not a meaningful one. It’s worth listening to your emotions as a hint to figure out what makes you hesitate—perhaps there’s some part of the project that isn’t aligned with your values, or maybe you’ve taken on too much work. But don’t write off the whole opportunity yet. Your heart’s lack of enthusiasm might not mean the whole situation is a lost cause.

Trap #5: Catastrophizing

  • "It’s the end of the world!"
  • "The whole party is ruined."
  • "I’ve lost all chance at setting things right with this relationship."

We've all had these types of thoughts. You accidentally hit "Reply All" on an email that was supposed to be one-on-one. You made an awkward comment in front of someone you were hoping to impress. You had a messy break-up and you're worried you burned bridges.

This is what I mean by “catastrophizing.” It’s taking one bad moment and painting your whole world and future with its dark colors. It’s making an embarrassing or disappointing molehill into the Mount Everest of failure.

Let’s put things in perspective. Can you think of anyone else who experienced a less-than-glamorous moment and survived to tell the tale? How about Beyonce and other megastars? In 2007, Beyonce tripped and face-planted while performing for a huge crowd in Orlando. Katy Perry got stuck on a giant cake and repeatedly failed to get up and had to be carried off-stage. Fergie didn’t get to use the bathroom before a performance, and let’s just say the adrenaline probably didn’t help her hold it while a huge crowd watched that strangely growing dark spot on her pants.

Catasrophizing is making an embarrassing or disappointing molehill into the Mount Everest of failure.

What do you think was going on in these stars’ minds in those moments? Beyonce could have thought “That's it—I’ve ruined my flawless reputation of elegance and glamor.” Fergie could have thought “Well, my career is ruined.” It wouldn’t be hard to think like that when thousands of people have watched you mess up. But these ladies kept going. Today, they’re still the super-successful and admired icons they've always been. It turns out that tripping and slipping were not the only things they’ve done in public-—they’ve also put out some hit songs!

So when you get stuck on your own “oops” moments or heartbreaks, it may help to zoom out and see other parts of the picture. Sure, if you hold a magnifying glass up to any one event, it’s sure to take up your whole horizon. Wouldn’t it be more helpful to see it as just one relatively small piece of your big life?

Trap #6: Holding onto “should”

  • "I shouldn’t have to tell her why I’m upset—she should already know."
  • "I shouldn’t have been so naive after getting my heart broken."
  • "My boss shouldn’t pick favorites. She should promote me because I’m the most productive person here."

Of course, it can be useful to say a passionate “should” sometimes, like when you’re a legislator trying to write a law to guarantee basic human rights for people. But in a lot of everyday situations, holding stubbornly onto “should” is like shackling yourself to a wall and complaining that you can’t leave the room.

It sure can feel like your partner should know that her careless remark hurt your feelings, but what if she doesn’t? What if she didn’t mean to be hurtful and is oblivious about how her words made you feel? Insisting in your mind that she should know only keeps her in the dark longer, and keeps you simmering in your dissatisfaction. In the end, who pays the price for this “should?”

Holding stubbornly onto 'should' is like shackling yourself to a wall and complaining that you can’t leave the room.

When the “should” is about someone else, we get mad and stew in resentment. When the “should” is about ourselves, we feel ashamed and miserable.

I wish our collective passion for how things should be could change this. And sometimes it does! The idea that women should be considered full citizens led to social movements that eventually got us the right to vote. I’m personally quite grateful for all the shoulds that the suffragettes shouted. But unfortunately, the world, and sometimes our actions, can be full of injustice, misunderstanding, and disappointment.

In our own lives, we get to choose the battles we fight. If there’s something you value enough to stake your “shoulds” on it, no matter the effort and risks involved, go for it! But if it’s not a fundamental life value at risk, but rather, a conflict that could cost you your relationships, energy, and good spirits, try letting go of the should. Replace “it should be” with “I wish it were” in your mind. Then see what you can work with to improve the situation.

Don’t forget that, with all the thinking traps we’ve reviewed here and in part one, it’s all about finding more balance and flexibility. The point is not to turn negatives into positives—that kind of emotional alchemy is not easy or sustainable. Instead, we’re trying to be more in touch with reality by looking for facts, looking at the whole picture, and letting ourselves out of the “should” cage.

Thinking traps don't have to keep you ensnared. When you learn to recognize them, you can set yourself free!

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Jade Wu, PhD

Dr. Jade Wu is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University and completed a clinical residency and fellowship at Duke University School of Medicine. Do you have a psychology question? Call the Savvy Psychologist listener line at 919-533-9122. Your question could be featured on the show.