Recognizing Thinking Traps: What Are The Cognitive Distortions?

In many instances of strong emotions, there is the truth and nothing but the truth, then there are your cognitive distortions. Sounds fun right?

When you feel negative, your thoughts are dominated by pervasive negativity. In a coffee shop, someone could laugh with their friend over a joke they just remembered and you’ll get offended thinking they are laughing at you. Someone could say something nearby and your mind could even take snippets of the conversation and link it back to you, somehow negatively, when you don’t know the people from Eve. In these cases, it’s not the events that were negative, it’s your response to the event. When you always feel consumed by negative thoughts and they affect your day-to-day life you have what experts call a thinking trap.

“Do you ever just get the feeling that everyone is staring at you and whispering about you? It's like everyone is judging me and can see that I am a loser. I can't go out like this. I can't even get a job because all my customers will laugh at me.” - said a person with a thinking trap

What are Thinking Traps?

In simple terms, cognitive distortions are thinking traps. You can call them anything you want but they are basically when your perception of reality is distorted by whatever you strongly believe. Even if this belief is based on some sort of truth, the degree at which it consumes you could cloud your view of real-life events and people. Typically this distortion or thinking trap is caused by some sort of traumatic experience or obsessive thought and strong emotions towards something.

Ex: Priya of Indian descent has always been in a racially diverse part of town. Her friends were all caucasian. But she was going through a period of arguments where friends had given up the relationship. It became all too much for Priya who was also preoccupied with politics surrounding discrimination. Though there was no solid evidence for her racial background being the reason behind her failed relationships she soon got consumed by thoughts of not ever being good enough for some people because of her background.

Common Cognitive Distortions

Below are the sixteen most common cognitive distortions, each with an example and advice for how to fix it.

1. All-or-nothing thinking (also known as black-or-white thinking or “splitting” a term popular in the borderline personality disorder community)

This refers to your tendency to think in two extremes. There is no middle ground. You either eat a perfect diet today or you binge. Ex: Sarah’s boyfriend can’t not text her back for a day because that means he’s a bad boyfriend. He has to text her every day or he’s a narcissist. This sort of extreme thinking leads people to abruptly delete phone contacts and burn bridges.

Solution: Recognize it’s almost impossible to find absolutes in life. Even science is ever-changing. Shades of gray are found in every faculty of life, including situations and people’s actions, no matter the emotions they give.

2. Always Being Right

Ex: David constantly tries to one-up his father, girlfriend, and best friend. He could be conditioned to thinking he’s always right and be virtually unable to be open up to other perspectives. He’ll go to any length to demonstrate our rightness.

Solution: Consider the feelings of the person on the receiving end. If it’s a loved one or important person and you might cause tension, ask yourself, “Would I rather be right or happy?”

3. Blaming

Jack doesn’t feel remorse for getting to work late. He knew that traffic would be worse because of the rain but left his house the same time as usual. No worries, he’ll just tell his boss it was the traffic. Blaming is when you refuse to take accountability. It can be for a given situation or it could be an entire victim mentality that pops up in every problem you come across. This will keep you from growing as a person. As Jack Canfield writes in The Success Principles, “If you want to be successful, you have to take 100% responsibility for everything that you experience in your life.”

Solution: Recognize that every event and every negative or positive situation you were in involved you as well as the other person(s). Ask yourself what you could have done/or do differently. If things don’t work out change your responses, at least you know you’ve tried.

4. Disqualifying the Positive

This virtual “superpower” involves transforming neutral or positive experiences into negative ones. Most people aren’t even aware they’re doing it. Ex: Susie walks into the flower shop only to have the florist tell her they ran out of her favorite petunias. She receives an entire store discount. Instead of saying oh well, next time, or observing the other flowers that she now can get 10% off, Susie screams internally, “Typical! This ALWAYS happens!” And if what about the discount? Everyone gets them, who cares.

Solution: Journaling or even saying out loud things you are grateful for will cultivate an attitude of gratitude. If you meet an amazing person, instead of saying, oh, I just got lucky, or it’s because they don’t know the real me, think: What is the opposite reality of not having that person in your life? Instead of saying, oh I have a laptop, everyone does, consider your life without the laptop.

5. Emotional Reasoning

One of the most common thinking traps we fall into is emotional reasoning: taking our emotions as evidence for the truth. Ex: “I feel worthless, therefore I am worthless.”

Solution. Check the truth of your feelings by looking at things that challenge it. Look at what might have triggered the thought.

6. Fallacy of Change

This painful one makes you believe others need to change for you to be happy. “I need to change people because my hopes for happiness depend entirely on them.” Much like always being right, this distortion can affect the well-being of others. Ex: “If she loved me she would…” “I can never be happy unless he…”

Solution. Understand happiness is a feeling totally independent of another human being. It completely depends on yourself and the decisions you make on a daily basis (like which cognitive distortion you need to work on, first!).

7. Filtering

Another painful all-or-nothing thinking, filtering involves focusing entirely on one aspect of a situation while excluding the positive or negative. When you dwell exclusively on a negative detail, you perceive the whole situation as “wrong.” Ex: Sarah believes she’s just a sad, unhappy person, so when great things happen, it doesn’t matter. The very air almost seems to take on a gray quality. The food is too sweet, and the weather is warm but it doesn’t matter because she has no one to share it with because she’s just a sad, unhappy person. Why do we do this when it’s extremely painful? Simply, we tend to filter out information that doesn’t conform to our already held beliefs.

