How to avoid the 9 ‘thinking traps’ stopping you from achieving your goals

depressed lonely
In cognitive behavioural therapy, all thinking traps have one thing in common: as a general rule, they aren’t realistic, nor are they helpful.

  • As soon as something goes wrong in our lives, we tend to fall into negative “thinking traps”.
  • Not only do they prevent us from achieving our goals; they can have a serious effect on our health.
  • Psychologist Elke Overdick says there’s a way to rid yourself of some of these thinking traps.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The moment something unforeseen happens, many of us tend to slip into negative thinking habits.

Not only do these thinking patterns drag you down when it comes to achieving your goals – they can, in extreme cases, be detrimental to your health.

“Humans are very creative when it comes to finding new ways of thinking unconstructively and unrealistically,” explained psychologist Elke Overdick. “But in my experience, these nine – with which I enjoy working very much – are the most common.”

In cognitive-behavioral therapy, all thinking traps have one thing in common. As a general rule, they don’t meet the criteria for appropriate thinking:

  1. Thinking should be realistic.
  2. They should be helpful.

That may sound pretty obvious but it’s hard to ensure all your thoughts always fulfill these two criteria.

Take perfectionism or people-pleasing as examples: neither thought pattern is realistic or helpful and yet many of us fall into these thinking traps. Unfortunately, by the time we notice, it’s usually too late.

“To be honest, I’ve never met anyone, myself included, who isn’t affected by thinking traps,” said Overdick.

In an interview with Insider, she explained how you can manage or even rid yourself of these negative thinking patterns.

Being an overly harsh critic

Self-deprecation is one of the most common and worst thought traps.
Self-deprecation is one of the most common and worst thought traps.

Self-deprecation can be very damaging.

“I think it’s the worst thinking trap of them all,” said Overdick.

If you keep telling yourself you’re not likable or loveable, that means you’re focusing single-mindedly on your weaknesses.

“And if you only look at your weaknesses,” she said, “then, of course, it will be hard to like yourself because you’re not picking up on your strengths or your potential.”

How to get out of the thinking trap

If you’re doing the above, are your thought patterns reasonable? Probably not.

“If you have friends or there are people in your family who enjoy spending time with you, that’s evidence that, realistically, you have positive or lovable qualities”.

As well as bearing this in mind, it might also be helpful to make a list of your own positive qualities.

If, on the other hand, it’s your work you’re devaluing and you genuinely believe you aren’t good enough for your job, you need to bear in mind that companies are always thinking about how to fill vacancies.

When negative thoughts enter your head, actively try to remind yourself to be realistic by saying “I am lovable” or “I make an important contribution”.

Catastrophizing

stressed office worker
If anxious thoughts get out of hand and become unrealistic, you’ve fallen into a thinking trap.

“Anxious thoughts can be rational and, to a certain extent, serve an important purpose,” said Overdick.

“If we’re afraid or worried, we may be able to better prepare ourselves for or avoid situations that endanger us — however, if the thoughts get out of hand and become unrealistic, you’ve fallen into a thinking trap.

How to get out of the thinking trap

Overdick likes to work with five questions against fears and inhibitions. These questions can help bring your fearful thoughts down to a realistic level and work as a good guard against catastrophic thinking. Here they are:

1. What’s the worst that could happen?

2. What can I do to prevent “the worst that could happen”?

3. How likely is it the worst thing will happen?

4. What can I do if the worst thing does happen?

5. What will it mean for my future if the worst thing happens?

If you take a moment to answer these questions, you may find that the problem is not as bad as you’d previously thought and, equally, that the worst-case scenario isn’t either.

Rather than worrying, try saying to yourself: “I can handle it” or “There is always a way”.

Taking on too much responsibility

Those who want to take care of everything end up more susceptible to burnout.
Aiming to take care of everything will only make you more susceptible to burnout.

Do you sometimes feel responsible for things that are out of your hands? Do you often feel like you want to influence things you can’t change?

That’s a sign you have a tendency to take on too much responsibility.

While it may sound a positive trait, unfortunately, your behavior can also have a negative impact on others, as Overdick explains: “People in this thinking trap sometimes tend to incapacitate others without intending to and, obviously, with no malicious intent at all — but not delegating tasks to others might prevent those people from learning something and progressing themselves.”

