Resilience Boost: How to Avoid Thinking Traps

resilience May 27, 2020

By Ann Getz, Ph.D.

Picture this…. you are leading an important virtual online strategy meeting with 12 senior leaders. This is a high-profile event that was scheduled with a tight window to prepare and involves leaders from multiple time zones. If that is not enough pressure, you have other concerns as the session facilitator. You’re not as proficient with using the technology as you would like to and the virtual online production staff is not available. Your stress barometer is in the red zone. The meeting was off to a good start – all participants joined the session and they seemed engaged. It was time for the group break-out discussions and that is where the session derailed. As you placed the participants into their virtual small groups, you realized that you forgot to manually add two senior leaders who dialed into the meeting rather than using the app. Your heart is pounding in your chest as you read the two leaders’ comments in the chat box. Finally, after several attempts you successfully join them with their virtual groups. You breathe a sigh of relief for the moment. While there were a few other glitches with the polling function, overall there were no other challenges.

As you reflect on the success of the virtual strategy forum, you realize that your thinking was almost on autopilot. Your thoughts immediately focused on the things that you perceived went wrong during the session and metaphorically you casted a dark grey cloud over the entire event. Maybe you’re thinking “I will never be asked to lead another strategy forum again” or worst “I may even lose my job.” Are you perceiving the situation realistically?

You may be falling into a thinking trap, also known as cognitive distortions. Thinking traps are very common patterns of thought that are usually unbalanced in some way. Someone in a thinking trap might exaggerate negative outcomes or jump to conclusions without real evidence.

Let’s take a closer look at this faulty thinking. As we have experiences, we synthesize many aspects of a given situation through our perspectives and our thoughts drive the interpretation of the situation. Overly rigid patterns of how we perceive the world are filtered through the lens of our upbringing, our self-perceptions, our life experience and even our values. These filters can make it much more difficult for us to see our current situation accurately. These thinking traps can undercut our resilience and effectiveness.

Below are six common thinking traps:

1. Mind Reading. This is the belief that everyone thinks alike. I know how I think and therefore I think I know what people around me are thinking. The converse is also implied as true- that others know my wants and needs without me having to tell them.

2. Me Thinking. “Me” thinking is when you believe that when things go wrong it is our fault. We believe we are the root of the problem.

3. Them Thinking. “Them” thinking is when you believe that other people or circumstances are always at fault.

4. Catastrophic Thinking. Catastrophic thinking emerges when you get stuck in your own head and anticipate the worst-case scenario; you get caught up in your anxiety as though your prophecies are a reality.

5. Helplessness Thinking. Helpless thinking would have you believe that there is nothing you can do to change a situation or to create a better outcome.

6. Black-and-White Thinking. Black and white thinking occurs when we only look at situations in terms of extremes. For example, things are either good or bad, a success or a failure. But, in reality, most situations are somewhere in-between these two extremes.

Awareness of thinking traps is the first step to challenge your thoughts and sharpen your perspectives. Start tuning your ear to these thinking traps and ask yourself the question which of these traps do I tend to fall into? You might discover that one of these traps is a dominant one for you. On the other hand, you might discover that in one domain of your life, like on the home front you lean into one trap but professionally it's a different trap. The goals are to understand each of the six traps and begin to notice how these play out for you in your own life.

Let’s look at a few tools to help you deal with thinking traps:

1. Find the Evidence. Try to find evidence against the thought. If you make a mistake at work, you might automatically think, “I can’t do anything right! I must be a terrible employee!” When this thought comes up, you might challenge it by asking, “Is there any evidence to support this though? Is that really true? Find evidence to support the opposite. When have you been recognized at work?

2. Reframe. Ask a different question or look at the situation from another vantage point. What is another view of this situation? What are the positive aspects? If I were X, how would I view this situation? If you could, what parts of your situation would you most like to change? With positive reframing, you may see possibilities you weren’t aware of before. Identify the benefits in the situation you face.

3. Plan. When we set forth a contingency plan, it helps to create more certainty. When you are feeling helpless, identifying what you can and cannot control is important. Those aspects of a situation you can control, are fertile ground to develop options and outline a contingency plan. You can ask the question, if X happens, then my options are Y and Z.

4. Double-Standard. Ask yourself, “Would I judge my best friend if he/she did the same thing? Am I being harder on myself than I would be on other people?” This is a really important defense against highly self-critical types of thought.

5. Get Some Feedback. Go to someone you respect and trust. Find out how they see the situation. Do they perceive it from another viewpoint? What are you not seeing clearly? What can your learn?

6. Five-Year Test. Step back from the potential outcome and reflect on how it will impact you in the longer term. You ask yourself “will this matter in five years?”.

Once in a while we all fall into thinking traps, particularly when we are fatigued or under stress. This recognition can open the door to finding constructive ways to counter each of these thinking traps. During these challenging times of COVID-19, my hope is that some of these tools will help you or someone you know successfully navigate through these thinking traps and foster greater resilience. I would love to hear about how you have applied these tools and your successes. Send me a note at [email protected] or connect with me on LinkedIn.

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