Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (Brilliant Business) 1st Ed.

3. Common thinking traps – and how to avoid them

The philosopher Socrates was sitting outside the city gates of Athens when a man comes up to him. The man says: ‘I am thinking of moving to Athens. What is it like living here?’ Socrates looks up and asks him: ‘I would gladly tell you but answer me one question: what is it like where you live now?’ The man replied: ‘Terrible! The people are back-stabbers and thieves. I will be leaving no friends behind me – only enemies.’ Socrates frowned and replied, ‘Well, you had best be on your way because you will only find the same thing here in Athens.’

Later a second man approached who was also considering moving to Athens. Once again the old philosopher asked him about his experience of his home town. The man smiled and said, ‘Where I come from the people all work together and help each other. Kindness is everywhere and you are always treated with respect.’ ‘Welcome to Athens,’ smiled Socrates, ‘you will find the same thing here.’

Socrates knew that our mindset determines our experience of the world and he recognised that both men would carry their habitual attitudes, perceptions and ways of interacting with them. It was the way they processed information and biases in their thinking that were likely to dictate the quality of their lives just as much as the nature of their surroundings.

In order to escape from the mental prisons that we can so easily build for ourselves, CBT insists that we first need to become more aware of the biases in our thinking that can keep us trapped and unhappy. In this chapter we shall examine some of the most common thinking traps and help you become more aware of the ways in which they can perpetuate our difficulties. You will be given the opportunity to analyse your own thinking style and learn simple strategies for avoiding common thinking errors.

Thinking error 1: catastrophising

‘The end of the world is nigh!’

‘I can’t find my purse… Oh no! I must have left it in the supermarket … Someone is sure to have nicked it… Maybe it was stolen by someone who was looking over my shoulder when I got the money out of the cash dispenser in which case they know my PIN number and will probably already have emptied my bank account or stolen my identity… That means I won’t be able to pay my bills this month… What if the bank decides to repossess the house? We’ll be ruined. We’re going to end up out on the street… How could I have been so stupid?’

We all know people who think like this. Catastrophising is the hallmark of an anxious person. It combines pessimism (i.e. assuming that in any situation a bad or distressing outcome is more likely than a good one) with a wildly exaggerated sense of threat. Things will not only be bad. They will be really bad.

Unfortunately people who catastrophise find it hard to appraise the significance of a situation realistically: they can end up becoming just as distressed by relatively trivial setbacks as a major misfortune. They constantly project themselves into a doom-laden future and allow their imaginations to run riot with frightening scenarios.

People who catastrophise seldom take into account any resources they might have to deal with the worst-case scenario. If this is you ask yourself:

·        On the scale of all the bad things that have happened in the past or could happen to you in the future, how bad could this event be?

·        If I had no choice but to deal with the very worst thing that could happen in this situation what would I actually do?

·        Think about how you may have dealt with other past difficulties. What helped you then?

Thinking error 2: generalisation

‘Things always go wrong for me…’

Human beings are drawn to patterns. We frequently use our experience as a template for our predictions about the future. However, people who are inclined to generalise require little evidence in order to deduce laws and assumptions about the way the world works – and invariably their observations and deductions are pretty downbeat. A man loses a game of Scrabble and thinks to himself ‘Typical! I never win at anything.’ A young girl gets teased at school and concludes, ‘Everyone hates me!’ An elderly lady reads about a mugging in the local paper and ruefully concludes that ‘No one is safe these days…’. All of these are examples of generalisation in which an individual draws some far-reaching, universal conclusion on the basis of a single unpleasant experience or discrete piece of information.

The language of people prone to generalisation is usually a reliable giveaway. If you hear yourself using absolute terms like ‘never’, ‘always’, ‘everyone’ and ‘no one’ a lot, then the chances are you may be vulnerable to this type of thinking.

