The mind is powerful.
It’s highly skilled, and uniquely equipped.
And, it can lead us into traps, cognitive traps, if we aren’t aware of the savvy shortcuts it takes.
These savvy shortcuts can be both positive and negative. In an effort for efficiency, our mind rapidly organizes incoming information using prior knowledge and experience to make sense of what’s new—quickly! This is a positive mental shortcut, called a heuristic, and it makes our lives easier.
Yet, there exist other mental shortcuts that can lead us into not-so-productive, cognitive traps.
These traps can cause us to perceive reality differently, distort it, by leaving out pieces or clues that are actually quite important. And, without the full picture, we are vulnerable to feelings of negativity and doubt.
Thus, we must do everything we can to prevent these errors in thinking. Or, at least strive to…
And, the first step comes with building up our awareness and skill set in recognizing and working to combat these cognitive traps in real time.
Here’s a few cognitive traps to avoid!
1. All-or-nothing-thinking. Ever find yourself stuck between two extremes— you’re either on top of the world or down in the dumps? This might also look like “black and white” thinking, or thinking in either/or categories.
The trap here is—nothing in life is that simple or clear cut! Decisions and choices tend to have important nuances that add clarity and direction— they are colorful. So, remember this: when you find yourself thinking, “I can do _ or _” or “It’s either _ or _”, take a moment and add a layer. Seek the shades of gray in between, and choose to notice the complexity of life and other people.
2. Change Fallacy. This occurs when you start thinking that in order to be happy, people need to change, or you need to change other people. Not only can this trap affect your wellbeing, but it can also impact others. An example of this is thinking, “If you really cared you would…”
If you find yourself in this trap, it’s important to remember that we can’t change/control others, nor is it healthy to do so to find happiness. Instead, what matters are the decisions you make on a daily basis.
3. Fortune-telling. We are all pretty good at predicting worst-case scenarios, especially our future failures and woes! This trap is a tendency to predict or foresee the future—but only the negative outcomes. The harm here is that this can lead us right into the “trap of failure”— as our thoughts dictate our actions. In these situations, it’s important to ask yourself, “what’s my evidence for this?” Usually, you’ll find that you don’t have much!
4. Labeling. We all make mistakes. Labeling occurs when we overgeneralize a mistake, as a reflection of who we are, instead of just limiting it to the mistake itself. The problem is the problem. For instance, “I’m a mess-up” rather than “I messed up.” It’s important to attribute mistakes to the event or happening, instead of the person. And, work to define who you are by what you do, not by the outcomes of what you do.
5. Catastrophizing. Ever find yourself set off by one little thing? The next thing you know, the world feels like its crumbling beneath your feet as everything seems to be going wrong. Catastrophizing is when you exaggerate the importance of your errors, fears, and imperfections. To help with this, watch your vocab when it comes to describing challenges. What are you telling yourself? Catch yourself thinking, “this is the worst thing ever” or “I wont recover…” as these statements are probably over stating the actual gravity of the situation.
6. Overgeneralization. This trap occurs when a single negative event is conceptualized as a never-ending pattern. For example, you miss the bus once and you say to yourself, “I am never on time.” This thinking pattern is heavily weighted with a vocabulary of universals such as, “always,” “every,” and “never.” If you catch yourself using these, respond back by saying, “Always? Really?” Stand up to yourself and make the necessary correction.
Your mind is powerful— yet so are you.
The first step is recognizing when our mind may be playing these tricks on us. Then, check the facts, re-focus on the present, and re-group. Don’t give your mind more power than it deserves over how you feel and how you act.