How to get out of the thinking trap

Sometimes you can take the time to ask yourself whether something is really your job, or you can ask yourself whether you can actually influence a situation.

Remind yourself: “That’s not my job”, “I have no influence over this” or “I’ll let another person do this for their own development”.

Dealing only in absolutes

demands
Unfortunately, you have to face the facts: you are not the measure of all things.

We all have values and standards we adhere to in life.

People who fall into the trap of absolute demands, “musts”, and “shoulds” find it very important to adhere to these values — perhaps even to an exaggerated degree.

“If someone doesn’t adhere to your standards and you can’t accept that, you’ll end up angry. Often we forget that our values aren’t universal.”

How to get out of the thinking trap

Unfortunately, you have to face the facts: you are not the measure of all things.

“Sometimes it’s also good to be in others’ shoes. Other people have different rules that may be just as good and valuable to them as yours are to you,” Overdick explains. “The trick to managing this trap lies in accepting that there are basically no universal values and standards.”

Values and standards are subjective — they vary from person to person and are influenced by things like upbringing, culture, religion, and education.

Alternatives thoughts for when you find yourself stuck in the “must” or “should” mindset are “I am not the measure of all things” or “standards and values are subjective”.

Perfectionism

mirror
If you don’t allow yourself to make mistakes, you aren’t just putting yourself under a lot of pressure: you can’t develop any further either.

Salvador Dali once said: “Have no fear of perfection — you’ll never reach it.”

Perfectionists expect themselves and others to be perfect and end up failing massively.

“It’s unrealistic and unattainable,” said Overdick.

However, perfectionism shouldn’t be confused with striving to improve.

It’s useful to strive to better oneself so you can develop, progress, and be successful. Perfectionism, on the other hand, is not.

“If you don’t allow yourself to make mistakes, you aren’t just putting yourself under a lot of pressure; you can’t develop any further either because, without mistakes, you can’t learn.

How to get out of the thinking trap

The goal should be to see the positive in mistakes and to accept one’s own mistakes, as well as those of others.

“Mistakes are a learning experience and help you to progress. They teach you how to do things differently and how to get closer to your goals.

Instead of looking into the past with an “Oh God, how could I have done that” mentality, Overdick said it’s more productive to think of the future and say to yourself: “Okay, that went badly and I did it wrong. Next time I’ll do it better.”

Alternatives phrases to say to yourself include “mistakes get me ahead in the long-run”, “mistakes are human” or even “mistakes make me likable”.

“After all, nobody wants to be around someone perfect all the time,” said the psychologist.

People-pleasing

people-pleasing party drinks woman man
It’s just unrealistic to aim to be liked by everyone.

Can you think of a single well-known public figure who has ever managed to be liked by everyone?

The Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, or Gandhi? Marilyn Monroe and John Lennon?

While all these people were admired by many, they were by no means liked by everyone. This is demonstrative of how unrealistic it is to aim to be liked by everyone.

How to get out of the thinking trap

“I think it’s very important to remind yourself that you don’t like everyone,” said Overdick.

“Whether or not someone likes you depends on so many different factors, over which you simply often have no influence at all. For example, what does the person I’m trying to impress like? If he likes tall blonds, I can’t change that I’m small and dark-haired.”

Alternatives things you can say to yourself include “It’s enough if my friends like me”, “I don’t like everyone either” or “I don’t have to be popular, it’s enough if people respect me”.

Your telephone provider doesn’t need to like you; it’s enough if you get what you need.

Trying to mind-read

man laptop meeting cafe coffee
Is your thinking rational or accurate? Probably not if you’re trying to read someone’s mind.

Sometimes it can be as little as a glance or an ambiguous comment — those who get caught up in attempting to mind-read end up interpreting others’ actions or remarks as being directed against themselves, which leads to a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

How to get out of the thinking trap

Is your thinking rational and accurate? Probably not if you’re trying to read someone’s mind.

Maybe there’s a completely different reason for the behavior you’ve picked up on.

