Our thinking gets us into trouble. It can undermine our resilience. It gets in the way of accurate thinking and being able to respond well in difficult situations As Dr Albert Ellis said:
'People and things do not upset us. Rather we upset ourselves by believing they upset us'.
In their excellent book 'The Resilience Factor' Reivich and Shatte outline seven skills of resilience. Among these skills is Avoiding Thinking Traps. This is about learning how to identify the habitual thinking we have when faced with adversity that leads to undermining our resilience. For example, when things go wrong, do you automatically blame yourself, or others? Perhaps you jump to conclusions or assume the worst case scenario.
Our 'Book of Life Rules' get in the way
We might be the smartest species on the planet but our thoughts and beliefs are prone to error. The authors identify eight thinking traps that interfere directly with our resilience and affect how we handle set backs and daily stresses. And if that isn't sufficient to create difficulties, each of us tends to be vulnerable to one or two in particular. We fall into traps because we have to make sense of the world and so develop what I like to call our own personal 'book of life rules'. All these traps enforce our book of rules, especially the ones we are prone to (heard of the phrase 'self fulfilling prophesy'?). So our resilience is undermined when we act and communicate based on these thoughts and beliefs. We look at a situation one way, even though there are many other ways to see it. Distorted thinking adds to anxiety too.
What are the thinking traps?
- Jumping to conclusions - making automatic assumptions without any evidence or data.
- Tunnel vision - only seeing and focusing on the negatives in a situation; only processing and using information consistent with one's beliefs and ignoring those that cause discomfort.
- Magnifying and minimising - the tendency to over value or under value experiences of events; again, focusing on the negatives.
- Me, me, me (personalising) - thinking things are your own fault, that problems are of your own doing.
- You, you, you (externalising) - what goes wrong is someone else's fault.
- Always happens (overgeneralising) - you make 'always and everything' explanations about yourself and fail to see the range of causes and explanations for things that happen.
- Mind reading - believing we know what someone else is thinking (IMPOSSIBLE by the way!). Some mind readers expect others to know what they are thinking as well. People who mind read tend to also jump to conclusions.
- Emotional reasoning - drawing conclusions about things based on your emotional state.
How do I learn to avoid these traps?
Reivich and Shatte recommend asking yourself specific questions to challenge your thinking and learn to avoid thinking traps. I have a great four step exercise that will help with thinking traps and boost resilience.
Thoughts are not facts exercise
The idea of this exercise is to put some space between you and a common reaction you have to adversity, a conflict situation. The aim is to change your relationship with your thoughts and beliefs, watch them 'come and go' instead of treating them as fact.
Step 1 - Ask yourself 'IS IT TRUE?' You may answer back to yourself 'yes' (because this always happens - note the partner trap here). Your brain is just reacting initially on auto pilot. Stick with it. and go to.....
Step 2 - Ask yourself 'IS THIS ABSOLUTELY TRUE?' Is this thought 100% accurate? Can you see the thought in a different way?
Step 3 - Ask yourself 'HOW DOES THIS THOUGHT MAKE ME FEEL?' You are consciously connecting a thought to a feeling. Notice any story lines you are holding onto. Name the feeling(s) to yourself, e.g. sad, jealous, hurt.
Step 4 - Now ask yourself the important question: 'WHAT WOULD THINGS BE LIKE IF I DIDN'T HOLD THIS BELIEF?' Let yourself imagine the potential benefits to yourself, your situation, relationships, energy levels, motivation.