Home Lifestyle Your Brain Is Playing Tricks On You: 13 Cognitive Traps

Your Brain Is Playing Tricks On You: 13 Cognitive Traps

by Dorsey McFadden

This article will be about cognitive distortions, or traps and how they can influence your thinking. These are NOT unique to ADHD yet I find I’ve been guilty of all of them at times. We’re only human after all.

Cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT is one of the highly suggested treatments for ADHD. In this type of therapy, a psychologist helps a person change their behavior by exploring their patterns of thought. When we can identify negative thinking patterns, we can challenge them, uncovering where they came from and why we still believe them. Slowly and surely, this self analysis helps to reduce negative thinking, replacing it with more rational thinking.

Have you ever thought to yourself “That person does not like me,” about someone you’ve had little interaction with? If so, perhaps you’ve been caught in a cognitive trap and didn’t even know it. These 13 traps hijack your brain. And you won’t even realize it unless you’re aware of these traps.

Cognitive traps are the way our brain convinces us that something is real when it’s not. Typically these false thoughts reinforce negative thinking and pessimism. By simply becoming aware of and acknowledging these patterns of thinking, you begin the process of changing your mindset.

What’s a fact and what’s a feeling?

Before we go into these traps, we need to be on the same page about what is a fact, what is a feeling or emotion, and what is a thought. Understanding their differences is essential to exploring your own thinking patterns and mindset.

Example: Suzy went to a party, where Rob bumped into the table and she spilled a drink all over herself. Everyone started laughing and she felt stupid. She left crying and now hates Rob because she thinks he did it on purpose as a joke.

Facts:

  • There was a party
  • Suzy had a drink
  • Rob bumped into the table
  • People laughed
  • Suzy left

Feelings or emotions:

  • Suzy felt stupid
  • Suzy hates Rob

Now hold on to this example and we’ll explore it in more detail after this list.

Cognitive Traps

  1. Mind Reading – We believe that we know what someone is thinking, typically assuming they’re thinking the worst of us.
  2. Fortune Telling – Similarly fortune telling is predicting that things will turn out bad. You aren’t psychic and can’t tell the future. Sorry. This is all guess work.<
  3. Polarized or Black and White Thinking – This is where you look at a situation in terms of extremes (black and white, good or bad). In this trap, if you don’t achieve what you set out to do, you view yourself as a failure.
  4. Over-Generalization – Based on one or two incidences, you come to a generalization of an overall pattern. When something bad happens, and you assume that you’re always doomed to repeat the same mistakes, you’ve fallen into the overgeneralization trap.
  5. Filtering – In this trap you stop seeing anything but the negative aspects of a situation and ignore the positive.
  6. Catastrophizing – In this trap, you imagine the worst that could possibly happen, thus stopping yourself from ever taking action.. In reality, the worst case scenarios hardly ever happen. A form of Catastrophizing, Magnifying happens when a person magnifies the importance of one event in their life – letting that define them.
    Conversely, with Minimizing (aka disqualifying the positive) you shrink the importance and significance of your positive qualities and contributions.
  7. Labeling and Mislabeling – Attaching a negative label to yourself or someone else, based on a single mistake, is labeling and it’s an extreme form of generalization.
  8. Personalization – In this trap you think everything, every action, is a direct reaction to you. Many times, other people’s actions or reactions are a reflection of them, and may have nothing to do with you.
  9. Should Statements – We all have beliefs but when those beliefs become personal rules on how you or others should live – this is a cognitive trap. These are only your beliefs.
  10. Emotional Reasoning – Emotional reasoning is taking your emotions or feelings as fact. Emotional reasoning is a powerful way to justify negative thinking, regardless of the facts.
  11. Heaven’s Reward Fallacy or Fallacy of Fairness – This trap manifests as a belief that one’s struggles will result in a just reward in the end. But life isn’t fair – thinking it should be is definitely a cognitive trap.
  12. Always Being Right – People who fall into this trap often put others on trial to prove their own options and actions are correct and justified. If being right is more important than relationships – you’ve fallen into this trap.
  13. Control Fallacies (aka Magical thinking) – These go two ways. With external control fallacy, we have no control over our own lives–we are victims of fate. Internal control fallacy leads us to believe we are responsible for the emotions and feels of everyone around us. Both are extremes and both lead to negative thinking.

Let’s get back to Suzy and look at her thoughts again.

  • Rob did it on purpose
  • People laughed at me

Using the list above, we can see that Suzy has fallen for a few of them. Suzy can’t know if Rob did it on purpose or not. She suspects he did but what if he didn’t? She’s not a mind reader. She also thinks people laughed at her. Again she can’t really know what aspect of the situation they were laughing at. She also can’t assume they were laughing at her–by doing so, she’s personalizing the event.

Once you’re aware of these traps you’ll start to notice and identify them in your own thinking. Get curious and consider where a thought originates from. Was it a parent’s comment, something you learned to believe as a child, or did it get into your thinking some other way? After you’re able to label them you can begin to gently refute them and change your mindset. Replacing those negative thought patterns with more balanced rational thinking can only improve your life.

So how can you challenge these cognitive traps? Ask yourself a few questions and see where they take you.

  • Is this thought a fact?
  • What evidence do I have that this thought is a fact?
  • Is this thought helpful?
  • Are there other ways I can think about this situation?
  • Am I blaming myself?
  • Is it in my control?
  • What or who else contributed to the situation?
  • Am I making assumptions?
  • Am I assuming the worst?
  • Am I holding myself to an impossibly high standard?
  • Are there exceptions to these absolutely?
  • Am I making this personal?

If you want to put more work into this I suggest checking out this worksheet from Therapist Aid. This is the type of critical thinking work you’d typically do with your Psychologist/Therapist. Using it you’ll examine your negative thoughts, making good decisions about which to challenge and which to embrace.

So tell us below, which of these do you struggle with the most?

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