“We don’t recognise the power of the right mindset to influence not just our inner world, but our outer world too.”
“Can you see how your thoughts and beliefs about this are making you feel and respond the way you do?”
She nodded slowly, suddenly aware of what was happening.
“It’s not your fault – it’s just that your mindset is working against you and making life impossible.”
“I had no idea.”
“Don’t worry, once you understand how the mind works, and sometimes works against you, you can avoid these common mindset traps.”
This could be an excerpt from any one of hundreds of dialogues I’ve had in my career with coaching and counselling clients, men and women, all of whom were in some way battling with their mindset.
As we go about our daily lives, there are some common mindset traps we all fall into on a regular basis. Getting stuck in these traps can have a big impact on many areas of our life: our confidence, relationships, health, energy, fulfilment and success.
But if we can learn to understand more about these common pitfalls and get some strategies for how to avoid them, we can change our mindset and change the results we are getting in almost every area of life.
So, let’s get into the topic of mindset. Specifically the 6 most common mindset traps and how you can recognise and avoid them… But first an overview.
What this article covers:
The Power of Mindset
Mindset Traps Are Common
Trust Me, You Can’t Trust Your Mind
Here’s Proof: A Visual Mindset Trap
What Is Mindset?
6 Most Common Mindset Traps
3 Step Action Plan
I have come to realise that, as humans, we live with a very faulty assumption – the assumption that our mind can be trusted.
And because we feel we can trust our mind, and because life is so busy and complex, we don’t pay enough attention most of the time to what’s really goes on upstairs.
Don’t get me wrong – your mind does it best. It’s just that it’s not able to cope with the enormity of the task in front of it.
It’s like this: if your mind had to consciously process every moment of your life, it would crash like a computer with too many browser windows open. So your mind puts a lot of stuff on automatic pilot. This saves energy and time.
Psychologist’s call this automatic mind. The upside of automatic mind is that it’s fast, requires little attention from you; and it get’s a lot done in your life. Automatic mind is pretty good at driving you to work in the morning, making a cup of coffee and cleaning your teeth. It’s great at reacting to physical danger, although it’s possible you have recoiled from a venomous snake, only to realise a few seconds later that it was just a garden hose.
The downside of automatic mind is that it makes a lot of false associations between things. After all, the brain is an association machine. It’s a massive neural network of connections you have made between various experiences in your life.
Unfortunately, reality is complicated, and when we allow automatic mind to manage more complex personal interactions and life events, it will generate many inaccurate conclusions. And, if these conclusions are never tested or challenged, then we will go on happily, or unhappily accepting life as we think we find it.
Take a look at the following image (fig. 1).
It’s a simple image of two arrows, and you can clearly see that Segment B is longer than Segment A. We all see this image the same way and we believe it to be true. We trust our minds.
Now take a ruler and measure both of the horizontal lines. You will find they are both exactly the same length. This is known as the Müller-Lyer illusion.
Now try clicking on the following image (it will open in your browser as an animated GIF).
Source: By Ruotailfoglio – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
What does your mind see? Lines changing in length. Sometimes the blue lines appear longer, sometimes the black. Problem is, the lines never actually change length – both blue and black lines are always the exactly same length.
Even after you have tested and proven that the lines are the same length, your mind will still see them as different lengths.
Every day, the automatic mind is making thousands of quick assessments, drawing conclusions and creating association between two or more things. Almost certainly, you don’t have the time to intervene directly in each of these micro-decisions, so you don’t consciously challenge them. But simply because the mind has associated these things, they feel true.
And just like with the lines above, if it feels true, you assume it is true. And even when it is consciously challenged, it’s hard to see it differently or shift it.
This is why we cannot trust our mind! And this is how easily we can fall into a particular thought pattern, belief or opinion – and that’s what I’m calling mindset traps.
Mindset refers to the typical or habitual ways we think about life. Your opinions, attitudes, thought patterns and beliefs are the main components of your mindset.
