Thinking Traps Part I: Jumping to Conclusions

This is the first of a series of posts on Thinking Traps, also called Cognitive Distortions or Stinky Thinking. Thinking Traps are common mistakes of reasoning and logic that seem to naturally occur in the human mind. A primary aim of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is to help people identify and challenge these unhelpful thoughts and thus change their mental habits for the better. Enjoy!

Pam* is a Mind-Reader. She started a new job earlier in the year. After initially settling in well, she has started to feel excluded by the other women in the office. “They think I’m stuck-up because I eat alone” she says. “I can tell they don’t like me; you just get the feeling when you walk in the room, it feels awkward”.

Terry* is a Fortune-Teller. “You’re going to tell me I just need to get out and meet more people” he informs me about my future actions. “Well, I’ll tell you what will happen, what always happens – other people just won’t want to talk with me”.

The human brain is an amazing thing. Not only does it help us manage the moment that we are in, but it also travels to other times and other moments to try to manage these. This is one big difference between our brains and those of animals – our ability to mentally project. Where does the mind typically go when it journeys? Most commonly into the minds of others or into the future.

Mind Reading

Putting ourselves into the minds of others can be an incredibly useful thing. If we can understand how others might think and feel about our actions, we might be able to stop ourselves from offending or hurting them. Take Jack for example. Jack wants to make a joke about the Labour Party to his work mates. Jack sees Jill at work. Jack recalls that Jill likes the Labour Party and can be quite sensitive about perceived criticism of her likes. Jack doesn’t tell joke. Jack’s journey to the mind of Jill potentially saved him from forming an enemy. Most people do this. There’s nothing wrong with this.

Problems can arise with this mental journeying, however. Take Pam for example. Pam has a Social Isolation Schema. Because of this, she has a mental habit of expecting that people (especially in groups) will find her different or unusual. When she journeys to minds of others, she hears them judging her. Hearing these judgements makes her feel sad, anxious and ashamed. She copes with these emotions by avoiding groups of people.  Pam’s mind reading makes her miserable and isolated. It causes more problems than it solves.

Fortune Telling

To the best of our knowledge dogs and cats and infants have no concept or tomorrow. Humans on the other hand can imagine themselves at any moment in the calendar. This incredibly useful ability is what allows us to work today for future rewards. If I want to consume large amounts of alcohol on a Monday, I may take a mental journey (in the little world) to Tuesday morning at work with a hangover. This journey turns out to be so unpleasant that I avoid having another drink. This ability foresee problems is what creates anxiety and enables responsibility. It is a big part of why you are the boss and not your pet or your young daughter.

Problems can arise with this ability to foresee the future. Take Terry for example. Terry has a Pessimism Schema. Terry has a mental habit of expecting the worst. Terry’s futures, when he journeys there, are bleak and dystopic. These journeys make him feel anxious and hopeless. He lacks motivation and rarely tries new things.

What can we do?

“Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr Jones?”

Bob Dylan – Ballard of a Thin Man

When we recognise that we have a tendency to jump to conclusions, the first thing we should do is admit doubt. The truth is, we don’t know the future. The truth is, we don’t know what others are thinking. When we admit these things, we start the process of breaking old connections, old habits. Mindfulness Meditation can help give us distance from our thoughts, help us discern fact from theory. Thus, we start the process of opening new possibilities. A new state of mind.

* names and key details changed to protect anonymity

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