Thinking Traps

I’ve discussed many ways to develop healthy emotions, and in this section, I am going to specifically talk about thinking traps: ways my thoughts turn feelings into negative emotion.

Sinful Living

The first one is not living up to my values and morals. If I am focused on living a righteous life, and living like the kind of person I want to become, I am less likely to experience negative emotions. When I justify sin and acting outside of my ideals, I am bound to experience a wider range of difficult feelings and negative emotions.

A related issue is when I do make a mistake, and I am unable to move past it. The mistake is often repeated, and there is an inability to get back on track. Self-talk can take the form of, “Oh I blew it, I might as well not try anymore…. I blew it, you’re so stupid…You’re just going to continue to mess up.” I fail to do anything because I don’t feel like anything I do is good enough.

The remedy is easy: repentance and righteous living. Also, I need to not strive for perfection, but just to live the best I can. It is important to recognize my mistakes, but not to beat myself up about them. Avoid tacking my self-worth to any task or circumstance: but have self-worth be intrinsic. Make small steps, one thing at a time, with gratitude.

I like noticing the difference between shame and guilt. Guilt makes you want to change and fix your actions. Shame is saying that you are your actions and you are a horrible person because you did something wrong. But who we are and what we do are different: we are children of God. We do make mistakes, but we can also fix those mistakes.

Perfectionism and Comparison

Perfectionism is not striving for excellence, it is a desire to avoid mistakes and live up to other’s expectations. Perfectionism is unobtainable. There will always be little imperfections and ways that I don’t meet when I perceive as society’s perfect image. Comparison is similar and just as damaging. It is looking to others and how they do things to see if I’m good enough. With it brings an inherent need to measure up, or I will not be worthy or valuable.

“Should” and “must” in my mental dialogue can be a sign that I am striving for perfection and comparing. The words often make me feel guilty or like I have already failed. Just trying to restate a dialogue without a should or a must can begin the process of dropping comparison.

Perfectionism is overcome with a good enough attitude: not working to please everyone but honestly trying my best and understanding that everyone makes mistakes, and it’s okay if I do too. I can make sure my self-worth is not tied to my work, but an inherent value from within. I can seek my own path instead of following everyone on there’s.

Another technique is to just drop judgment altogether. Perfectionism and comparison are centered on judging myself against some standard or others. Why do I even need to judge? So much of my life does not need to come under the magnifying glass of a ruler. It is enough without judgment and grading.

Half the time I am feeling miserable about myself and my actions, I am telling myself I “should” do this or that or the other. I like to rephrase it—and the easiest way I have found it saying I “want” to do something. So instead of telling myself I should clean my house, I say that I want to clean my house. It’s more motivating.

I am also a firm believer in good enough. Very few things need to be done perfectly; most of it can be done good enough.

Over-Analyzing

I can take perfectly normal feelings and give them too much thought and value. This can include overreaction/magnification: or having a strong reaction to a small feeling and blowing things out of proportion, fantasizing catastrophe, or thinking through the worst-case scenarios, and rumination, thinking about a problem for a long period of time.

I think trying to stop myself is often a losing battle. Laughing at myself will take me further. Catch my crazy thoughts, and recognize them for what they are. Go ahead. Ruminate, think about the catastrophe. But do not take it seriously. Focus on keeping a perception that is further away, not too caught up in the emotion, but looking at the broader landscape of the problem.

Naps can be helpful when my brain is going too fast. I often overthink things the most when I am tired.

Mental Clutter and Distraction

My life can full and busy, and most of it is usually not important. Mental clutter can include focusing on getting things done, staying busy, and filling my life, most of which is a distraction. I can easily get distracted by simple, non-important things around me. My life can be full of media I don’t really like, tasks that don’t need to get done, and general busy work. Distraction is often caused by the need to be busy, and keep my mind occupied with something.

Instead, I can focus on the moment and practice mindfulness discussed later. Busyness is often an illusion: if I focus on the essential, much of the clutter dies away. It is good to fill my day up with goodness. Do I just want to go through life getting things done, or do I desire joyful experience and connection with others? Paying attention to how I feel after I do something can bring a lot of clarity on what is essential. Use planning to fill life up with what you want to be doing, not what is right in front of you.

Setting goals can be extremely helpful for me—so I remember the things that I actually want to do and are helping me achieve my purpose and then I’m not living reactively on the things that present themselves first to me. Sometimes that means I don’t clean my house in favor of writing—but I’m happier that way.

Blaming, or Complaining

Blaming is finding the person that “caused” a problem, and it can be myself or others. I might also personalize a problem and take the blame or responsibility for something that wasn’t my fault. Complaints are expressing discontent with no plan to actively change the problem.

I need to be responsible for what I can control. Complaints and blame can be redirected into an intention of change for the better, or often an expression of gratitude. After I take responsibility and set an intention to change, I can stop worrying about anything else. I don’t need to have opinions or blame others beyond what is my responsibility.

Sometimes I have prioritized my own hurt feelings—which isn’t a good way to forgive at all. Yes, my feelings are hurt, but my anger is not more important than another person. I don’t need to hurt them, and sometimes I can just let it go and forgive without even bringing it up and letting them know that they hurt me. I do not always need to share my pain with others by choosing to blame them.

