While some of our thoughts are happy ones, many of those thoughts are negative ones and there is an evolutionary reason for this.
It seemed like a simple question to ask my 24-year-old son who had come for Sunday dinner. “Where’s my Tupperware container you took last week?” What followed was a surprising story of life lessons on nature, compassion and traps.
Remember I told you we had a mouse Shamus replied. I remembered it well. The mouse had been the topic of Sunday dinner for the past several months. Olaf as we would come to know him, would scurry around their apartment to frighten Shamus’ partner Kate or appear for gaming tournaments on late night weekends. I learned they called him Olaf, a character from the League of Legends game, who was known for being an unstoppable force of destruction. So far, the destruction that Olaf incurred had been a wire from a phone charger, a ritz cracker and a partially eaten clementine. Last Saturday the bait and switch strategic plan went into action. The Tupperware container was propped up with an enticing piece of cheese and peanut butter inside. When Olaf went for the goodies the container covered him. “ It was a trap mom – he didn’t see it coming,” Shamus reported. Olaf was then taken for a five-minute car ride and released into a greenfield closer to better restaurants and new friends I was assured.
The story of Olaf got me thinking about our mental health and the traps we don’t see coming. It is estimated that we have over 50,000 separate thoughts going through our heads daily. While some of our thoughts are happy ones, many of those thoughts are negative ones and there is an evolutionary reason for this. Millions of years ago this was a survival mechanism for our hunter-gatherer ancestors. It taught our ancestors to look favourably for danger/negative experiences so they could foresee a threat. Anticipating a threat like a sabre tooth tiger and getting a head start before he got too close was how they survived. The ones that didn’t see the threat fast enough didn’t survive. While that was a brilliant strategy for our ancestors it does leave us with a tendency to look at things in modern times with a negative bias. This can be the trap that we don’t see coming – our negative self-talk and thinking traps.
A “thinking trap” is a term used to describe ways we misinterpret events in our lives. It happens to all of us at one time or another. When we fall into thinking traps our logical thinking gets hijacked. Our teenager is 15 minutes late coming home with the car and we immediately start jumping to conclusions. We notice we have joined the longest check out line at the store and we immediately start thinking this always happens to me. These thinking traps can be sorted into multiple themes to help us identify when they are happening. These are a few of the common thinking traps explained below.
Mind Reading – This is when we jump to conclusions about what others are thinking without any evidence. An example of mind reading is, your boss walks by you in the hallway and doesn’t say good morning to you. You immediately start telling yourself that your boss hates you because you are convinced you know what your boss is thinking. Suddenly you have yourself believing you are going to be the next person laid off or dismissed in the office.
Overgeneralizing – Thinking that a negative situation is part of a constant cycle of bad things that happen. People who overgeneralize often use words such as “always” or “never.” In your thoughts it’s a never-ending pattern of defeat. When something happens once or twice you convince yourself it is always going to be this way and never change. An example is, you apply for a job in the office and you don’t get it. You start telling yourself you will “never” advance in your career and things will “always” be this way.
Should Statements – You have a very fixed idea of how you and others “should” behave, and you overestimate how bad it is when your expectations are not met. Any deviation from your standard is bad. As a result, you may judge yourself and others harshly. An example of this is you have the thought that a good employee never uses sick time unless they need to be seen by a doctor. You wake up in the morning and call off sick because you are coming down with a cold and were awake most of the night. You continue to berate yourself for using a sick day because by your standard a good employee should have gone to work.
All or nothing thinking – Only seeing things from two ends of the spectrum without a middle ground. In your thoughts, things are either right or wrong, black or white, or good or bad. There isn’t any grey area or an in-between. An example would be when you write an exam at school. The exam had 30 questions and there were several that you did not know the answer for. You start to convince yourself that you failed the exam and as a result will fail the whole course. In your thinking, there is just making an A+ or failing. There isn’t anything in between.
What can we do?
So what can we do about these traps? The first step to overcoming these traps is becoming aware of the negative messages you are sending yourself and challenging their validity. It’s a bit like being a skilled lawyer looking for facts. Ask yourself, Where’s the proof? In the example of mind reading where your boss doesn’t say good morning, you can ask yourself, could there be other reasons they didn’t say good morning? Maybe they didn’t hear me or maybe they had something on their mind from home or work. Maybe there are other reasons that I’m not aware of.
In the example of overgeneralizing and thinking “always” or “never” when you didn’t get the job, is it possible that there was another candidate who was more qualified? Will there be other opportunities for advancement in the future in your workplace.
In the example of using “should” statements when you take a sick day, try to ask yourself what would a reasonable person do in this situation. What would you tell your best friend in a similar situation? Are you setting unrealistic expectations for yourself?
In the example of all or nothing thinking where you are convinced that you failed the exam and the course for not knowing a few questions. You could ask yourself, what will happen if I make B instead of an A+? what would happen if I failed the exam since I’ve already passed all the other tests and assignments? Is it possible that I did better on the exam than I thought? Am I overestimating the importance of this exam?
The first step is noticing the negative thought when it is happening, and the second step is challenging the negative thought. The more aware we become the easier it gets to challenge our thoughts. With practice our negative thinking can become more positive and there will be less chance of getting snagged in a trap like Olaf!