There is a poem by Portia Nelson called 5 Short Chapters that speaks to the natural unfolding of learning that happens when we work with becoming more aware of the mind traps in our minds. What are mind traps?
Mind traps are those habitual thinking styles we get caught in that inevitably trap us into a cascading snowball of reactivity that leads us to greater distress. Look this over, see if you identify with any of them and then we’ll get back to 5 Short Chapters.
These include, but are not limited to:
- Catastrophizing is a style of thinking that amplifies anxiety. In challenging situations, it expects disaster and automatically imagines the worst possible outcome. It’s a what-if game of worst-case scenarios. An example would be telling someone that it’s raining pretty hard, and they respond with “Yes, it seems like it will never stop. It’s going to flood, and we’re going to lose all our crops.”
- Exaggerating the negative and discounting the positive go hand in hand and contribute to anxious and depressed moods as positive experiences are downplayed or not acknowledged while negative details are magnified. An example is when you say something positive, then use the word “but” to lead in to a negative statement, such as “I’m doing better at work, but I’m still making mistakes.” This discounts the positive and gives more power to the negative. Experiment with replacing “but” with “and” to give both aspects equal weight.
- Mind reading involves convincing yourself that you know what other people are thinking and feeling and why they act the way they do, without actual evidence. For example, you may incorrectly assume that someone doesn’t like you or is out to get you. Such interpretations tend to cultivate anxiety or depression.
- Being the eternal expert is a recipe for heightened stress, as it necessitates being constantly on guard. When being wrong isn’t an option, you’re continually on trial to defend your opinions and actions.
- The “shoulds” are an all-too-common thought pattern that can lead to guilt or anger in addition to stress. Shoulds involve having a list of unbreakable rules for yourself or others. If you break your rules for yourself, guilt often arises because you haven’t lived up to your own expectations. If others break these rules, you’re likely to become angry or resentful.
- Blaming involves holding others responsible for your own pain or holding yourself responsible for the problems of others. With blaming, there’s always someone or something outside of yourself that’s the cause of your suffering and pain. However, you generally can’t change others, and you may not be able to change circumstances—you can only hope to change yourself. If you perceive that the solution lies outside of you, you deprive yourself of the power to effect change.
*Adapted from A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook
In Portia Nelson’s poem she begins the first chapter saying how she walks down a street and falls into a hole. She has no idea how she fell in and says it isn’t her fault. It takes her “forever to find a way out.”
In the second chapter, she only pretends to not see it, still falls in, and still says it’s not her fault. In chapter 3, she still falls, in but now recognizes it’s a habit, takes responsibility, and gets right out. In chapter 4, she is able to see the hole and walk around it and eventually in chapter 5 she simply walks down another street.
Mind traps work the same way. At first we might not even be aware of them happening and how we get stuck in them. Then we are able to notice them, but still get stuck in them. Eventually we can notice them and begin to shift our attention so we don’t get caught in the snowball reaction. Finally, with awareness and practice, we’re able to see them from afar and walk down a different street.
As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.