Mindset.com tells us that “Mind-sets are those collection of beliefs and thoughts that make up the mental attitude, inclination, habit or disposition that predetermines a person’s interpretations and responses to events, circumstances and situations.”
From this definition, it should be pretty clear that the mindset you adopt in life will contribute greatly to your levels of success, happiness, health, wealth and resilience. And conversely, a poorly chosen mindset will equally impact your levels of stress, anxiety, fear, failure and illness.
Remembering that the thing about our mindset is, it’s often not chosen with any level of consciousness. Our mind just does its thing, much like our other internal organs, and we are mostly happy to leave it to it’s own devices. That’s until something malfunctions or breaks. Then we start investigating.
Unfortunately, it can be hard to be objective about what’s working and what’s not for the simple fact that we are investigating our own mindset malfunctions with a malfunctioning mindset.
And that’s when people often reach out for help.
Here’s the first thing I usually tell people about mindset:
“Try thinking about mindset as a marinade that you choose to soak your brain in (sounds delicious huh!) – the ingredients you choose will flavour your thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and ultimately, your actions – so choose wisely.”
And whilst you may have inherited a particular mindset from your nearest and dearest, or developed one on the fly, whatever mindset you have now is not something you are stuck with. You can change your mindset at any stage of life, and you should endeavour to do so if you recognise problems with it.
Now, you may find that you have a positive mindset, until you are put into stressful circumstances, and then you do indeed default to a more negative mindset.
Recent research by Carol Dweck at Stanford University is showing us that one of the most powerful mindsets you can adopt is what’s known as a Growth Mindset:
“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.”
People who approach life with a Growth Mindset stay open, curious, engaged and believe in their ability to learn and develop so they can perform better in whatever situations they face.
I’m planning to write more about the Growth Mindset soon, but first I want to help you identify the 6 most common mindset traps that you may stumble into in your daily life.
So, without further ado, let’s get into the 6 most common mindset traps:
The mind is an excellent producer of judgements. Unfortunately, the snap judgements we make are not always accurate, and often go untested, leading us into the first of the 6 most common mindset traps: Blame.
Basically, if you get hooked by the judgments that your mind spits forth, and they go unchecked and unchallenged, then it can turn into a blaming mindset quite quickly.
Why do we default to blame?
I think there are 2 main reasons:
1. Firstly, we don’t want to examine our own mistakes, so we look at others – it’s easier!
2. Also, we need to feel in control. And when we don’t feel in control this tends to alert our emergency response system, which sends us into attack mode (that’s the ‘fight’ in the ‘fight or flight response’). In this mode, we can jump into attacking others, or even launch an attack on ourselves.
Whilst blame is not particularly helpful, the brain has done it’s job and restored in you a sense of safety and control. This keeps you feeling safe in a world that’s largely beyond your control.
You see, the mind would rather feel in control than see the world accurately.
That’s one of it’s main biases. The need for control is so powerful in humans, it’s hard wired into our brain Hence, we really have to be constantly on the lookout for how this is impacting our mindset.
Examine your thoughts and attitudes for blame and judgement. Here’s some examples:
“It’s all my fault/their fault…”
“I/They should’ve known better…”
“Why did I/they do that to me…”
“Attacking self or others in your head…”
Ask yourself, am I focused on fault finding? If the answer is yes, then actively try to develop a mindset of compassion and empathy. Try to look for the whole truth, and see the situation from all perspectives.
Furthermore, if you really feel an important mistake has been made and fault needs to be communicated, make a complaint without making a big deal of it. Keep your intention on giving feedback, looking for solutions and creating positive change.
✅ Be on the lookout for:
Anger, frustration, judgement
First of all, we all compare constantly because social relationships matter to humans. It’s just human nature – we need to know how we are doing, comparatively speaking. As a result, we have an innate need to estimate our social positioning, and we are hard wired to fear too much difference which may lead to exclusion and isolation.
