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Is it possible to think happy? Or turned upside down: Is it possible to think sad, anxious, depressed, aggressive, etc? The answer, of course, is that it matters how you think. 

 Image: Dreamstime (with licence)

Life can be difficult enough as it is, and we should not constantly bother ourselves with negative thinking. Here you will learn to recognize the most common ways to go into destructive thought patterns - and how to break out of them! 

This post is based on the book "Feeling Good" by Psychiatrist David Burns, and deals with the 10 most common thinking traps. Thinking traps are negative thoughts that can help cause or perpetuate mental illness. By attending courses in coping with depression, you might learn more about such techniques, and how to break destructive thought patterns in practice.


The power of thought 

Bjørnar's blog is a blog about mental health issues. The blog is based on personal experiences of struggling mentally and the struggle to overcome problems. He writes the following about the 10 traps:

The first time I read this list, I think it was striking how many of the thinking traps I recognized myself in. I want to share this list with you, as I have experienced that raising awareness about these thought traps can help break destructive thought patterns. 

Furthermore, he writes that:

The list of thinking traps is taken from David M. Burns' book "Think Happy," a self-help book that has sold millions of copies worldwide. Dr. Burns is a daily professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, where he actively participates in research and teaching. I would recommend the book because it provides a relatively good introduction and understanding of cognitive psychology, while being very easy to read. In addition, it contains many practical cognitive tools, including forms for changing destructive thought patterns.


1) All-or-nothing (black and white thinking)

The first thinking trap is often referred to as "all-or-nothing" or "black-and-white thinking". This means that you can easily categorize something or someone as either very good or very bad, without being aware that there are shades of gray between black and white.


In his blog, Bjørnar describes an innocent example of this thinking trap:

When, as a young teenager, I centered forty-meter passes with my brother and felt it was very bad when I sometimes missed by a few meters. All I achieved was to undermine my own self-esteem, at the same time as I had performance anxiety ahead of football matches.

What you should practice:

  • Practice judging your own performance on a scale of 1 to 10. 
  • Notice how often you either judge something to be perfect (10) or hopeless (1). Practice breaking these patterns as often as you can!
  • Example: Instead of thinking: "Now I did not get what I was supposed to do today either! Typically me! I will always fail!" with "Yes, yes. It was stupid that I did not get to do everything I had thought today, but I then got to do something. I give myself grade 7."


  • You may experience this as mechanical at first, but if you overcome this obstacle and still practice this, it will help you to become aware of how automatically you judge your own achievements (others' achievements, your life, your own mood, etc) in all-or-nothing categories. Only when you have become aware that you are actually thinking black and white, is it possible to break this destructive thinking trap. 


2) Overgeneralization 

The second thinking trap is "overgeneralization", where you look at a negative event as an endless pattern of defeat. It feels like everything is going wrong for you, when in reality it is only individual events that did not go according to plan. 

Bjørnar points out the example of the student who exclaims that "everything goes to hell" when she is denied a job application. 

What you should practice: 

  • Practice replacing words as always, everything and never, with less generalizing words, such as "this time", "now", "sometimes". 
  • Notice your own thoughts when something difficult happens (a disappointment, a defeat, something you do not achieve, something that goes against you, something you do wrong), and try to see if you use words like always / never / whole the time.
  • Example: Replace thoughts like "I'll always fail" with thoughts like "This time I did not succeed. Other times I can do better." 


  • As mentioned in thinking trap 1, this may also be perceived as mechanical in the beginning, but if you overcome this obstacle, and still train, you will become aware of how often you overgeneralize. Then you can think in a more nuanced way, which will affect your mood! 


3) Mental filter 

The third thinking trap is the "mental filter", which means that you dwell on the negative and ignore the positive. Since you choose to focus only on the negative within a given context, this is one of the most destructive pitfalls. 

Bjørnar points out the example that you can ponder one stupid comment from your girlfriend, rather than focusing on all the positive things he / she says to you.  

