Do you tend to very quickly fall into a negative mindset when you encounter an obstacle? Do you notice yourself often giving up because you’re sure things won’t turn out well? Are you quick to judge a situation or person without adequate information? If so, you may be getting caught in negative thinking traps.
How we experience the world and interpret events is influenced by a number of different factors. Our experiences growing up and how we saw important people in our lives deal with life’s ups and downs, very often determines the extent to which we develop negative thinking traps. For instance, if a parent was constantly making negative comments, expecting the worst and generally saw life through a black lens, chances are that you may have developed similar bad habits. The same may also have happened if you were not given the correct support and encouragement as a child when you experienced difficult or distressing events. The good news is that, with awareness and some extra effort, you can learn to process information and events without falling into negative thinking patterns.
Here are some of the most common negative thinking traps people fall into:
Black and white thinking
This is where things or people are seen as all bad or all good, right or wrong, without seeing anything in-between. To give you an example, a colleague snaps at you one morning and you conclude angrily, ‘John’s a jerk. I won’t be speaking to him again.’ Opening up to shades of grey would be to ask yourself: ‘Does John normally behave in this way? Could it be that something upset or stressed him?’ You may then remember that John is usually quite friendly and polite. Seeing the grey areas would mean refraining from making drastic conclusions and maintaining a more balanced, open mindset.
This is where we predict an outcome, usually negative, often causing that very thing we dread to happen. For instance, prior to going to a party, you may predict ‘No-one is going to like me so I’ll end up alone in a corner.’ You’re so convinced of this that you walk into the party looking so stiff and tense that people feel hesitant to approach you. Had you walked in, however, looking open and friendly, chances are that people would have naturally welcomed and accepted you. If you notice yourself fortune-telling, ask yourself ‘How can I know this is going to happen? Is there another alternative?’
There’s nothing like catastrophising to send you into a whirlwind of panic and anxiety. In catastrophising, we convince ourselves that the worst-case scenario is going to play out. For instance, ‘If I don’t do well on this presentation, my boss will fire me and I’ll never find another job’. Oh boy! With that kind of pressure, how can you not mess up the presentation? If you have a tendency to catastrophise, instead, ask yourself, ‘How likely is this to happen? Are there other alternatives?’. A more balanced mindset to the previous example would be – ‘If I mess up this presentation my boss will be disappointed. It’s unlikely to escalate further since my work is generally good.’ Here, you would see this event as part of a larger picture, creating a more balanced perspective.
This is when we assume we know what another person is thinking or feeling, usually about us or something we’ve done. For example, you send a text to a friend and they don’t reply immediately, causing a cascade of explanations as to why. ‘I’m bothering him; I’m really too much; He’s sick to death of me’. A healthier approach would be to remember that there may be many reasons that your friend hasn’t replied to your message. He may be busy, distracted, or going through his own difficulties.
I once knew someone who went on a first date and, because he was so nervous and found it hard to make conversation, decided he was a failure in the dating game and avoided dating from there on. Labelling is where you experience a setback or make a mistake and then label yourself based on this one negative event. In this example, rather than writing the experience off as a typically awkward dating experience and an opportunity to work on his confidence or social skills, this person concluded he was a hopeless dater and gave up before giving himself a real chance.
Have you ever received positive feedback from a number of persons, only to receive one piece of negative feedback and then forgotten anything positive previously received? This is filtering, when we dismiss or ignore anything positive whilst focusing on the negative. If you notice yourself doing this, ask yourself – ‘Am I noticing only the negative stuff? What positive things am I overlooking or skimming past?’
Breaking out of negative thinking traps is no mean feat since it means unlearning old habits and creating new ones. However, these small, daily changes to our thinking can make a huge difference to the quality of our lives, reducing anxiety and depression, and increasing our general well-being.