21 common thought traps

Thought traps: Challenge 21 common thought traps with examples from CBT

In Thought Traps: Challenge 21 Common Thought Traps with examples from CBT, psychologist Jenny Rapp explains with examples how you challenge thought traps and increase your self-esteem.

The content of Challenge 21 thought traps with examples from CBT:

  •  What are thought traps
  • The difference between thought traps and defense mechanisms
  • 21 common thought traps with examples
  • Challenge your thought traps with CBT in 5 steps
  • Other sources for challenging common thought traps with examples from CBT
Challenge 21 common thought traps with examples from CBT

What are thought traps

Thought traps are thought patterns that are triggered by most of us, especially when we are in stressful situations. The term is mainly used in CBT, cognitive behavioral therapy. We often use thought traps when trying to avoid strong emotions that are aroused when we become scared. Common examples are fear of how we will cope with a challenging situation, fear of what others will think or fear that they will reject us. Thought traps create a lot of unnecessary suffering and harm our self-esteem. Many of them overlap with what we call defense mechanisms.

The difference between thought traps and defense mechanisms

Thought traps are about thought patterns and contain verbal interpretations of the world. A defense mechanism is usually a more unconscious strategy to avoid strong emotions and anxiety. Defense mechanisms are sometimes not about thoughts but can also be behaviors and processes such as when we redirect our attention. Conscious defense mechanisms are coping strategies as they help us deal with difficult situations constructively and with as little unnecessary suffering as possible. Thought traps do not have the same positive effects. Instead, they make us avoid situations, reduce our self-confidence and make us experience more negative emotions such as fear, sadness and anger.

21 common thought traps with examples

Thought traps are thus ways of thinking that seem true but are not reasonable, realistic or relevant to the situation. To be able to notice when we are using these thought traps and learn to talk back to them are important parts of therapy. Below are 21 common thought traps and examples.

1 Overgeneralization is when a negative event is viewed as a future permanent pattern, as when something bad happens just once, it is expected to happen repeatedly again. A common example is a person who has a negative dating experience thinks this will happen repeatedly and hence avoids dating.

2 Labelling is when a person generalizes qualities into a negative judgment/label about themselves or another person. This is often done instead of describing a specific behavior or disregarding the context of a specific situation. Labelling also ignores seeing a behavior as something the person did that does not define the person. Hence, labelling is an extreme form of overgeneralization that disregards the context and other causes. Examples of global labelling are “I am an idiot” and “I am incompetent” when a specific activity does not turn out as intended or a mistake is made.

3 Mislabelling involves describing an event with a highly colored and emotionally charged language. Examples of this are labelling sick people as lazy or hesitancy as being a coward.

4 Mental filtering is when a person views all situations in the same, often negative, light. A mental filter is like wearing eye glasses that magnify the negative details and filter out the positive aspects of a situation. An example might be when someone has had a meeting and only focus on one incident, such as a specific comment that was not well received. After the meeting, the person insists that the whole conversation was a disaster, even though there were also good moments and consensus on most things. Mental filtering is the opposite of overgeneralization but it has the same negative results. It can make the person overly sensitive to feedback, viewing all comments as criticism.

5 Polarized ‘black or white’, ‘all or nothing’ thinking: In this kind of thinking, situations are only seen in extremes, either ‘black or white’ or ‘all or nothing’. This is common in perfectionism when one either performs as expected or consider oneself worthless. There are no shades of gray or allowing for the complexity of most people and situations. Another common example is when a person who lapsed in judgement once is treated as a person who cannot be trusted, considering an experience of a behavior as a permanent personality trait rather than depending on the situation, other relationships etc.

6 Jumping to Conclusions, including mindreading and fortune-telling, is when a person draws conclusions based on too little information and hence avoids certain activities without real or sufficient evidence. One example is “There is no point in looking for a job since the unemployment rate is so high right now’.

7 Mindreading is when one assumes that one knows what another person is feeling, thinking and hence will react even when not yet having sufficient information. For example, a person may conclude that someone dislikes him/her/them, but has no intention of finding out whether this is correct or not. Expecting that others’ views of oneself are negative without sufficient supporting evidence is common in social anxiety.

8 Fortune-telling is when predicting that a situation will turn out in a specific, often negative way. This is often the case behind many kinds of negative expectations in anxiety, such as catastrophic thinking as when fearing a panic-attack. Often the purpose is to try to avoid something difficult or unpleasant. Fortune-telling is also believing that the future will not change for the better for the person, such as when being convinced that one will remain depressed, unemployed, eternally single etc.

9 Catastrophizing, including Magnifying and Minimizing, is when one is expecting an unavoidable disaster, such as expecting to die or go mad from a panic attack and therefore not wanting to leave the house. This distortion is often the result of using ‘what if’ questions to a problem and imagining that the worst possible scenario inevitably will happen.

10 Magnifying is exaggerating the importance of insignificant events, shortcomings, mistakes and problems as if they were very serious. A person with low self-esteem may magnify a small mistake and claim that it is due to a personality flaw. Magnifying is often about fearing the consequences of making a mistake and therefore makes one avoid doing necessary activities and challenging oneself.

11 Minimizing is making a significant event appear tiny, such as disregarding praise and positive feedback. Minimizing is when you reduce the importance of various factors. When minimizing, you make a significant effort seem small. An example is to minimize the importance of the desirable traits you have and that contribute to your results. For example, minimizing is to ignore praise and see the outcome as if it is due to pure luck and coincidence: “They will soon discover that I am false and incompetent, a hoax”.