In order to counter generalisation you need to train yourself to look for exceptions to your own rules. If you have one friend in the world then it is not the case that ‘no one’ likes you and it is highly unlikely you have ‘never’ won at anything – even if your distorted thinking probably makes it hard for you to bring any past victories to mind. The danger with generalisations is that we tend to screen out anything that does not correspond with our ill-founded convictions, whereas we eagerly seize upon fresh evidence that appears to support our negative beliefs about ourselves and others.

Unfortunately, generalisations easily become self-fulfilling prophecies. For example, someone who believes she is universally unpopular will make little effort to make herself amenable to other people.

Thinking error 3: mind reading

‘She thinks I am an idiot’

We make assumptions about other people and their intentions all the time. To some extent this is necessary, and we can reliably infer a great deal from people’s actions and past behaviour towards us. However, in some circumstances our imaginations run riot. We leap to conclusions about other people’s motives and attitudes on the basis of very little hard evidence. We are especially inclined to do this when those motives and attitudes affect us directly.

The trouble is that when we make these kinds of assumptions we leave ourselves open to all kinds of misunderstandings and paranoid projections. The fact of the matter is that we have no way of knowing for certain what another person is thinking unless they choose to tell us.


One of the interventions often recommended to CBT clients prone to mind reading involves consulting other people regarding their views and perceptions.

A young male client who was sent away with the homework task of asking his family and friends what they valued about him made every excuse under the sun to avoid having to complete the assignment. He would feel self-conscious. He wouldn’t be able to get hold of some of the relevant people. He didn’t have the time because of the pressure of his college work. Before his session the following week I half expected him to turn up claiming that the dog had eaten his homework sheets.

Nevertheless, when Paul did arrive for his session we were both pleasantly surprised by the results. Not only had he completed the task and interviewed the people as suggested, but reported that he had been both moved and secretly delighted by some of the compliments he had been paid.

Paul confessed that he had been terrified of conducting these enquiries because he had been convinced that even the people closest to him perceived him as ‘an annoying nerd’. This wasn’t actually the case, but because of this entrenched belief Paul had never risked testing out the reality of the situation. Relying instead on his highly developed ‘mind reading’ powers, Paul had laboured under an unnecessary assumption that was eating away at his self-esteem.

Thinking error 4: polarised and rigid thinking

‘It’s black or white…’

‘It’s right or it’s wrong’, ‘You’re a winner or loser’, ‘If it’s not the best then it’s rubbish…’. People who tend to think all the time in these kind of dichotomies are likely to create all kinds of problems for themselves psychologically. The world is just not that simple. Our classifications are always imperfect, and trying to force reality into convenient boxes seldom works very well.

Think about weight for example. Polarised thinking would insist that if you are not thin you must therefore be fat. This ignores the fact that if you lined the population of London up in a line there would be little agreement on the point at which the ‘skinny’ people ended and the ‘overweight’ people began. Obesity is a good example of a continuum concept with a rather arbitrary cut off. It’s also a cultural construct – a social judgement rather than an objective truth.

Polarised and rigid thinking often goes hand in hand with strong moral judgements and self-evaluations that can cause a great deal of unnecessary distress. You may also have noticed that polarised or dogmatic thinkers usually spend a great deal of time trying to impose their own classification system on other people. Their moral absolutism tolerates no dissent – after all, in their eyes there is only one right way. Unfortunately this kind of polarised thinking leads to a great many evils in society including racism, bigotry, sexism and political extremism. Often people who think in rigid ways put themselves and others under a great deal of unnecessary pressure.

People who think in extremes have few places to go. It is no coincidence that CBT places so much emphasis on softening the absolutes in our thinking and encouraging us to think more flexibly. This is not about ditching your values or becoming an amoral person. It is simply about recognising that people can see and experience things in different ways, and that more flexible, sophisticated ways of perceiving are likely to be better for your mental health.


