Free Yourself from the 4 Most Common Thinking Traps

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Searching for meaning in life with a mind filled with irrational negative thoughts is like trying to spot a minnow in a tank filled with muddy water. It’s way too cloudy to see anything meaningful.

    There might be legitimate reasons why you believe these thoughts are a positive presence in your life, perhaps because they motivate you or help you find ways to improve yourself. But they undoubtedly come at a cost to your self-esteem.

-Dr. Jason Holland, Lifespark

Clearing up the ‘toxic waters’ that exist in one’s mind takes time and practice, but trust me it’s well worth the effort. Earlier this week, we discussed all or nothing thinking and excessive self-criticism. Today’s piece describes 4 other toxic thought patterns and the antidote to each.

1. Doomsday Thinking

Doomsday thinking occurs when you convince yourself that the future looks hopeless and bad outcomes are inevitable. This type of thinking is also referred to as ‘catastrophizing’ and involves thoughts like, “This bad day is going to last forever” or “I’m just waiting for the hammer to drop.”

ANTIDOTE: Instead of taking it for granted that your negative predictions are true, take the time to consider the actual evidence for and against them, as though you’re a dispassionate detective who only cares about the facts.

For example, if you feel like things will never get better, think back to other hard times you’ve faced in your life and consider how you handled it over time—weeks, months, and years later. You may recall a number of difficult moments in your life and how much you had to struggle, perhaps fueling doubts about your ability to cope with the current circumstances.

However, there are also likely times in your past when gloomy predictions about the future didn’t entirely come to pass. Maybe you were able to find creative ways to mitigate the damage.

Weighing all the evidence together, ask yourself how likely it now seems that things will never get better? Even a slight modification in your perspective (e.g., Things won’t get better for a long time) can equal big changes for your mood and outlook on life.

TRY EXERCISE: Extreme Thinking Exercise

2. Tyranny of the Shoulds

This type of thinking refers to the rules you have about the way things should be. These rules are often unrealistic expectations that result in strong feelings of guilt or anxiety when not met. For example, a perfectionist might believe that “I should outperform all of my coworkers.”

ANTIDOTE: Start by using less extreme language. Instead of telling yourself “I shouldn’t have made that mistake” you could tell yourself, “It would’ve been better if I hadn’t made that mistake.” Such linguistic shifts, though subtle, reflect far greater self-compassiona key ingredient in living a meaningful and purposeful life.  

It can also be helpful to list the pros and cons of focusing so much on negative self-comparisons and ‘should talk.’ There might be legitimate reasons why you believe these thoughts are a positive presence in your life, perhaps because they motivate you or help you find ways to improve yourself. But they undoubtedly come at a cost to your self-esteem, and in the end often backfire, leading to burnout and feelings of hopelessness.

READ RELATED: How to Stop Negative Self Talk and Tame Your Critical Inner Voice in 5 Steps

3. Emotional Thinking

Emotional thinking involves using your feelings as the basis for the facts about a situation. For instance, after a job interview you might reason that, “I felt so awkward, everything must have gone horribly.”

ANTIDOTE: Try consulting with other people that you trust. Ask them questions and gather information to find out if your thoughts and attitudes are realistic. In this case, you might learn that it’s not an uncommon experience to feel like you totally blew an interview, and in some cases, people still get the job!

4. Over-Personalizing

Over-personalization refers to a tendency to interpret situations in such a way that you believe others have negative opinions or bad intentions toward you.

For me personally, I used to get thrown off during presentations when audience members would walk out right in the middle of my talk. I’d convince myself, “They must be totally bored and hate everything I’m saying.”

ANTIDOTE: Instead of immediately assuming that everything is about you and blaming yourself for everything, consider the other factors that likely contributed to it.

In my case, it was helpful to consider that someone might leave a talk for hundreds of reasons. Maybe they needed to return a phone call or go to the bathroom? Perhaps they left because they couldn’t tolerate sitting in the hard chairs anymore? Or they could have been starving from skipping lunch?

Regardless of the reason, I learned that the comings and goings of audience members is probably a poor indicator of my performance. So, I might as well just focus on doing the best job I can and not fret about it.

The Bottom Line

If you notice yourself using doomsday thinking, beating yourself up with shoulds, engaging in emotional thinking, or over-personalizing try one of the antidotes discussed here and see if you can shift your perspective.

Specifically, it can be helpful for you to (a) consider the evidence for and against negative beliefs, (b) use less extreme language in your self-talk, (c) examine the pros and cons of focusing on a negative thought, (d) get other’s perspectives, and (e) consider the multiple factors that give rise to negative and uncomfortable situations.

Try charting your negative thoughts and gently challenging them for a day using our Negative Automatic Thoughts Worksheet. And in the comments below, let us know about your successes and setbacks in managing negative thoughts.  

EXCLUSIVE – Overcoming Negative Thinking Patterns Using an Automatic Thought Record


Further Reading:














Burns, D. D. (1981). Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. New York, N.Y: Penguin Books.

Covin, R., Dozois, D. J., Ogniewicz, A., & Seeds, P. M. (2011). Measuring cognitive errors: Initial development of the Cognitive Distortions Scale (CDS). International Journal of Cognitive Therapy, 4, 297-322.

Kovacs, M., & Beck, A. T. (1978). Maladaptive cognitive structures in depression. American Journal of Psychiatry, 135, 525-533.

Lightsey, O. R., Boyraz, G., Ervin, A., Rarey, E. B., Gharibian Gharghani, G., & Maxwell, D. (2014). Generalized self-efficacy, positive cognitions, and negative cognitions as mediators of the relationship between conscientiousness and meaning in life. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 46, 436-445.

Neff, K. D., Rude, S. S., & Kirkpatrick, K. L. (2007). An examination of self-compassion in relation to positive psychological functioning and personality traits. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 908-916.

Özdel, K., Taymur, İ., Guriz, S. O., Tulaci, R. G., Kuru, E., & Turkcapar, M. H. (2014). Measuring cognitive errors using the Cognitive Distortions Scale (CDS): Psychometric properties in clinical and non-clinical samples. PloS One, 9, e105956.

Van Dam, N. T., Sheppard, S. C., Forsyth, J. P., & Earleywine, M. (2011). Self-compassion is a better predictor than mindfulness of symptom severity and quality of life in mixed anxiety and depression. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 25, 123-130.


2 thoughts on “Free Yourself from the 4 Most Common Thinking Traps

  • March 9, 2018 at 8:18 am

    What I find most interesting in my practice is how much of these destructive thought patterns were implanted in our heads when we were children. Thanks for your work!


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