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Breaking Free from Thinking Traps: How Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Can Help

Do you find yourself falling for the same unhelpful thinking patterns time and time again? You’re not alone! Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) identifies several thinking traps that get in the way for a lot of us! This post will talk about some of the most common thinking traps and some ways to break the cycle! (Note: These tips shouldn’t completely replace therapy! There’s probably some stuff under the surface that contributes to these patterns!)


What are thinking traps?

Thinking traps, according to the CBT model, is a version of cognitive distortions which are irrational or negative thought patterns that lead to unhelpful thoughts and/or behaviors. These traps and thinking patterns can lead to people believing things that aren’t true or accurate. You might be asking “how can does this happen?” Great question! The brain is a powerful organ with the ability to make us believe things that aren’t true especially when fear, anger, or other intense emotions are added to the equation. These patterns are exactly what they sounds like: TRAPS! When we get caught in them, we get stuck and can’t break free. Let’s talk about the different versions of thinking traps.


Black and White or All-or-Nothing Thinking

This type of thinking happens when people struggle to see or acknowledge the middle ground in a situation. Something might be all good or all bad. Or they might believe that things need to be perfect or they’re a total failure. There is no middle ground or in between. As you may have guessed, this pattern can be problematic because few things in our world are so clear cut that we can make an all-or-nothing judgment. Make a list of the factors at play or give yourself credit for trying your best to challenge this pattern. Listing out all the components of the situation will make it much easier for you to see that the situation isn’t black and white. You can challenge the perfectionistic thinking by reminding yourself that it is impossible to be perfect and that it is okay to have things to work on. You can also tell yourself that you can’t do more than your best!



This thinking pattern happens when we view a situation as worse than it is. We might assume the worst possible outcome is a given or that something will have a much bigger impact on us than it really will. For example, believing that a bad grade on a single assignment or test will cause you to be rejected by every college you apply to is catastrophic thinking. Assuming that a someone no longer wants to be your friend because they didn't reply to your text is also catastrophic thinking. As you might be able to see, this line of thinking can easily cause problems because most things don’t end up being catastrophic. Get out of this pattern by finding ways to identify other possible outcomes that aren’t as bad. For example, reminding yourself that one assignment won’t determine your whole future. Or thinking about how your friend is in the middle of raising kids and working a full time job which may have led to them forgetting about your text.


Mind Reading

This is one of my favorite patterns to challenge in sessions! Mind reading happens when people act like they know what others are thinking about them. This usually takes the form of believing that others think the worst of you. For example, “she thinks I don’t care about her because I didn’t call her back today”. In sessions, my first question is usually “how do you know? Did they tell you that?” This thinking pattern is usually a projection of our fears of what others think of us without the evidence to back it up. Ask yourself, “what would I think if the roles were reversed and this happened to me?” Chances are you would not think the worst of a friend who didn't call you back right away. If you wouldn’t think that way, then you can likely believe that your friend also wouldn’t think that way.



This happens when people maximize their failures and minimize their successes. If your brain was a chalkboard with columns for failures and successes, the failures column would be full of tallies while the successes would have few to none. You might have also heard friends say things like “you’re so successful” or “you have done so many amazing things” while your internal dialogue is “yeah.. but I also forgot to pay the internet bill and I got fired from my last job before I got this one”. In your mind, those negative moments or events outweigh the positive ones which leads to you feeling as if your accomplishments aren’t that great. You can start to challenge this by telling yourself good job every day. Got out of bed today? Tell yourself great job! Finished that report you’ve been working on for weeks? Way to go, self! Acknowledge the things you complete or accomplish- just because it isn’t a monumental accomplishment doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of praise!


This is only a partial list of thinking traps that people fall into (keep an eye out for a future post with more traps!), but it’s a start. There are lots of ways to get out of these thinking patterns. If you found yourself identifying with some of these patterns, talk to your therapist about it! For many people, these patterns have been present for years and need some exploration and understanding before a full un-doing can occur. 

Written By,

Alyssa Onan, LPC



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