To become a more compassionate human, it can help to know the common pitfalls along the way. These 5 thinking traps are common in all of us. As you read this list, see if you can identify ways in which you might have experienced these in the past. Which traps do you fall into now? You might discover that one of these traps is particularly sticky for you. On the other hand you might find that in one domain of your life like on the home front you lean into one trap but professionally it's a different trap.
1. Mind reading: Assuming you know what the other person is thinking or expecting the other person to know what you're thinking. Because you already believe you know what the other person is thinking, you're less likely to ask. You're less likely to reach out to the other person and say, "hey, why do you think this is happening? What's going on for you?" Mind reading tends to result in withdrawal either in frustration at what you're assuming they thing or in a protective way because you assume they're thinking something negative about you. All these things result in blocked communication and they can really undermine even successful relationships.
I'm always so grateful when my partner, who can often be very busy with work, lets me know that there's something particularly troublesome on his mind. It would be very easy for me to assume that he's distracted because he's disinterested in our conversation or because of some other reason that I invent. I don't even think to ask because I believe I know. When he shares that this day/week is a tough one, I realise how easily I could have assumed something else and possibly felt hurt by my own assumptions.
Can you think about how often you mind read others? Do you see where and how this shows up in your personal or professional relationships?
2. The "me" trap: you believe that you are the sole cause of every setback and problem. For example, a friend doesn't call you back and you reflect that you weren't so chatty when you last talked. Perhaps you weren't exciting enough and they didn't really want to talk, you reason. The "me" trap has you think you're the only reason they didn't call back (as opposed to your friend being busy or caught up in something else).
3. The "them" trap: you believe that other people or circumstances are always the cause of your setbacks. For example you're upset with a colleague, and you feel he's unqualified for his job and that everything he does takes longer than it should, so no wonder you're upset with him. In this thinking error, it's completely your colleagues fault for how you're feeling. The trouble is that it's nothing to do with the trigger (your colleague) and it's really more to do with the story that you're telling yourself about your colleague that's causing you to feel wound up. The problem is that it doesn't help you cope with the situation at all. It's probably going to generate a lot of anger and resentment. When someone habitually falls into the "them" trap -- blaming other people, blaming the world, blaming circumstance, blaming the weather, blaming politics, blaming whatever for the problems that you're confronting is -- it leads to a lot of anger and aggression. So if you fall into this trap a lot, you probably over-experience anger, and that would be something to be aware of.
4. Catastrophizing: this is where critical energy gets wasted in rumination. You have an imbalance between your assessment of the threat and your resources to cope. There's a lot of energy spent imagining worst-case scenarios and how terrible it would be if that were to happen. Maybe you know someone who does this? People who do this struggle to focus, in part because the thought of the terrible outcome produces a huge amount of very real anxiety. Catastrophizing can really affect our physiology and we can feel headaches, tension, or a desire to withdraw from others. It doesn't help us cope with the triggering event because our thinking becomes foggy and the withdrawal tendency doesn't address the issue at hand.
5. Helplessness: where you believe the triggering event will always be like this and that it affects every area of your life. So there's a feeling that there's nothing you can do about it and it will ruin your life in many ways. if you find yourself falling into the trap of helplessness, you probably noticed that when you are in that trap, you maybe fee little more depleted. You don't feel like you have the energy to figure out solutions. Things seems so hopeless to you that you might find yourself withdrawing and just giving up and just waiting things out, rather than taking a step forward and engaging. This could show up when people get into financial debt and it quickly becomes overwhelming. You assume you're bad with money, and that other people can figure it out but it's not something you can do. Thinking this way can be demotivating, and again there's an avoidance tendency that crops up with this style of thinking. The thing that will save you in this example is proactively looking at areas you can budget better in or how you'll start learning budgeting and debt repayment skills.
I'm writing this article in part because during COVID, I've definitely seen some of these thinking patterns crop up. Can you see how you or people you know have fallen into these thinking traps? See if you can re-read these points with a COVID mindset, and note where and how people have fallen into patterns of mind reading, blaming themselves (that it's your fault you lost work when cutbacks happened), blaming others (the government? people who don't wear masks?), catastrophizing (that you'll never be able to date again because we'll always be in lockdown), or helplessness (there's no vaccine and so your freedom for the foreseeable future is gone). Can you flip the story on its head and state the exact opposite now, eg, there will be a vaccine or you can keep yourself safe by social distancing.
The way out is to note what you can control and to spend your energy focusing on those things. Let go of fussing about what other people do (you can't control other people, it turns out), notice that you can choose the story you tell yourself and that will massively affect how pro-active you feel about taking action and moving forwards. Wishing you well on this path that we're all in together.
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