Think in terms of sliding scales

People often complain that CBT places an unnecessary emphasis on percentages, ratings and measurements. However, recognising that, when it comes to levels of conviction or the degrees of emotion we feel, we are always at some point on a sliding scale creates the possibility of moving up and down in either direction. If there are only two opposites to choose from, then shifting from one position to the other often becomes a daunting task. Moving a few inches in either direction is a much less intimidating and more realistic prospect.

Here are a few suggestions:

·        Watch out for terms in your speech and thinking such as ‘should’, ‘ought to’ and ‘must’ that may indicate the presence of unhelpfully rigid assumptions about yourself and the world:

– ‘Women should always obey their husbands.’

– ‘I must always put others first.’

– ‘Children should be seen and not heard.’

·        Try to embrace the grey: recognise that many concepts are better conceptualised as a sliding scale rather than a choice between stark alternatives.

·        Learn to see your values and convictions as a matter of personal choice rather than obligatory for everyone.

·        Expose yourself to other views that don’t necessarily fit in with your own and see if you can find any common ground with those who hold them.

Thinking error 5: emotional reasoning

‘I feel so guilty… I must have done something awful’

Albert Ellis, the American psychologist and psychotherapist, talked about ‘thought-feeling fusion’ by which he meant that our cognitive and emotional responses are often two aspects of the same thing. Usually in CBT we are looking for the negative thoughts that prime distressing emotions, but it is important to recognise that our feelings can also encourage us along certain lines of thought. Sometimes our strong feelings can be treated as ‘evidence’ for the truth of our negative thoughts. This is called emotional reasoning and it can get us into all kinds of trouble.


‘He’s really winding me up!’ This is a common complaint in my household. What it often means is that one of my children is feeling stressed and frustrated by the other and therefore assumes that the other has deliberately behaved in a way to produce this effect. The reality is that often this is not the case: the impact of the behaviour is unintentional, but the level of irritation the ‘victim’ is experiencing makes any other more innocent explanation seem impossible. We have to take great care not to let the emotions we feel function as evidence for the truth of our beliefs.

The following are common examples of emotional reasoning:

feel attacked

‘Someone must be getting at me…’

feel guilty

‘I must have done something bad…’

feel scared

‘Something awful is about to happen.’

The antidote to emotional reasoning is to recognise that our emotions are not reliable guides when it comes to establishing facts. Often our emotions cloud our judgement or act as a field of static that make it hard for us to see things clearly.

·        Recognise that your emotions are not necessarily accurate guides when it comes to establishing the truth.

·        Set your feelings to one side and consider what hard evidence there may be that supports your conclusions.

·        Consider other possible explanations.

·        Ask yourself: ‘Would someone else be reacting to this situation in the same way?’

Thinking error 6: blaming

‘It’s all your fault’

On the whole blame is a pretty counterproductive pastime. The task of dishing out responsibility for what has happened can preoccupy people in a way that effectively disengages their problem-solving abilities. When the situation is ‘someone else’s fault’ then there is little call to do anything further about it, let alone seek to understand the role that one’s own behaviour, feelings or assumptions might have played in bringing the problem about. Blame is a dead end cognitively and a sure-fire cue for a whole host of destructive emotions such as resentment, bitterness, anger and hatred.

Often blaming others is a defensive manoeuvre for people who are unable to tolerate the possibility that they might be at fault in some way. By now you will probably recognise that this fear of being flawed is because of a distorted sense of how bad it would be to be less than perfect. Scratch the surface of someone inclined to blame others and you will often unearth dysfunctional assumptions such as ‘I must be perfect and good at all times or people will hate me’ (catastrophising) or ‘If I am not perfect then I am useless and unworthy’ (polarised thinking).

There are some people who err on the other side and have a tendency to make themselves overly responsible for the bad things that happen to them and others.

People who suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – a condition in which people attempt to reduce their anxiety by performing rituals like washing or making unusual mental rules for themselves – are particularly prone to self-blame. Their sense of how awful it would be if they did cause harm often appears to convince them that they have or could, even in magical and implausible ways.