There are three problems with this that I can see:
1. Our need to avoid difference can lead us to look for it, and because we are looking for it, we convince ourselves of what we have seen.
2. Secondly, the mind cannot possible discern with any real degree of accuracy how we are doing compared to the general population (far too complex).
3. And finally, people tend to compare themselves ‘too negatively’ or too favourably’ – so our perceptions are inaccurate just like with the visual perception tests above.
Examine your thoughts and perceptions for comparison. You might compare yourself to specific people or with the general population and societal norms.
“I’m worried what people in my team think of me.”
“My performance is not at the same level as others.”
“I thought by this age I’d be married and have kids.”
“Everyone else seems to know what they want. What’s wrong with me?”
Challenge these kinds of thoughts and instead bring your focus back to who you want to be. Develop a mindset of appreciation and acceptance. Shift your thinking from evaluation to curiousity. Exchange worry for learning. Set intentions to connect with others and ask how they are doing.
✅ Be on the lookout for:
Insecure, envious, discontented
Sometimes we forget to step out of our own viewpoint. We are one-sided in our thinking.
We get convinced that our reality is the ONLY reality, and we all too often assume that people should know what we are thinking or feeling (because it’s so clear to us)!!
Our brain tends to oversimplify the world, and we tend to believe we have a clear view of the world. Big mistake, when there are as many realities as there are people on the planet.
Two people can sit through the same conversation or event and have completely different experiences. And just because someone’s experience differs – doesn’t mean your experience is wrong. It’s just different.
Defending your personal viewpoint will tend to lead to conflict and disconnection.
“He should have know how I was feeling.”
“I can’t believe she didn’t realise what was happening.”
“He obviously didn’t care what I was feeling.”
“I know they must be sick of showing me what to do.”
So that’s how we fall into the third of the the 6 most common mindset traps.
Be curious, engage deliberately with new viewpoints – this is sometimes called an inclusive mindset. Welcome differences of opinion whilst knowing that you can choose to maintain your position, or let it go and form a new position if you hear something convincing from the other side. Resist the temptation to go into your usual defence or argument. Stop deluding yourself that you know what others are thinking. Contemplate how others might be perceiving the same situation. Allow for multiple viewpoints always.
Consider what advice you might give to a friend going through what you are going through – this will help shift you out of your own mindset and into a more friendly and hopefully realistic one.
✅ Be on the lookout for:
Argumentative, defensive, self-righteous
Humans need complexity and our mind is fantastic at making the world more interesting and stimulating. It loves to ruminate and puzzle over things, solve problems…and even create problems to solve just for the fun of it!! Certainly, there are positives and negatives to this.
However, the short-term memory struggles to retain complex information. So, if you have a habit of keeping everything in your head, instead of getting it out on paper, you are going to get overwhelmed.
On top of that, some of us have very overactive minds, which often indicates high intelligence and a strong capacity for critical thinking skills. It can also indicate past trauma. Trauma tends to put the brain into overdrive as it is trying to protect you and constantly scanning for threats. This can mean your wheels are always spinning.
If you tend to overcomplicate things then you might notice thoughts such as:
“I feel overwhelmed and confused…”
“It’s all too much to get my head around…”
“Life is so complicated…”
“I struggle making decisions.”
When you understand the limitations of your brain’s capacity to retain complex material, you can support yourself by:Trying to simplify the way you think about thingsCreating effective systems that you set and forgetWrite your ideas down, chunk them into categoriesUse Mindmaps to better grasp the situationUnderstand the whole through investigating the partsTry to make decisions faster and give yourself a deadlineTurn to your intuitive thinking/gut feelingsFocus on what you can control and take more action (This might be helpful)
An example of this that I have shared with a few people recently, is the coin toss technique for making difficult decisions. Instead of labouring a big decision, toss a coin and then observe you reaction to the result. That should help you clarify what you want. Whether it’s heads or tails, most times you will react with relief or disappointment depending on whether the coin reflects your true desire. Try it!
