Common thinking traps


by Bernadette Healy

How do you think?  In the face of a relationship issue, are you in the habit of thinking you are in the wrong (or right!) until proven otherwise; do you avoid raising issues based on your assumptions about the likely responses from your partner?  Are you prone to transforming a one-off mistake at work into a career-trajectory disaster?  Do you ruminate on all the possible ways that others could be thinking about you?

All of these are examples of common thinking traps.  These sorts of thinking traps interfere with our ability to be resilient, that is, to cope with negative circumstances in flexible and adaptive ways. Being resilient includes avoiding faulty thinking which includes these sorts of thinking traps.  Faulty thinking styles were originally described by Aaron Beck[1] – commonly regarded as the father of cognitive therapy- and further defined by him as risk factors for depression.  The following are descriptions of common thinking traps[2] – they may be applicable to you or help you to understand those around you:

Over generalising – Where a single negative event is viewed as affecting everything or as a signal that everything will go wrong. For example: I was useless in my role at work today, I will never be any good at this role; I took too long on that task this morning, I can’t work quickly.

When you have managed to catch yourself if the moment of using this kind of thinking (well done for your moment of mindfulness!), consider a narrower view of that particular experience.

Catastrophising – Imagining the worst possible outcome connected to a current situation, magnifying the impacts of this outcome and predicting that that is what will occur.  For example: there were no people at the first open for inspection, we will never sell the house, our financial situation is ruined; my heart is racing, I am going to have a heart attack and die.

If this sounds like you, slow down and make a realistic assessment of the situation

Mind reading – Guessing another person’s thoughts. For example: they must think I didn’t do enough preparation; she thinks I am unprofessional; he doesn’t like my report; he thinks I’m a …. I think if I say ‘x’ to my partner, that they will say ‘y’ and that will lead to ‘b’ so I wont bother saying anything at all.

If these examples sound familiar, try to regularly check whether you have got your message across clearly; check whether or not your needs and feelings are being heard; speak up and ask questions of others.

Fortune telling – Predicting a bleak future without evidence. For example: no-one will ever love me; I will never be successful.  To combat this kind of thinking challenge yourself to provide evidence for your conclusions.

Discounting the positive or tunnel vision – When positives are seen as worthless or meaningless or less significant than negatives. Focusing in on a small portion of available data in a situation (common in gamblers).  For example in response to positive feedback, saying: ‘Yes but; anyone could do that; it was nothing; that’s what anyone would do in this situation; I only …’. To refute this kind of thinking, balance out your perspective – ask yourself about all aspects, what is the big picture in this situation?

All or nothing thinking – Unable to see grey, focusing on black and white in thinking.  For example: they behaved in a way I don’t agree therefore I cannot continue the friendship/association; I didn’t get 100% therefore I am a failure. Ask yourself what a middle ground perspective would look like and challenge yourself to occupy that ground for a period of time; put off making a decision from the all or nothing position for at least a week and allow yourself to experience the uncertainty of ‘being in the grey’ – new perspectives will result.

Personalising – Holding yourself responsible when you’re not at fault. For example:  they didn’t attend they must not enjoy my company; s/he’s really annoyed, I must have done something wrong; there’s a message from my boss, I must have made a mistake.   In such situations ask yourself about alternative contributing factors and look outward rather than inward.


[1] Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive therapies and emotional disorders. New York: New American Library.

[2] Reivich, K. & Dr A. Shatte (2002). The resilience factor: 7 keys to finding your inner strength and overcoming life’s hurdles. New York: 3 Rivers Press. Simmons, J. & R. Griffiths (2009). CBT for beginners.  London: Sage publications Ltd.