One teenage girl I worked with was convinced that if she did not switch off her bedroom light in the right way some terrible illness or accident would befall the people she loved. I knew another woman who was convinced that germs she might have transferred to a letter were going to make the recipient’s baby sick. She fretted about this constantly and became so obsessed with the idea that she was unable to sleep at night.

These kind of examples are extreme, and may seem bizarre to anyone who does not suffer from OCD. However, we can all demonstrate a tendency to make ourselves responsible for things that may only partially be within our control or even completely beyond it. The tell-tale emotion of self-blame is guilt. When we do cause distress to others guilt is a natural and appropriate emotion, but if you feel guilty a lot of the time for no very good reason then this could be an indication that a distorted sense of overdeveloped responsibility or a very negative set of core beliefs may be controlling your life.

Thinking error 7: filtering and magnifying

‘You see! It’s just as I thought…’

This is an almost universal thought distortion of which we are all guilty at times. Filtering, as the name suggests, is when we only attend to information that fits with our preconceptions and disregard other equally legitimate information. Magnifying is when we exaggerate the importance or frequency of events that fit with our current beliefs.


Jane is organising a wedding for her best friend. In the middle of the reception it becomes apparent that the caterers have mixed up the orders and sent vol-au-vents rather than the blinis with salmon and cream cheese that were requested.

Jane is horrified. As far as she is concerned it just goes to prove that the job of organising the wedding should have been entrusted to someone more competent. Today was supposed to be perfect and now she has let her friend down. In fact she is sure she caught her looking slightly teary when she found out.

Of course the friend tried to make her feel better, saying that it didn’t matter at all, but Jane knew in her heart that the special day hadn’t gone the way her friend wanted and felt mortified. She had failed again and it just went to prove that everything her mother always said about her was right all along.

It is clear that Jane is a past master at both filtering and magnifying. She ignores completely the many things that have gone according to plan on her friend’s big day and focuses entirely on the one minor detail that didn’t.

The reason she does so is because she is unconsciously looking for evidence to support her core belief, ‘I am no good’, and in order to do so she has to screen out the abundant evidence of her success as a wedding planner, concentrating exclusively on her one ‘failure’ – even though the mix-up was not even her fault.

She works hard to inflate both the significance of the wrong canapés and the bride’s reaction: note that Jane does not ascribe her friend’s possible tearfulness to the joy of the whole occasion or any other cause. She also has to convince herself that her friend’s reassurance is based entirely on an altruistic desire to make Jane feel better, not that she genuinely might not care about the vol-au-vent switch. Jane also superimposes her own assumption that the day has to be ‘perfect’ in order to make the mistake all the more terrible. No wonder she is distraught.

To prevent yourself going down the same road:

·        Try to see the whole picture – take into account all the facts, even if they don’t seem to fit with your expectations.

·        See whether you can build a case for the opposite of what you currently believe: in our example that the wedding was a runaway success and that Jane did an exceptional job.

·        Check that you are not blowing certain elements out of proportion. Did other people react in the same way as you did?

Thinking error 8: emotive language

Words are powerful things, and certain words have an emotional resonance that can colour our thinking – often in unhelpful ways. We can describe events to ourselves in terms that can either inflame our reactions or calm them down.

If I tell myself, ‘That man despises everything I stand for,’ rather than, ‘We don’t always see eye to eye’ I will instantly feel on the defensive next time we meet. If I say to myself that a situation was ‘utterly humiliating’ as opposed to ‘briefly uncomfortable’ I will be making strenuous efforts to avoid similar situations in future – even if such protective manoeuvres are entirely unnecessary. My language has effectively raised the stakes.

Emotive language is one of the main reasons why people end up convincing themselves that they will be unable to tolerate situations that they have perfectly adequate resources to cope with:

·        ‘It would be the worst thing if people laughed at my performance. I would look like such an idiot’.

·        ‘I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if anything happened to her.’