✅ Be on the lookout for:
Confusion, overwhelm, exhaustion
Being human means we all have the capacity to think outside the present moment – it’s what makes us conscious, but unfortunately it also means we can actually avoid dealing with the present reality by going elsewhere in our mind.
So many people live their lives obsessing over the past or daydreaming about the future, imagining better days or worst case scenarios. Barely realising it’s all imagination/ Now, imagination is fantastic – when it’s constructive, creative and positive. However, we humans seems to slip into negative imagination too often – and this is what this is number 5 on my list of the 6 most common mindset traps.
Fantasies about a negative future and rumination about the past are both ways to avoid the hard work that is required in the here and now of your life. Consequently, if you are actively resisting your current reality, then you are going to find it impossible to change it for the better!
How this looks and sounds:
“It shouldn’t be this way…”
“I can’t believe this is happening…”
“No, I simply refuse to accept this…”
Accept the situation you find yourself in because you can’t deal with anything until you do that. Once you’ve accepted things just as they are, then you can start to contemplate how you can change things for the better and create a different future. This article goes into more depth on accepting the present moment.
Be on the lookout for your mind getting lost in the past or projecting into the future. It’s okay to have goals, but if you spend all day worrying about something that hasn’t happened, then you’ve just wasted a day. Insead try focusing on what you can do right now to prepare or avoid what you are dreading tomorrow.
✅ Be on the lookout for:
Defiance, complaining, resentment
As with other things on this list, expectations can be a positive or negative. It can be great too raise our standards and expect more from ourselves. But if we use expectations as a ruler with which to measure our worth, we are in trouble.
A common mindset pitfall is being too hard on oneself. This mindset goes hand in had with perfectionism and being habitually tough on yourself.
You may think your high expectations are helping you or others do/be better, but in reality they are probably hurting you and making life more difficult.
This is what high expectations sound like:
“I expect more from you…”
“He should know how I feel…”
“I should be feeling something more than I am…”
“Why is this taking me so long…?”
“Surely I should have this figured out by now…what’s wrong with me?”
Relax and let go of the reigns a little. (There you go, that feels better)
It’s great to have positive belief or clear intentions for the outcome, but keep your expectations realistic. If you find your expectations are stopping you from taking action, then you might be pushing too hard. Find a smaller goal. Breathe and focus on excellence, not perfection.
A great shift in mindset here is to aim for imperfect action – that’s where you choose to action even though you know it’s nowhere near perfect. You get things rolling, and you improve as you go.
✅ Be on the lookout for:
Self-doubt, avoidance, procrastination
1. Observe and write down your thoughts or reactions, especially in difficult situations
2. Notice what flavour they are (blame, comparison, perfectionism, avoidance, etc)
3. Consciously choose to adopt a new mindset and practice daily until this become automatic
Well, those are the 6 most common mindset traps that I come across in my coaching and counselling work.
After reading this article, you hopefully have a better understanding of your own default or automatic mindset, including patterns of negative thoughts, opinions, judgments and beliefs. You are now able to recognise the most common types of negative mindsets in yourself and others.
For each mindset trap we discussed practical ways of “changing tack” and shifting to a more constructive approach. And finally, we also summarised each of the 6 mindsets with three key experiences/emotions/reactions to be on the lookout for – just to help you quickly identify when you are getting pulled into one of these traps!
I really hope you have enjoyed this article. And hey, if you or anyone you know could use a mindset reset – then why not take advantage of my free initial consultation by clicking the button below. It’s a 30-50 minute session with me, where we can discuss what’s happening for you, what changes you’d like to create, and then figure out a personalised action plan.
So, which of the above traps do you fall into? When and why?
And what changes would you like to make to your mindset and why?
Please leave a comment below and join this conversation.
P.S. Want more? Try the Mindset Quiz
References: Mindset.com; “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, Daniel Kahneman; Mindset, Carol Dweck