Sometimes we interpret events, situations, and behaviors in ways that lead to poor performance — behavior called “thinking traps.” They can damage your ability to reach your full potential. However, dedicating time and practice to combating these thinking traps can promote more productive thoughts and behaviors.
Below is a list of common thinking traps and strategies to counteract them. These strategies build upon each other and can be used together in a three-step sequence:
Step 1: Examine your thoughts and conclusions (being mindful and stopping).
Step 2: Question whether your conclusions are realistic (that is, supported by outside evidence).
Step 3: Work on altering your thinking for a more positive outcome through changing negatives into positives, countering, and problem solving.
Using these strategies helps to create another way of looking at things that in turn help you be at your best. Try a couple of these strategies and see what works for you.
Trap #1: Jumping to conclusions
Do you assume something negative when you don’t have all the facts? (For example, “My NCO is out to get me.”)
Strategy: Mindfulness. Next time you think you have jumped to a conclusion, pause and think about whether the facts support your conclusion. It’s possible that you have leaped to a false conclusion. Being “mindful” of this tendency can help you be aware of the next time you try to read someone’s mind or foretell the future. Mindfulness will enable you to slow down, evaluate the evidence, and come to more realistic conclusions.
Trap #2 “Should” statements
Do you focus on beliefs about what you or others must or should do? (For example, “I shouldn’t have done that.”) “Should” statements can create a habit where you are second-guessing yourself or others. This “should-ing” can consume your thoughts and distract you from optimum performance.
Strategy: Stopping. Use a trigger to stop your “should” statements. Saying a word aloud such as “Stop!!” or a physical action such as clapping your hands can be used as a trigger. This will help you become mindful. Once you have stopped “should-ing,” you can set about refocusing your mind to stay in the moment and accomplish your responsibilities.
Strategy: Changing Negative Thoughts to Positive. Once you stop the negative thoughts, switch them to positive ones. Instead of “I should be able to bench 500 lbs” try “I’ve gotten stronger and I’m able to bench more now than when I started.”
Trap #3: All or nothing thinking
Do you tell yourself you are a total failure if you do not succeed at something? There are two forms of this kind of trap:
Over-generalizing is the trap of assuming that one negative event reflects your entire life. (For example, “My kid didn’t do what I asked of him, so I’m a horrible parent.”)
Personalizing is a trap in which you make events/activities personal to you when they are out of your control. (For example, “I got all red lights on my way to duty today; I must be cursed.”)
Strategy: Countering. Sometimes just changing words from negative to positive is not enough. Often you still don’t believe what you say to yourself. If this happens, try arguing against your negative thought. “Am I really a horrible person because I didn’t finish first in the PT test? I’ve worked hard to improve my overall fitness and I’m in better shape now.”
Trap #4: Catastrophizing
This happens when you think that the worst possible outcome is the only outcome possible. (For example, “Today is a bad day because I was five minutes late to duty.”)
Strategy: Problem Solving. Take a step back and become mindful of the problem at hand. Turn the negative into a positive so that you can come up with possible solutions. Acknowledge what could have gone better and set up a better plan for next time. You also might try asking others how they might solve a specific problem. Try to solve the problem if it is solvable, but if it is out of your control, then work on letting it go.