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  • Writer's pictureNatalie Herriott, AMFT

Beware: Your Mind Is A Trap!

Sometimes I feel like my mind is playing tricks on me. Why can’t I ever appreciate when something good happens? Why does my mind try to turn even the tiniest interactions into huge ordeals? Personally, I’m sick of it. The good news is: I have the power to change my thinking. You do too.

In psychology, the term cognitive distortion–what I like to call a thinking trap—is used to describe a particular type of thought that influences the way you think. Everyone is susceptible to getting caught in these thinking traps, and some of us get stuck a little more than others. Before we can release ourselves from these traps, we need to understand how they work. Step one is to catch ourselves in the trap. Once we do that, we can figure out what kind of trap we are in.

While there are many kinds of thinking traps, here are some of the most common:

  • Black and White (All-or-Nothing) Thinking Everything is either/or. I am perfect or I am a failure. It’s impossible to be both.

  • Mental Filtering I am focusing primarily on the negative aspect of an event. It doesn’t matter if something good happened; I won’t accept it anyway. Nothing good ever happens to me so I need to find something wrong with it.

  • Overgeneralization If this is bad now, it’s always going to be bad. If I'm not good at this now, I never will be. I messed up the first few times, and I’m probably going to mess up every time. 

  • Jumping to Conclusions I assume things without actually having evidence to back up the assumption. I think I know what you’re thinking and can predict what is going to happen. A stranger scowled at me today, so they must think I’m ugly. Everyone at the event is going to think my outfit is strange.

  • Catastrophizing If even one small thing goes wrong, the worst possible outcome is going to happen. Any positive aspects do not matter because I am doomed anyway. A customer at work complained about a small mistake I made today; I think I’m going to be fired soon.

  • Personalization My efforts solely and directly resulted in this larger thing happening. It has to be my fault somehow. It’s all because of me. It’s my fault that our team lost the game tonight. 

  • Labeling I’m stuck with a label because of one mistake or negative incident. I canceled my plans tonight and stayed home instead–my friends must think I’m a loser. I can’t even wash the dishes without my partner criticizing me–I’m useless!

  • Should Statements There are a lot of things that both myself and others “should” and “must” be doing. I feel a lot of pressure to do these things and am not sure if I can, but I know that I should, so I need to. I must get straight As to get into a good college. My house should look spotless at all times. 

  • Emotional Reasoning Because I feel this way, it must be true. My emotions are facts. Logical reasoning is not considered. I feel overwhelmed, so my problems must be impossible to solve. I don’t feel loved today; I must be unlovable. I am feeling anxious, so I am certainly in danger.

  • Blaming Something external caused the situation, not me. I am the victim. I find a reason for it to be someone else’s fault and not mine. I was late to work because the barista couldn’t make my coffee fast enough. I didn’t do well on my exam because the person sitting next to me was making too much noise for me to concentrate.

After learning about the different types of traps, you will be able to better identify which type you might be stuck in. You are now able to practice step two: check the type of trap you are in. It’s okay if you can’t recognize the thinking trap at the exact moment the thought occurs. Most of the time, we need to work to correct these thoughts after the fact. That is step three: change the thought. The goal is that, overtime, you can learn to permanently change the way you think and prevent these thoughts from popping up in the first place.


You might be wondering: Well, how do you actually change the thought? Changing the thought is actually pretty easy–getting yourself to believe it is the hard part. It will take time and repetition to retrain your brain. To change the thought, you need to recognize it, identify it, and then reframe the statement. For example, one of the catastrophizing thoughts mentioned above was: A customer at work complained about a small mistake I made today; I think I’m going to be fired soon. It is a fact that the customer made a complaint–we can’t change that part. However, we can recognize that it’s unrealistic to assume that we will be fired for what was just a small mistake. A reasonable way to reframe this would be: A customer at work complained about a small mistake I made today; I am going to learn from it and try my best to do better next time. We can recognize a “should” statement in the thought: My house should look spotless at all times. We need to acknowledge the obvious–most people want their houses to be clean. However, it is not realistic to think that the house is going to be perfect all the time. If you have a pet, what happens when the dog accidentally tracks in mud? What happens when you come home from work so exhausted that you go to bed right after dinner and forget to wash your plate? We can reframe this statement in a way that shows ourselves more grace and compassion. Life happens, and the house cannot always be spotless. A better way to think about this would be: I want my house to look as tidy as possible. It’s perfectly okay to want the house to look nice, but we need to understand that sometimes life might throw small challenges at us that will interfere with this vision.

To sum it up, here’s how you avoid falling into thinking traps: catch it, check it, and change it. Remember these simple phrases (the three Cs) as you try to pay closer attention to your thoughts this week. Do you notice yourself falling into any of the traps? Now, you have the tools to help get yourself out. 

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