Are You Getting Caught in These 3 Common Thinking Traps?

October 23, 2019 Natalie Cawthorne

Thinking traps, also known as cognitive distortions, are exaggerated or unbalanced thinking patterns that negatively impact mental and emotional health. While thinking traps are common and can affect anyone from time to time, people living with bipolar disorder, depression, or anxiety are especially susceptible. The following are three common thinking traps that I often find myself caught in, especially in relation to my job: all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralization, and labeling/mislabeling.

Don't Get Caught in These Common Thinking Traps

1. All-or-nothing thinking

All-or-nothing thinking is viewing everything in black and white with no middle ground. Anything less than perfect is considered a failure or a total catastrophe. An example would be arriving 15 minutes late to work and assuming your boss now considers you an unreliable, uncommitted employee.

I struggle with this a lot at work and have to keep reminding myself that nobody's perfect: we're all entitled to small mistakes and a little leeway. Everyone shows up late, misses a deadline, or simply has an off day from time to time. This doesn't define us or our performance and abilities at work.

2. Overgeneralizing

Overgeneralizing is making broad conclusions based on a single negative event or circumstance. It's that sense that if something bad happens or doesn't work out once or twice, it's going to keep happening again and again. Look out for words like "never" and "always": framing your thoughts this way may indicate you're falling into the overgeneralizing thinking trap. An example of this would be receiving a job rejection and thinking something like: "I'll never get a job in this field; I'm just not good enough."

When I'm in a negative thinking cycle, I tend to overgeneralize the littlest things. Recently, I got my car washed and a week later, while I was at a stop sign, a guy mowing his lawn unknowingly blew grass all over it. I was already in an anxious state because I was late for an appointment, and I remember thinking that, because I had spent money on a car wash then let my car get dirty again within a week, I was a complete screw-up who always threw money down the drain.

3. Labeling/mislabeling

Labeling is an extreme form of overgeneralizing and all-or-nothing thinking where you attach a negative label to yourself or another person based on a single negative situation or encounter. An example of this would be labeling myself as a "screw-up" in general based on a single unfortunate situation like my car getting dirty. Labeling is a thinking trap because you are not defined by a single circumstance, action, or mistake. For example, failing two exams at school does not make you a failure. You are not your circumstance.

Recognizing Thinking Traps

Learning about these thinking traps has helped me recognize when I'm falling into them. While not a cure by any means, acknowledging and labeling my thinking traps helps me to separate myself from them and reassess the way I'm thinking with added clarity.

For instance, if I'm having a bad mental health day at work, I may start to think that I'm not cut out for my job and worry that my co-workers have noticed. Being aware of my most common negative thought patterns helps me to take a step back and tell myself: that's a thinking trap; you're overgeneralizing and mislabeling. Naming my thoughts serves as a small reminder that I've been here before, what I feel and think at this moment doesn't define or determine my existence, and I won't feel this way forever.

Thinking traps can fuel symptoms of bipolar, depression, and anxiety. When I'm dealing with these things, I try and take a moment to see if I can detect any thinking traps in the way I'm viewing a situation: I usually can. While recognizing and naming these thinking traps doesn't automatically erase my anxiety or depressive ideation, it does help me separate those feelings from the thoughts I've attached them to.


APA Reference
Cawthorne, N. (2019, October 23). Are You Getting Caught in These 3 Common Thinking Traps?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 20 from

Author: Natalie Cawthorne

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Lizanne Corbit
October, 28 2019 at 5:01 pm

This is a read everyone can benefit from! These thinking traps are so common, it's amazing how often we can find ourselves in them without even realizing that's what they are. Recognizing and acknowledging are such helpful actions to stop the pull of the trap, or at least lessen the time we spend caught in it. Thank you for sharing!

October, 30 2019 at 1:15 pm

Hey Lizanne, thanks for the comment! I completely agree that we can slip into these thinking traps without even noticing. Awareness has definitely helped me manage my thinking.

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