·        ‘It would be simply awful to end up alone… .’

Be careful that when you describe past or future events to yourself you do not prejudice yourself: this is counterproductive. It is very hard to think objectively about a scenario that has already been given a strong emotional inflection and it is often our language that colours our perceptions and feeds our anxieties and low moods.

·        When thinking or talking about emotionally inflammatory scenarios check your vocabulary and make sure you are not throwing fuel on the fire of your negative thoughts.

·        Strive to achieve the most neutral, objective tone that you can.

·        When recalling distressing events imagine that you are writing a bulletin for a news broadcast that requires you to assume a detached, objective perspective.

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The following quiz is designed to see whether you can use your knowledge to identify which common thinking errors are being committed in these examples. Remember, you are looking for cases of the following:

·        catastrophising

·        polarised ‘black and white’ thinking

·        rigid thinking

·        excessive self-blame

·        unrealistic blame of others

·        filtering

·        magnifying

·        mind reading

·        emotive language.

Be aware that some of these thinking errors are not mutually exclusive and you may find more than one in the same example.

Also, as you run through the list try to speculate about the emotions that might be associated with the type of thoughts and behaviours described. (The answers are on page 57.)

1.    A man is invited to a party to celebrate a colleague’s recent promotion. He crumples the invite and chucks it in the bin. He thinks: ‘Joel must be feeling pretty pleased with himself now that all his scheming has paid off. Ever since he arrived he has been making trouble and trying to edge me out. Look at the way he struck up that friendship with the supervisor – what a reptile! I can still hear the sarcasm dripping from his voice when he said how “sorry” he was that I didn’t get enough recognition for the Johnson deal. I bet he has been spreading all kinds of lies and rumours about me. Of course this means I will probably never get promoted and I will spend the rest of my life pushing paper in this bloody dead-end job.’

2.    I wake up and feel a bit off colour. My immediate thoughts run as follows: ‘Not good… not good. I haven’t felt okay for a few days now – perhaps there’s something seriously wrong with me… Come to think of it my legs feel really heavy and my hand was shaking the other day when I was reading that tax bill. I know Jill thinks it’s just because I have been working really late and I’m a bit run down but what if it’s multiple sclerosis? I know that someone on my mother’s side had MS. Oh God! Now I can feel these weird tingling sensations in my fingers. What’s happening to me?’

3.    ‘There’s just no excuse for behaviour like that… The way she spoke to you was simply unforgivable. We have always had Christmas at your mother’s. It’s a family tradition. What was she thinking? Young people are all the same: no respect for their elders.’

4.    ‘If she says no I know I just won’t be able to cope. I would be so embarrassed. I’m going to make a fool of myself and it will all be for nothing. Why would she want to go to the dance with me anyway? I am sure she would much rather go with Kieran… She probably only said she liked me because she felt sorry for me.’

5.    ‘Everything’s ruined. I’ve just made a complete mess of things. I just played one wrong note after another and I know I cocked up the rhythm in that middle section completely. They all expected me to get a distinction and I barely managed to scrape a merit. They are going to be so disappointed in me. Maybe I should give up the piano altogether. What’s the point in struggling on when I obviously don’t have any talent for it?’

Homework: getting personal

Over the next week keep a record of your upsetting thoughts. Carry a notebook with you and write them down as soon as you can, using the same phrasing and images that run through your mind at the time.

Once you have collected a good sized sample of your thinking go carefully through your log and see whether you can find evidence of the kind of thinking errors described in this chapter. Once you become aware of the cognitive habits that may be strengthening your negative thought patterns it becomes much easier to start breaking them.

Answers: 1) mind reading, filtering, emotive language, blaming, magnifying, catastrophising; 2) magnifying, filtering, catastrophising and emotive language 3) generalisation, polarised thinking, rigid thinking, emotive language; 4) emotive language, catastrophising; 5) emotive language, generalisation, polarised thinking, filtering, magnifying, mind-reading.

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