What you should practice: 

  • Practice looking for the positive in what you do, in your everyday life, your life, the future, and about the people around you. 
  • Notice how you think about the different events in everyday life, and feel free to check with others if they agree with you when you choose to see only the negative.
  • Every time you experience adversity - stop and notice how you think. Is it possible to stop the negative thoughts, and to assess whether it is actually as bad as you think. 
  • Find one thing that would make the situation even worse! 


  • Maybe you are so used to wearing "sunglasses" that you do not notice that you see everything through a (dark) mental filter? By becoming aware that you color what is happening in your life with the way you think, you can start practicing taking off your sunglasses - and dare to notice what is good. 


4) Disqualification 

The fourth thinking trap is "disqualification". Disqualification and mental filter are overlapping thinking traps, but unlike mental filter, this thinking trap means that negativity is directed at yourself. You insist that what you have achieved in life and your positive qualities do not count. 

Bjørner uses the example with a term that can be called "emotional perfectionism". At times, my moral code has made me feel like a bad person when I have negative thoughts or feelings toward others. In other words, I disqualify myself by ignoring my positive qualities. 

What you should practice: 

  • Notice how you relate to praise, and notice if this is something you "do not believe in" or if this is something you simply ignore. 
  • Practice praising yourself. Start the day with a positive comment to yourself! 
  • Practice receiving praise from others. Do not reject the praise you receive. You do not have to answer, just accept. Practice accepting that others appreciate you! 


  • Maybe you are so used to being in a victim role, that you do not like the idea of ​​thinking positively about yourself, people around you, and the future. You may feel that you have to focus on the negative to make sure you are taken care of. If you overcome this obstacle, you may find that the role of victim is not as important as you thought - and that you still get both comfort and consideration - even if you feel less sorry for yourself. 


5) Mind reading 

The fifth thinking trap involves "drawing hasty conclusions" and consists of two parts: "mind reading" and "divination art". Mind reading is when you take it for granted that people react negatively to you, even if there is no definitive proof of it. 

Example: You often misinterpret a facial expression or a comment as a sign that a person does not like you. On the other hand, you can predict or predict that something is going to go wrong, even if you have no real reason to draw this conclusion. The latter thinking trap is, in my opinion, closely linked to catastrophic thoughts and anxiety. 

What you should practice: 

  • Practice noticing what evidence you have for what you are thinking. How do you know you're thinking this is true? Am I now trying to read other people's thoughts? How can I be sure that I have read my mind correctly?
  • Ask if you think others think badly of you. There are many good ways to ask. Avoid asking in a way that seems accusatory: For example, "You are mad at me!". Replace this with saying, "I feel like you're mad at me. Is this right?" Often you will find that you are wrong, while in other cases it was actually right - and then it is an advantage that you know it ... Only then is it possible to try to solve the problems.
  • To become aware of how difficult it actually is to read other people's thoughts, you can turn this into a kind of game: Try a whole day reading other people's thoughts, say what you think, and check if it was correct. You will probably be disappointed with how bad you are as a mind reader. 


  • We are all good at mind reading ... we think! This is something we do all the time, and sometimes we guess correctly. But far more often than we think we are wrong. Because this happens almost all the time, an obstacle to breaking this thinking trap may be that you do not notice that you are doing mind reading. By practicing becoming aware of such thoughts, you will learn to trust your "divination skills" less, and you will have a more realistic way of thinking. This will save you a lot of unnecessary anguish! 


6) Exaggeration or minimization

The sixth thinking trap is about "exaggerating or minimizing". This means that you tend to exaggerate or reduce the meaning of certain things to a completely unreasonable degree. 

Bjørnar's blog points out an example where you forgot a parent meeting in the kindergarten, and that you exaggerate the significance of this single event by calling it a disaster. On the other hand, you can choose to ignore the problem by using alcohol as a form of self-medication. In other words, you can try to minimize what has happened, by calming the unpleasant feelings! 