For example, could it have something to do with the fact that the other person is stressed or under pressure? Is there a reason for his behavior that has nothing to do with you?

Counter-thoughts at times when you find yourself worrying about what someone else is thinking might include: “This behavior isn’t necessarily intended for me” or “It’s their issue; not mine”.

Self-victimizing

man orange t-shirt serious discussion argument glasses
If you can’t solve the problem alone, get help from a colleague, your manager or talk to HR.

Do you often find yourself saying: “Everyone else is to blame, not me”?

People who think like that are usually over-simplifying, according to Overdick.

“On the one hand it’s easy to cede responsibility; on the other hand — and this is the big disadvantage of this thinking trap — you end up losing sight of your own potential to influence a situation, as well as opportunities to develop yourself.”

How to get out of the thinking trap

Question the extent to which you’ve contributed to a situation.

Do you always get handed pointless, thankless tasks at work?

Well, had you ever stopped to think that, perhaps, you failed to mention that these tasks are a waste of time?

Have you ever asked to do something else? If not, then why aren’t you thinking about what you can do to change the situation?

If you can’t solve the problem alone, you can also get help — for example from a colleague, by talking to your manager or, in extreme cases, by talking to HR.

Remember to say to yourself “There’s always something I can do” or to ask yourself “How can I do something to change this?” before you start pointing fingers.

Kidding yourself when it comes to over-indulgence

whole 30 binge
Telling yourself the things that distract you from your goals are actually good for you is obviously an ineffective approach.

Sometimes it’s okay to indulge a little, but it can become problematic when you delude yourself into thinking something that isn’t all that good for you is somehow beneficial: it can prevent you from achieving your goals in the longterm.

“It’s good not to focus on goals and achievements constantly but, in the long run, continually indulging and focusing on things that distract you from what matters are actually good for you is obviously an ineffective approach,” said the psychologist.

“Unfortunately, as humans, we function in such a way that we want short term gratification but aren’t always prepared for the long term negative consequences. Take gambling addiction or food binges as an example: we’re looking for quick and immediate pleasure and, at the time, prefer to ignore the long-term negative consequences, like financial loss and weight gain.”

How to get out of the thinking trap

“I think the same logic can be applied here as for those who victimize themselves — you just need a bit of a kick up the behind,” said Overdick.

In general, it’s good to question yourself, to be critical, and to ask again and again what longterm drawbacks you may experience by seeking short term enjoyment. In that way, you can stop to consider what to do about it.

“It’s better to intervene with yourself as soon as possible.”

Useful affirmations such as “I can stand up for my own goals” may help you to stop and consider what needs to be done.

Practical tips to avoid thinking traps

happy hour friends
You can challenge your own thinking traps by finding a “sparring partner” to support you in changing your behavior, using their own experience and knowledge.

Thinking traps wouldn’t be so awful if we were able to recognize them and nip them in the bud immediately. Unfortunately, it’s usually only the case that we recognize the symptoms once they’re really getting out of hand.

One thing you can do to challenge your own thinking traps is to look for a “sparring partner”, which is basically someone who supports you using their own experience and knowledge — particularly any knowledge and experience that’s relevant to you.

“This can be anyone from a family member or partner to a good friend or colleague, and it can also be a coach or a therapist,” said Overdick, “as long as it isn’t someone who’ll be easily satisfied with your first answer.”

Another method is to write “counter-thoughts” on a small card and place them somewhere where you’ll look often during the day. It could be your wallet, your desk, or the front door — or you can also use a symbolic object.

“In psychology, we refer to these objects as ‘anchors’ — a new way of thinking ‘anchored’ into a postcard, a shell from a nice beach or a pretty piece of jewelry. The object itself is less important — it’s more important that you put it in a place where it will always actively remind you to think of the alternative.”

This is a great technique for those thoughts that resurface when you least expect them to, according to Overdick, “because they hit you even harder”.

It’s especially important that you’re reminded over and over again: you don’t adopt a new way of thinking overnight simply by flipping a switch. It takes a lot of repetition to get rid of your old thinking patterns.

“It’s like learning to play the piano — it’s not enough just to understand how a piece works; you need to consolidate what you learn through repetition and practice.”

Read the original article on Business Insider