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Ten Mind Traps That Dampen Your Happiness and Create Misery

How to outfox them and escape with peace of mind.

 Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash
Mind traps can imprison your happiness, but there are steps you can take to outfox them and set yourself free.
Source: Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Suppose you’re stuck in traffic, late for a meeting. You bang the steering
wheel. “Damn traffic! Now, I’ll probably get fired!” You’ve just fallen into a mind trap. You’ve added a catastrophe with no evidence for it. Your thoughts about the traffic are causing distress, not the traffic.

When you’re under stress, it’s easy to get swept away by negative thought patterns that over-personalize and distort the actual event. What you say to yourself under stress pops up with such lightning speed that you don’t even notice. If you’re like most people, you conclude that the external event is what upset you. Chances are your stress is kept alive by these conclusions, many of which are inaccurate.

What Are Mind Traps?

Mind traps are irrational thought patterns that blind you to the truth, causing you to make errors in judgment. As you become more conscious of your mind traps, you learn that each one is a combined exaggeration of a threat and an underestimation of your ability to deal with it. Mind traps limit possibilities and undermine your resources to cope with inevitable challenges.

Identifying Your Mind Traps

Psychologists Aaron Beck and David Burns identified common mind traps that you can fall into. Recognizing them heightens your awareness so when you’re trapped, you have an easier time escaping with peace of mind.

1. All-or-none thinking: “I can be either a good mom or a good employee; I can’t do it all.” You categorize life into the extremes of black and white and blind yourself to the shades of gray, where truth usually lies. Takeaway: Listen for yourself using words like always, all, everybody, either-or, nobody, never, or none. Let that be a cue that the all-or-none thinking has trapped you.

2. Mindreading: “She didn’t call me back. Obviously, I made a bad impression.” You convince yourself you know what others are thinking and feeling. You connect the dots about a situation based on your beliefs, not the facts. When you automatically accept your thoughts as truth, instead of questioning or checking them out, you’ve sold yourself a bill of goods. Takeaway: Remind yourself that your assumptions are not the truth. You can check out the facts before making conclusions to save yourself a lot of unnecessary worry and stress.

3. Catastrophic forecasting: “I’m gonna fall flat on my face in the interview.” You forecast the worst possible outcome of a situation without evidence. When facts contradict your negative belief, you continue to predict things will turn out badly. Takeaway: When you catch yourself worrying over something that hasn’t happened, identify your negative prediction. Then ask yourself, “Where’s the evidence for this conclusion?”

4. “Shoulda” thinking and “musterbation”: “I should have gone to church on Sunday.” Oppressive words like should, ought, must, and have to cause you to feel you’re slave of your emotions. Takeaway: Ask yourself if your self-talk opposes or supports you. Replacing oppressive words with uplifting words can empower you.

5. Overgeneralization: “I really screwed up on that sale. I’m such a loser.” You make a sweeping conclusion about your capabilities on the basis of one negative event. You believe if something’s true in one case, it’s true in all the others. Takeaway: When you catch yourself viewing a negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat, look at the proof. You’ll likely not find evidence for the exaggeration.

6. Filtering and discounting the positives: “I won top broker of the year, but that was a fluke.” You downplay your accomplishments or positive qualities and dwell on the negatives. This mind trap can create an outlook of hopelessness. Takeaway: There’s usually a "but" in this mind trap that can help you catch yourself when you insist your positive aspects don’t count. When negative thoughts outweigh positives, give the positives equal weight.

7. Magnification or minimization: “I have to get this job promotion or my career goes down the tubes.” You blow the negative aspects of a stressful situation out of proportion while shrinking your ability to overcome it. Or, on the flip side, you downplay your ability to surmount a stressful situation, “Oh sure, I got the last promotion, but that was because the boss liked me. I don’t know the new boss.” Takeaway: Notice when your outlook about a stressful situation is at one extreme. Take the point of view of an outside observer and put it in perspective.

8. Blame: “It’s my fault the car broke down; I didn’t take it in for service.” You’re overly responsible and blame yourself for conditions beyond your control. Or you blame others, overlooking your part, “I took your advice, and she broke up with me; it’s all your fault.” Takeaway: Ask yourself if you’re blaming someone for your actions. Then think about how much of the situation you’re truly responsible for. Be willing to take ownership of your part, but avoid becoming overly responsible for situations outside your control.

9. Emotional reasoning: “I feel hopeless about my marriage, so it must be over.” You make judgments about people and situations from how you feel. And how you feel about something makes it true in your head, even if there’s proof to the contrary. Takeaway: Acknowledge your feelings first. Then see when you can separate them from the facts to determine if your conclusion is indeed true, “Yes, I’m feeling hopeless about our marriage, but that doesn’t mean it's hopeless. There are steps we can take to make it better.”

10. Labeling: “I blew it with my boss; I’m such a jerk!” Instead of telling yourself you made a mistake, you tell yourself you are the mistake. You put a negative label on people and situations because of one incident instead of looking at the entire picture, “I didn’t like that movie; that theater sucks; I won’t go there again.” Takeaway: Look at the big picture. “That was a bad movie, but that theater shows good movies, too.”

The Great Escape

Next time you're caught in a mind trap, you'll become clever as a fox once you step back and question your thoughts and the conclusions you make. When you pay attention to what you’re thinking and then act, you use reasoning to deal with charged situations. See how often you can stay calm in a crisis, polite when someone is rude, positive when someone is negative. In each case, your thoughtful actions empower you to outsmart your stressors and turn the tone of a stressful situation around to your advantage.

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