Recognizing / Changing “Mind Traps”

Thinking distortions that can lead to stressful self-talkExplanationRemedy
  • All-or-Nothing Thinking
Seeing things in extremes: “If you make one mistake, you’re a total failure.”Don’t make black and white judgments. Think in terms of percentages, i.e., 40 percent on-time and 60 percent late.
  • Overgeneralizations
A single event is seen as a never-ending pattern of defeat: “Things will always be this way.”Quantify instead of using words like every, all, none, etc. Examine the evidence for your conclusions.
  • Mental Filtering
Seeing only negative details and dwelling on them: “Look at this mistake; the whole thing is ruined.”Look for the positives in the situation. Focus on solving the problem instead of dwelling on the negatives.
  • Rejecting Positive Experiences As Though They Don’t Count
“So what if I got a promotion last month? I just messed up on this project, and I’m sure I’m going to get fired.”Give equal weight to your positive experiences.
  • Jumping to conclusions
Without finding out whether it’s true, you assume the worst: “I know I didn’t get the job.”Check out the situation by asking questions. See if the evidence supports your conclusion.
  • Magnifying or Minimizing Situations
Exaggerating the importance of things; thinking the worst will always happen. Minimizing your positive traits or the other person’s shortcomings: “She said no because I’m not good enough.”Make an honest assessment of the situation. What are the (realistic) odds of the worst happening? What are the positives in this situation?
  • Emotional Reasoning
You assume your negative emotions are a true reflection of a situation: “I feel like a loser, so therefore I am a loser.”Ask yourself questions about your feelings — do they tell the whole story?
  • “Should” Statements
Motivating yourself by “shoulds” and ending up feeling guilty or frustrated: “I should buy gifts for everyone in the office for Christmas.”Re-examine and question your personal rules and expectations. Find at least three exceptions to your rule. Allow yourself some flexibility.
  • Labeling and Mislabeling
Instead of describing the behavior when you make a mistake, you label yourself negatively: “I’m stupid.”Describe the behavior; don’t label yourself or another person. Limit your observation to the specific situation.
  • Personalizing
Seeing yourself as the cause of outside events that you were not responsible for: “We lost the bid because my name was on the project.”Force yourself to prove that you were responsible for the situation. Check out your assumptions and conclusions. What is the evidence?

Changing Mind Traps
When you find yourself falling into mind traps, ask yourself these questions to help avoid the stressful effects of negative self-talk.
1. Is this thought really true?
2. Am I jumping to conclusions about what might happen?
3. Does the evidence support or refute my thoughts?
4. Am I exaggerating or over-emphasizing a negative aspect of this situation?
5. Am I making a disaster out of something small?
6. How do I know this outcome will really happen?
7. What if it does happen?
8. Is it really as bad as it seems?
9. Is it to my advantage to maintain this view?
10. Is there a different way I can look at this situation?

People who are regularly affected negatively by their own thinking distortions can become depressed. If you find that your self-talk contains many distortions, you might want to consider seeking professional help to learn new ways to redirect your thinking.

Reframing is a way to manage how you look at things. There are many ways to see a situation; through reframing you can decide to pick the most positive view. When you have personal problems or losses, look at the gains, not just the losses. Reframing doesn’t change the external reality, it just helps you view things differently and less stressfully.

To reframe a situation, ask yourself:

  • “What’s the worst that can happen?”
    Once you’ve thought of the worst thing, step back, take a few deep breaths, and try to see the picture just a little more positively — then take it from there.or
  • “What are all the different ways I might view this situation?”
    Consider all the possible perspectives and pick ones with the most positive view of the situation.

There’s always more than one way to look at the same situation. Do you see a glass as half empty or half full? After all, both are true. Pick the one that makes you feel best! FOR MORE INSIGHTS SEE OUR SPIRITUAL PRACTICES CATEGORY.

Minaker KL, Burley D, Penny R, Haber D, Quinlan J, Coley C, Rosenthal D.
Stress Management Guidebook: Program for Lifelong Health Maintenance.
President and Fellows of Harvard College and Harvard University Health Services, Cambridge, MA. 1996.