Our brains are wired to make sense of things by drawing connections between thoughts, ideas, actions, and consequences. But sometimes, they can be straight up wrong, negative, or misleading.
Cognitive behavioral therapists call these instances "cognitive distortions." These traps cause us to perceive reality differently than how it really is — and the most successful people have learned how to recognize and avoid these errors in thinking at all costs.
While writing my book, "The More or Less Definitive Guide to Self-Care," I researched and interviewed psychologists to learn how these thought patterns can get in the way of our health, happiness, and ability to past struggles and achieve our goals.
Here are some of the most common mental traps that hold us back from success — and how to overcome them:
Mistaking our emotions as evidence for the truth is one of the most common mental traps we fall into.
Example: "I feel like my ideas are worthless, therefore I shouldn't share them in this meeting."
To combat emotional reasoning, cognitive therapists suggest asking yourself questions like, "What are the facts that support my emotionally-based determination?" Or, "Is it possible that my feelings are clouded by some bias that ought to be reevaluated?"
When you stop transforming your feelings into truths, you gain the logic and clarity that will allow you to make smarter decisions.
We engage in blaming when we hold others accountable for our own actions and feelings.
Example: On your way out to work, your cat escaped through the door. "Great," you say. "Now I'm going to be late, and it's the cat's fault."
We often blame others because it helps us "preserve our sense of self-esteem by avoiding awareness of our own flaws or failings," according to Susan Whitbourne, a Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
But failing to take responsibility for the consequences of your own behavior means you're not learning from your mistakes. And being able to grow through your experiences, especially the unpleasant ones, is crucial to success.
"Playing the blame game is irrational, and it stigmatizes the other party," says Gustavo Razzetti, author of "Stretch Your Mind." He suggests that practicing empathy can help you quit the habit of blaming. "Focus on understanding the other person. Try walking in his or her shoes. Get rid of the 'right-wrong' approach."
Many of us have fallen down the negative spiral of expecting disaster to strike, no matter what.
Example: The news reports that a storm is approaching. You start to imagine all the bad things that can happen: "What if my house gets destroyed?" "What if someone I love gets hurt?" "What if I get hurt?"
Fear, especially irrational fear, plays a big part in catastrophizing, researchers have found. But always anticipating the worst possible outcome is far from useful. In fact, studies show that it can lead to anxiety and depression.
Psychologist Judith Beth, best known for her work in cognitive behavioral therapy, recommends listing the advantages and disadvantages of putting your time and energy into catastrophizing. Or, she says, it may help to play "devil's advocate," and list all the best-case (or even OK-case) scenarios. You may find yourself in a calmer, less anxious, and clearer state of mind.
In the fallacy of fairness, a person believes that every situation should be determined by what is fair.
Example: You're bitter that your colleague got a promotion — and you didn't. You complain to yourself that it isn't fair: "She rarely shows up to work on time and I probably work much harder than her."
But guess what? As you've probably been told several times as a child: Life isn't always fair. When engage in the fallacy of fairness, you're more likely to wind up feeling angry, resentful, or hopeless.
Psychology professors at Brigham Young University-Idaho suggest that stating your feelings as preferences can help change the way you feel about a situation.
So instead of letting yourself be consumed by bitterness, tell yourself: "It would be nice to get a promotion, but I don't always have control over that. Perhaps I can talk to my boss about how I can get one next year."
Personalization involves taking everything personally or assigning blame to yourself, without any logical reason.
Example: "My son got an 'F' on his final exam, and it's all my fault. I should've spent more time helping him study."
Psychologists have found that personalization can lead to guilt, shame, and feelings of inadequacy. To work through this cognitive distortion, take a step back and think about what part you played in the situation. Then consider how you might not be entirely to blame.
By looking at things from an outsider's perspective, you may discover that there were a variety of factors at play, and that the outcome is not a direct reflection of you.
Anna Borges is a writer, podcast host, mental health advocate, and senior health editor for SELF. Previously, she was a senior health and wellness writer at BuzzFeed. Her work has appeared in BuzzFeed, Cosmopolitan, The Outline, SELF, and more. "The More or Less Definitive Guide to Self-Care" is her first book.
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