12 Personalization is when a person believes that everything others do or say is a direct and personal reaction to them or when blaming oneself for a situation that in reality involves many factors. Personalization also often includes comparing oneself to others to decide who is the smartest, prettiest, most popular etc. Another type of personalization is seeing oneself as the cause of unhealthy external events that one was not responsible for, such as thinking that it was a catastrophe for everyone at an event when one had to leave a performance early due to illness.

13 Blaming is related to personalization and is about blaming only one person, yourself or somebody else, for a situation that in reality involved many different factors. An example is to blame only one person for an accident or a conflict involving many people. Blaming also involves holding other persons responsible for own emotional pain. It is also when one is blaming oneself for all problems, even those clearly outside of own control. Another example is blaming someone for ‘making’ them feel in a specific way, since feelings only can be managed by the person having them.

14 Statements including words such as should, ought to, have to or must is another category of thought trap. These words are perceived as rules. They are self-imposed and include criticism about how oneself and others should behave. They often mirror unattainable standards. Breaking these rules often leads to anger against others who break the rules or guilt if it is oneself who is breaking the rules. Using these rules can be perceived as a way of motivating oneself or others. They are often connected to a punishment if one fails to live by them.

15 Emotional Reasoning is when a person’s emotions takes over the thinking entirely, neglecting rationality and logic. This is a way of judging oneself or the circumstances based on one’s enhanced emotions, often colored by disproportionate fear. These emotions are believed to be true automatically and unconditionally. An example is thinking that if one feels stupid and boring, then this must be true.

16 Always Being Right is when a person is testing other people to prove that own opinions and actions are the only correct ones. Being wrong is unthinkable. Hence, such a person will often go to any length to demonstrate that one is being right. A common example is behaving like: “I do not care how bad arguing makes you feel. I am going to win this argument no matter what, because I am right and it is very important to be right.” Being right is more important than the feelings of others around, even loved ones. Being right is to a large extent connected to the person’s self-worth.

17 Control fallacy involves two different but related beliefs about being in complete control of every situation:

– If we feel externally controlled, we see ourselves as helpless, as a victim of fate. For example: “It is not my fault if the dinner taste bad since my parents never taught me how to cook”

– If we feel internally controlled, we feel responsible for the pain and happiness of everyone around. For example: “What did I do to make you so unhappy?”

18 The fallacy of fairness is when a person is resentful because the person is sure about what is fair, but other people do not agree. People who go through life judging every situation based on its fairness will often feel resentful, angry, and even hopeless, because life is not always fair and things will not always work out in a person’s favour even when they should.

19 The fallacy of change is when a person expects that other people will change if they are pressured enough. This need to change people is often due to the thought that own success and happiness depend on this change in others. This is common when reasoning about relationships. An example is a girlfriend who tries to get her boyfriend to improve his behaviour in the belief that this is the only thing missing and that only changing a few minor things will make them happy.

20 Heaven’s reward fallacy is the false belief that it pays off for a person to make sacrifices, as if a global force, maybe God, will make sure to reward the person by making the wishes come true. This fallacy is very close to the fallacy of fairness, because in a fair world, the people who work the hardest should get the largest rewards. But life is not fair. There are terrible accidents and diseases. A person who makes large sacrifices and works hard but does not get the expected rewards will often feel resentful and bitter when the pay-off does not come as expected.

21Discounting the positives is ignoring or invalidating good things that is happening, such as when somebody insists that own accomplishments or positive qualities do not count. For example, the person might think that the outcome is an accident as if having pure luck when managing to take a degree, get a scholarship, manage to complete a difficult task etc.

Example of how you can challenge common thought traps with CBT in 5 steps

Step 1: Start by identifying your negative thought traps and write them down on a piece of paper with four columns. Use the first column for your thought traps. 

Step 2: Critically examine your thought traps based on what evidence you have that supports and disproves that the thought trap is true – ask people around you for their opinion. Write your evidence proving your thought trap in the second column and your evidence against the thought trap being true in the third column.

Step 3: Write down a healthier, more realistic and supportive thought for each thought trap in the fourth column. For example: “Although this is difficult for me, I get better by practicing. Everyone is a beginner from the start and I know that I am learning new things. I can only get better by actively trying”. 

Step 4: Check if the positive thought is sufficiently supportive. If necessary, reformulate the supportive thought so that it becomes more supportive based on whether the sentence mirrors what you would say to your friend or a child if they had the same thought trap.

Step 5: Be sure to actively respond to every thought trap you hear that you are saying to yourself in everyday life with a new supportive thought, whether you believe in the thought or not. It will work in the long run, because the activity of talking back makes you slowly but surely realize that thoughts are not necessarily true. Since thoughts are not true per se, we often feel better by choosing more supportive thoughts.

Other sources for challenging difficult thought traps with examples from CBT

You will find more about how you can master thought traps and increase your self-esteem in the course Develop self-esteem & boost your confidence

Another article about how to work with thought traps with similar CBT techniques can be found in the Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2020/01/how-anxiety-traps-us-and-how-we -can-break-free

Worksheets for working with thought traps can be found at: https://positivepsychology.com/challenging-automatic-thoughts-positive-thoughts-worksheets/