Learn to Recognize Your Negative Thinking Traps 

Negative thoughts themselves aren’t the problem—it’s the power we give them.

Posted Sep 24, 2019

Photo by Jake Young on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Jake Young on Unsplash

All of us have a near-constant stream of thoughts running through our minds. Much of the time, these thoughts are neutral, and sometimes they’re even pleasant.

The thoughts we’ll be dealing with in this post are what psychologists call Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs), and they can lead to negative thinking traps. These are thoughts that don’t serve you well. They’re either blatantly untrue or, at the very least, not helpful.

Negative thoughts themselves aren’t the problem—it’s the power we give them. You can choose to believe your negative thoughts, treating them as unassailable facts and proceeding through life trapped in their iron grip. Or you can choose to perceive a negative thought the same way you view the millions of fleeting sensations, snap judgments, and other cognitions that zip through your mind every day. They’re information, sure, but they’re not absolute truth.

To help you recognize and deconstruct your negative thoughts, let’s learn about the different flavors these thinking traps come in. We’ll focus on the story of Sasha, a 40-year-old woman who dreams of going back to school to earn her bachelor’s degree but just can’t shake her nagging doubts.

Thinking Trap #1: Making Assumptions

“If I go back to school, all the 18-year-olds in my classes will judge me and pity me for being there. Plus, I haven’t been in school for decades. I’m so out of practice that I’ll fail all my classes.” 

When Sasha thinks about college, she immediately jumps to conclusions. She can see into the future, and it’s not pretty. But what evidence does she really have to believe this unfortunate vision of her collegiate career? When you make assumptions, you’re usually filling the void of the unknown by imagining an undesirable outcome. In reality, a number of good things are also possible.

Thinking Trap #2: “Shoulding”

“A person my age should be making twice as much money as I am now. I need to get my act together.”

Sasha’s stress about her education level sometimes bubbles up into thoughts about where she “should” be in life, or what she “needs” or “ought” to do. This type of thinking might almost sound positive: Hey, she’s motivating herself to pursue a goal, right? But what she’s really doing here is setting inflexible standards for herself that she’s already failed to meet. Her “shoulding” isn’t rooted in self-compassion or her own values; the goalpost is arbitrary.

When Sasha really thinks about what matters to her, her salary is nowhere near the top of the list. She wants an education to better herself and pursue a more meaningful career. Her “shoulds” come from internalizing others’ expectations and comparing herself to her neighbor down the street, and listening to those thoughts has only convinced her she’ll never measure up.

Thinking Trap #3: Black-and-White/All-or-Nothing Thinking

“If I don’t graduate with honors at the end of all this, it won’t have been worth the struggle. I’ll be a failure.”

Here, Sasha has decided that she’s either an A+ or an F. There is no in-between. This kind of perfectionism sets her up to view herself as a failure no matter what.

But the truth is, there’s a lot of beauty between these two poles, where she’ll most likely end up: the concepts she’ll conquer, the skills she’ll gain, the pride she’ll feel knowing she went for her goal. She will make mistakes, but they won’t reduce her to a zero. Learning to appreciate her accomplishments without letting her false steps overshadow them will allow her to keep moving forward.

Thinking Trap #4: Catastrophizing

“If I enroll in college full-time, I’m just going to flunk out my first semester, and I won’t be able to come back to this job. Then I’ll run out of money. I’ll have to move in with my mother, and I’ll be so ashamed I’ll just want to lay down and die.”

Sasha’s worrying mind has leaped from merely making assumptions to imagining the worst-case scenario, a failure so devastating she could never recover. “Catastrophizing,” also known as a probability error, is when you overestimate the likelihood that something terrible will happen.

Our minds are also prone to severity errors—we assume that if the worst happened, we wouldn’t be able to cope. The chances that bright and driven Sasha will fail out of school, fail to find work, and wind up back at home are so minuscule as to be laughable. But when she buys into what her mind is telling her, she sometimes loses sight of reality.

Thinking Trap #5: Feelings vs. Facts

“Whenever I even think about walking into a college classroom, I feel embarrassed, stupid, and panicked. That just goes to show this is a bad idea, and I could never hack it.”

It’s all too easy for Sasha to let her feelings write the story of what her college experience would be like. If she feels stupid, that must mean she is stupid. But feelings aren’t facts.

If you want to prove it to yourself, think about the last time you dealt with a week of rainy weather. After a day or two, you probably felt a little glum, and maybe your inner monologue started to sound like it was written by Eeyore, the sad-sack donkey from Winnie the Pooh: “Oh, why bother? Nothing ever goes right for me.” But nothing about your life had actually changed. You were just buying into your feelings, which can shift with your hormones, your diet, and even the weather.

Our feelings love to spin narratives about whether we’ll succeed and whether others like us. But often, these stories are wildly off the mark.

Now that you know some of the key types of automatic negative thoughts, see if you can recognize them in your own thinking. You might want to start by keeping a record of your thoughts in a thought diary—you can read about the details of how to start one here

Excerpted from The Self-Confidence Workbook: A Guide to Overcoming Self-Doubt and Improving Self-Esteem. Copyright © 2018 by Barbara Markway and Celia Ampel.

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