What you should practice: 

  • Practice assessing the severity of what has happened. Feel free to rate the "disasters" in your life. For example, that you forgot the parent meeting: how bad is this on a scale of 1 to 10? Maybe ... 7?
  • Practice accepting that you are not perfect, and that you will never be. You will make mistakes again, and you are not alone. Learn to have a "loss ratio" whether it's at home, at work, with friends, in family life, or elsewhere.
  • Also, do not underestimate the importance of what you achieve. Learn to praise yourself get what you get.
  • If you have developed alcohol problems to try to quell negative emotions, it is important to take this problem seriously. Either you have to reduce yourself, or you should seek help to get the necessary support to regain control. Alcohol is never the solution to mental problems. 


  • Maybe you are so used to exaggerating the meaning of your mistakes, that you have already labeled yourself as incompetent, a hopeless case, etc. Then you will notice that you want to continue to exaggerate the meaning of your own inadequacy. Maybe you are also afraid that others will highlight your mistakes, if you do not do it yourself. By practicing not to exaggerate your own mistakes, and by not to exaggerate your own strengths, you will notice that this more or less automatically gives you better self-confidence! 


7) Emotional reasoning 

The seventh thinking trap is "emotional reasoning", where you conclude on the basis of emotions. This means that you fall into the trap of believing that you are what you feel. 

An example might be when you reason that "I feel like a loser, ergo I have to be". But just because you feel inferior does not mean that you are. Another example could be: "I feel that someone will soon die,  

What you should practice: 

  • Do not use emotions as evidence. Emotions are just emotions, not truths.
  • Learn to rely less on your own divination / mind reading skills. 
  • Feel free to make an experiment where you test out how true it is, what you feel. You will probably be "disappointed" at how often your emotions turned out to correspond poorly with reality. 


  • Maybe you are an emotional person, who believes that emotions are far more trustworthy than anything else we know. Then you would like to think that starting to "think about" will be a kind of attempt to deceive yourself, since the truth lies in what you feel. Remember then that there are certainly good examples that what you felt did not give a good picture of what was true. By being more aware that emotions are not truths (emotions are emotions!), You can overcome problems that have hitherto seemed hopeless! 


8) Should-must-statements

The eighth thinking trap is so-called "should-must-statements", where you use words that should, should or must to criticize yourself or others. 

An example might be that you make yourself further downhearted with statements such as "I have family, friends and work - so I should not feel so sad." These are thoughts that can only result in increased guilt. There is really no limit to how many things one should, if one were to follow any such thought. Many should-thoughts are sensible enough (such as I should be kind to children), while other should-thoughts may seem rather exaggerated. These are often thoughts that can only be justified by themselves: 

I should .... -> Why? -> Yes, because I should ... 


  • I should go to the mountains because the weather is so nice! ... Then one can ask: Do you have to? ... And the answer is: Yes, I should ... It's fine weather!  

What you should practice: 

  • Practice asking the counter-question to all these should / should / must thoughts: "WHY?" If you are unable to come up with a sensible answer, you can safely put aside some of your thoughts. (Example: Go to the mountains if you feel like it - not just because the weather is nice, and because you feel you have to ...!)
  • Practice accepting both your own weaknesses, the weaknesses of the people around you, and that your life is not as perfect as it "should" be.
  • Practice recognizing what demands you make on yourself (in the form of "should" / "should" / "must" statements), and decide whether you agree with these demands or not. If you find that you have too high demands on yourself (or on others), it is up to you whether you want to lower the demands. 
  • Practice recognizing what demands others make on you (in the form of "should" / "should" / "must" statements), and decide whether you agree with these demands or not. Practice expressing your own opinion on the matter in a constructive way. 
  • Seek help if other people's demands on you go beyond what you are capable of, and you see no way to adjust the demands down to a realistic level. Then it will be useful with guidance and help from professionals. 


  • Maybe you have little faith that it is possible to lower the demands on yourself or others, because "it's just that". Or because you believe that you are "a" perfectionist, and I always will be ". Then you should remember that all your insiders against lowering the requirements are just thoughts! The paradox, however, is that the mind is far under your control, and by practicing questioning your own ways of thinking, you can pave the way for new thought patterns - which give you a better mood. 


