Thinking Traps

In 167 AD, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote, “very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking” (Aurelius, 2009). 

Many years later, Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck, two leading cognitive behavioral researchers, studied how our thoughts influence our emotions and behaviors. Their research demonstrated that our thoughts are indeed tightly tied to our emotions and behaviors, and that systematically changing the way we think can meaningfully reduce negative symptoms and improve quality of life (Ellis, 1962; Beck, 1979).

Out of this research came Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a psychological approach largely associated with anxiety and depression, that helps people recognize, and ultimately change, the thinking patterns that negatively impact their lives (Neenan, 2008). Leveraging the same principles, Cognitive Behavioral Coaching (CBC) helps people identify, examine, and modify self-limiting thoughts in an effort to improve emotional management and develop productive behaviors. 

To be clear, CBC is not just about positive thinking, but rather realistic thinking – seeing things as they actually are – which can be more difficult to put into practice than we think. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman argues “We can be blind to the obvious, but we can also be blind to our blindness” (Kahneman, 2011, p. 24). Unfortunately, there are many thinking traps that make it difficult to be truly aware, and ultimately modify, our way of thinking. Fortunately, many of these thinking traps have been identified and documented with research-based strategies to counteract them. 

To begin with, it can be helpful to leverage a mental model centered on activating events, thoughts, and consequences (K. Reivich, Personal Communications, March 3, 2018). Activating events are the trigger – think about getting negative feedback after a presentation you’ve been working on for months. Thoughts are what you say to yourself after the event –  “I can’t believe how badly I messed that up, I’m sure I’m going to get fired.” Consequences are the emotional and physiological results of that thinking – I’m having trouble getting to sleep and am never going to take on another big project, I know I’m not good enough to succeed. 

It can be scary to think about the powerful emotional and physiological consequences that our thoughts can have, especially since many feel out of our control following activating events. But having a clear mental model, and working through examples of activating events, thoughts, and consequences, can serve as a core ingredient to improved thinking patterns.

Below are some common thinking traps. Take a look and see if any are representative of your thinking patterns. It can be helpful to consider an example of a time you experienced a thinking trap, identifying the activating event, thought, and consequence. Looking back, was the thought warranted? Was the consequence helpful or hurtful? How can you identify similar activating events in the future and avoid the same thinking trap? 

Thinking TrapExplanationExample
All or nothing thinkingBelieving that only extreme outcomes are possible (really good or really bad) without giving credit to in-between outcomesOne person gave me negative feedback, I must be completely terrible at my job
CatastrophizingImagining the worst-case scenario, no matter how unlikely in realityI can’t believe I messed up on that report, I’m sure they are going to fire me
Jumping to ConclusionsBelieving one is certain about the future, even with little or no supporting evidenceI’m never going to make friends at this new job
Mind ReadingBelieving you know what others are thinking, or expecting them to know what you’re thinkingEveryone is wondering why they hired me for this role
PersonalizingBelieving the cause of a negative experience is the result of one’s personal characteristicsThe deal not going through is my fault, I’m never prepared enough
OvergeneralizingHaving global beliefs about ourselves, or others, based on a single experienceI can’t believe she didn’t say hi back, everyone at this company is awful

Our thoughts are closely linked to our emotions and behaviors. The more we can be aware of our thoughts, identify thinking patterns that have negative consequences, and change our approach to future activating events, the better off we’ll be. For more on this, seeing a CBT/CBC professional may be the best path forward.


Aurelius, M. (2009). Meditations. London, UK: Everyman’s Library.

Beck, A. T. (Ed.). (1979). New York, NY: Cognitive therapy of depression. Guilford press.

Ellis, A. (1962). L. Stuart: Reason and emotion in psychotherapy. 

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.

Neenan, M. (2008). From cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) to cognitive behaviour coaching (CBC). Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 26(1), 3-15.


  1. I’ve been waiting for another post – this is great! Do people experience all the listed thinking traps at one point or another? As I think back, I’m guilty of all.

    Liked by 1 person

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