Denying, or Minimizing

Trying to ignore a problem, or underplay its important in my life can result in damaging emotions. Feelings need to be dealt with in their entirety, as discussed in topics about validation

But I don’t think we always need to solve our feelings/emotions—sometimes they can exist without needing a solution. I can hurt without figuring out how to stop the hurt. I can be angry without fixing the thing that makes me angry. Letting the emotion occur without trying to solve the problem related to the emotion is fine.

Negativity

This unbalanced approach includes black or white thinking and overgeneralizing. I see a pattern or problem and apply on an overly broad conclusion. Always and never are keywords that appear with this type of dialogue. Many times, I apply a mental filter and pay attention to only certain types of evidence: noticing all my failures but not my successes. I can discount the good that I have done or has happened.

The remedy for this is optimism. Optimism isn’t being happy all the time. It is an attitude of growth, change, and improvement. I choose to focus on the good as much as possible, while still acknowledging the bad.

People exaggerate all the time: This was the worst day of my life. Everything I have done is horrible. I am a failure. There is nothing good about this. I watch myself and say—hey, not everything is bad. I did do good things today. There were good moments. I haven’t failed at everything I’ve attempted. I have laughed and cried—but the crying is not more important than the laughter. They both exist, and I need to recognize all the good there is my life. Life is not going to be all good—and good is not necessarily normal. That’s what we do, though: we say good is normal and then minimize it down, taking a magnifying glass to all the bad things.

Over-Attachment

I can identify too much with my feelings. I can assume that because I feel a certain way, what I think must be true: replacing my rational reason with emotional reasoning. I can take a singular instance or feelings and connect my entire identity to that one instance, over-identifying with it.

I can assign labels, conclusions to myself and other people that have little to do with the actual facts of the situation. I do not possess the ability to mind read or fortune tells, and so my perception is limited. If I try to broaden my perception with my own judgment, I will make many false assumptions.

People are complex. Labels and singular conclusions usually have little to do with reality. Many times when dealing with my emotions, I need a certain detachment.

I’ve tried to take away a lot of the labels of who I think I am—like I am a writer, or I am a failure, or I am a bad person, or I am a bad mother. I am a child of God, and that’s about all that is important about my identity. And then everything is things I do, but they don’t totally define me at all.

Laziness and Hyperactivity

These are two opposite moods. The first is slothful laziness. I am tired, I want to rest, relax, and not deal with anything. I often have little motivation, don’t want to face life and procrastinate what I desire to get done. (This mood often happens to me when I am behind on sleep, but that isn’t a prerequisite.)

The second is a wired feeling, hyped up, often relying on survival instincts of fight or flight. I feel this way when I am too busy, running late or in another disaster type situation, or constantly engaging in activities that I don’t like. It can be a feeling of being worked so much, trying so hard, that I just can’t calm down.

I included these moods together because they are often two sides of the same coin: laziness on one side, and hyperactivity on the other. I need balance between both moods and avoid stresses that will push me to one or the other. Feeling overwhelmed often leads to laziness or even working hard, but often on all the wrong things.

Creating a healthy lifestyle, as discussed later, will help avoid these moods: but also recognizing them can go a long way to overcoming them.

Overall Strategies

Whenever I deal with a thinking trap, it is helpful to identify it, and then talk back. Many of these thinking traps are not rational, and talking back with a bit detachment will go a long way to stopping them. Talking back can occur through physically talking to myself, having a conversation with another person, or writing it out. Writing is my go-to way to clarify and see exactly what is going on in my thinking patterns.

Many negative thoughts, and an inability to have a sense of detachment come from the fact that I feel I have little worth internally: instead, I look for external sources for validation and approval. When my value and worth are ingrained and internal, I no longer need that external validation and I’m not overly attached to my feelings.

Establishing an identity whole can help many thinking traps vanish. Establishing an identity whole is integrating all parts of myself. Is creating balance between both sides, for example (i.e. caring so much, and distancing from others). It’s also accepting my weaknesses and learning how to limp: not always to be perfect, but just keep going and adapt. I cannot often change the hand I am dealt (even if I was the one who dealt it) and must leave the past behind, but I can learn how to play that hand well.

Another strategy to overcome negative thinking patterns is connection with others. The best remedy can be a kind word, a hug, a thoughtful gesture: anything that helps me to feel that I am worthy of connection, and I am loved and cared for. Often when connection doesn’t readily come from others, I need offer it to others first. Helping others can be more powerful than others helping me.

Sometimes we need to take our emotional glasses and turn them away from ourselves and look at other people—and when we are looking to remember to see the whole picture, and not use a magnifying glass to scrutinize every single flaw. We often spend too much time thinking about ourselves and not enough genuinely caring about the people right in front of us.

Finally, relaxation can go a long way in helping overcome these thinking traps. When I am relaxed I am less likely to struggle with these traps. This can be done through meditation, relaxing exercises, or even simple things like wearing clothes I feel relaxed in, sitting in a comfortable position, or taking long deep breaths.

Exercise:
  • Identify one thinking trap in your life.
  • What steps can you do to change it?
  • Write it down!
  • How does it decrease your self-worth and how can you reclaim your worth?

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