9) Labeling 

The ninth thinking trap is "labeling", where you identify yourself or others with one or more mistakes.

Instead of saying to yourself in a given situation that "I made a mistake", you are saying to yourself that "I am a loser". 

Such a negative label inevitably results in reduced self-esteem and self-confidence. This is a serious thinking trap, which more or less provides a guarantee of poor self-esteem, and an increased vulnerability to mental disorders. 

What you should practice: 

  • Think about what stamps you have put on yourself. For example, "I'm a loser", "I'm stupid", "I'm doomed to fail", "I'm a bad father / mother", "I'm abnormal". 
  • Think about what stamps others have put on you. For example "you are a loser", etc.
  • Practice thinking about what evidence (and counter-evidence) there is that your stamp is correct.
  • You can use many fun methods to get rid of the stamps. If you are very bound by a stamp, you can, for example, write it down and make a sign that you put on. Then you will be able to see with all clarity how sad / tragic / tragicomic this stamp is. 
  • Think about how you want to "designate" yourself, and practice living up to this. (Possibly you can make a new sign, which you hang on yourself, just to illustrate to yourself what you are doing ...)   


  • Stamps that you have received or given yourself can over time become part of your identity, and you may have a reluctance to change the stamp! If there are others who have told you (convinced you) that you are stupid / unsuccessful / incompetent, you may unknowingly live up to this role, as a way to "punish" the others. The problem is that this only affects you, and you do well to look for a way out of negative stamps that you have received. This can be a difficult path, but with good support from others you can get a new way of thinking about yourself. Another challenge here may be that you may have received a psychiatric diagnosis, and instead of this being helpful to you, it may be something that you stamp yourself with. Then it is important to remember that it is not your fault that you have mental problems, and that you are much more than your diagnosis. The diagnosis should not be a way to be suppressed, but should provide information on what you need to work better! 


10) Personalization and blame 

The tenth and final thinking trap is about "personalization and reproach." This thinking trap may be about you only blaming others for a given problem and thus overlooking how your own attitudes and your own behavior may have contributed to the problem. In addition to this form of disclaimer, you can, on the other hand, blame yourself for issues for which you are not responsible. 

For example, a woman may blame herself when she discovers that her husband is unfaithful. Or a person struggling with mental health issues can put all the blame on parents or other people who have been harmed - tell themselves that "they have ruined me". Although there will be something true in this, such a way of blaming others can in the worst case deprive yourself of the responsibility / opportunity you have to get better. 

What you should practice: 

  • Think about how you explain what goes wrong in this life, and for what is not as good as you would like. What beliefs / theories do you have about yourself and about your own problems; or for that matter about others and their problems.
  • Practice not taking more responsibility than there is a basis for.
  • Practice not giving others more responsibility than there is a basis for. 


  • You may have experienced a lot of pain, and thus have good reasons to blame others. Then it can be difficult to start thinking differently about this. One solution may be to put a "but" in your thoughts. For example "my parents have caused me a lot of pain .... but .... now I am an adult and can to a greater extent choose how I want to live my life. Or:" I have done a lot of bad things to my family. ..... but ... it's up to me if I want to change! I can seek help. " 


How to break destructive thought patterns?

It is easier to identify relevant thinking traps if you write down the automatic thoughts as a result of a given situation, and then replace them with more rational thoughts. Start by describing the situation, then write down the feeling (s) that triggered the situation with you. The next step is to identify your automatic thoughts in the situation and assess which thinking traps are most relevant. Then you go in to replace the automatic thoughts with more rational thoughts. 

Bjørnar writes on his blog that his experience is that when he replaces the automatic thoughts with more rational thoughts, this can help him manage to break destructive thought patterns and thus change negative emotions. These are the techniques you might learn to use in practice if you attend a course in coping with depression, or where you go to a psychologist who runs cognitive therapy or related therapies! 

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