Solution: Ask yourself, “What are my current beliefs about myself, people, and life in general? Are there any validity to these beliefs? How would my life be different if I didn’t have these limiting beliefs?”

8. Jumping to conclusions

Why need proof when this special superpower gives you the insight to the future and people’s intentions without them even looking your way. Sarah believes everyone at work hates her because when she showed up they stopped talking. This could only mean they were talking about her, it can’t possibly be other things like she distracted them or some even thought she was attractive.

Solution: Practice mindfulness meditation to observe situations without judging them. As it is always possible that we can never really know the reason behind anything at all.

8.1 Mind-Reading

Mind-reading is when you literally “see into” what others are thinking and feeling about you. You are a perfect people-reader and can vividly detect what’s in someone’s mind without having any concrete evidence. When mind-reading is acted upon regularly, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy furthering your negative belief about people. Ya, it’s good to stay away from this one. Ex: I just know she’s disgusted by me. So I am going to avoid her or maybe I’ll overly insert myself to prove what an amazing person I am.”

Solution: Investigate your assumptions or swap your negative thoughts with “I don’t know that because _____________” or simply, “I don’t know that.”

8.2 Fortune-telling (also known as the fortune teller error)

Ever seen the show That’s so Raven? The fortune teller sees into the future and tries to prevent it, but in doing so she only causes it to happen. Ex: Greg is sure he’s going to have no friends at school, so he’s moody in class, cold with people, and eventually is avoided by people who were once interested. This is a painful self-fulfilling prophecy that only reinforces his belief of no one ever liking him enough to be friends.

Solution: Ask yourself, “When was I ever wrong about my predictions?” If you really think hard I’m sure you’ll find there were many surprises.

9. Labeling

Labeling involves attaching a negative label to yourself or others, instead of seeing mistakes. Ex: Susie lost her assignment in the metropolitan train. Instead of saying, “I will be more careful next time” she instantly thinks an “I am” statement. Ex: I am stupid. I am irresponsible.

Solution: Look at the errors of the event rather than reverting it back to yourself or someone.

10. Mislabeling

Mislabeling, on the other hand, is when you describe an event using words that are emotionally charged. A common example is “My heart is broken because he was the love of my life.”

Solution: Try using more neutral words to describe an event.

11. Binocular Vision

As with most lenses, you can blow things up out of proportion or shrink things down in size. There are two examples of this.

11.1. Catastrophizing

This is when you magnify the importance of a situation, a mistake, or imperfection. Often times in doing this we see things as a sign of eternal doom rather than a single experience in the wider span of our entire life full of more experiences waiting to happen. “He left me, I shall never find love again!”

Solution: Be mindful of the vocabulary you use to describe undesired outcomes. Sometimes even doing the opposite of what you feel like doing is helpful. Ex: Instead of talking about the situation over and over, drawing more attention to it, you ignore the topic entirely. In this case you can literally trick your mind into accepting the situation as something easy to get over.

11.2 Minimization

Minimization is when you downplay your good points or other people’s desirable qualities. As you can now see, your words are very powerful. Ex: Matt thinking, “I’m not that good at my job,” is minimization of all his efforts. As humans, we tend to minimize positive feedback but blow negative feedback out of proportion.

Solution: Make a list of the qualities you admire about yourself and refer to them regularly. To help, ask, “What are all the positive feedback you’ve ever heard?”

12. Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization is when you fit a single negative event into a pattern of never-ending defeat. If you experience a negative incident, you believe it’s likely to happen again and again.

Solution: Try to keep your distance from words like “always”, “every” and “never”. Consider that life and people are constantly changing. Even you, in this moment, whether you realize it, are growing as you learn more about thinking traps.

13. Personalization

Personalization is the opposite of blaming others. Instead you blame yourself, taking responsibility for external events over which you have no control. People who do this tend to feel guilty a lot. This can trigger feelings of depression and self-condemnation. Ex: “My partner is always angry. I am a lousy husband (or wife). I should be able to make them happy if I wasn’t.”

Solution: Understand how others feel and behave is their responsibility—not yours.

14. Should Statements

This is when you have FIRM rules for how you, or others, should and shouldn’t behave. When our expectations fall short, we feel disappointed, frustrated, resentful, even angry. Beware: “Mustn’ts and Oughts are also culprits of this distortion. Ex: “My wife and kids must jump and say hello to me as soon as I enter the house.”

Solution: Try adjusting your expectations so they’re more realistic. When someone fails to meet your expectations, remind yourself of times you’ve even fallen short of your own rule. Also, note that this can disturb relationships as no one likes to feel restricted. So demanding something of someone could very well make them restrict it. Ex: Doris demands that her granddaughter calls her every Friday. Feeling too much pressure, her granddaughter puts an end to the calls because it feels like a chore.

What Do You Think?

Could you relate to any of the thinking traps? Do you foresee yourself trying to change any? If so, don’t worry, you are not the only person falling into the trap of a cognitive distortion. It can even be fun changing them when you start realizing how much more positive your life will become. Remember it’s not what happens to you, it’s how you view it.