Written by Elaine Smookler, RP. Faculty, Centre for Mindfulness Studies. Columnist- “Inner Wisdom” Mindful Magazine , Faculty, eMindful
Doesn’t it just drive you crazy when someone asks you the exact same question for the 5th time and still doesn’t listen when you answer? Borrows your favourite pen off your desk without asking, and then doesn’t put it back? Or, do you ever feel that if you see one more dirty sock, or dish, or pile of stuff on your teenager’s floor you’re going to pack all your bags and run away screaming?
If you’ve had any of these experiences, you’re not alone and you don’t have to run for the hills! For better or worse, we’re all unique. We have our preferences for how we want to be, and how we think everyone else should be. And there in lies the challenge in navigating relationships – It’s easy to get our feathers ruffled when people don’t act according to our expectations. We don’t even realize we’re doing it, but we all have learned patterns of thinking, that trap us into reacting in ways that create stress, misunderstanding, and disconnection in our relationships. We call these patterns of thinking mind traps! Our mind traps can turn small challenges into nuclear warzones in the blink of an eye.
There is some good news, though! By learning more about mind traps and identifying which ones you’re particularly vulnerable to, you can come up with strategies to avoid getting caught in them. As we explore some of the most common mind traps, notice which ones are your mental go-tos. And don’t worry, we’ll share how mindfulness can help you to avoid the friction, distress and disconnection that mind traps cause in your relationships.
Catastrophizing – Catastrophizing is when we perceive a situation as significantly worse than it actually is, or jumping to the conclusion that if that thing we’re worried about does happen then it would be a catastrophe. A student shared a great example how our mind can take a lucky-near miss accident and blow it into a life catastrophe! He was walking to class after putting money into the parking meter when a car ALMOST ran over his foot. His mind immediately jumped to the most negative conclusion: Something horrible had just happened – a car ALMOST hit him. And without missing a beat he saw himself playing out a catastrophic scenario that included his now pregnant wife having to raise their child with a one-footed father. He was panicked and upset and couldn’t separate the “near-miss” from his mind playing out his worst fears of what would happen if the car had actually hit him.
Exaggerating the Negative – Dr. Rick Hanson has coined the pithy saying “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.” He’s speaking to one of the safety designs of our brains – watch out for danger if you want to survive. And the good and sweet stuff, that’s nice but it’s not necessary for your brain to register it in order to keep you alive! Because of the brain’s negativity bias, we can recall every unfair, inconsiderate, or disrespectful thing our love ones do to us, but we don’t equally remember all the lovely, kind, considerate, supportive, sacrifices they have made.
While our brains are wired to look for danger and remember the negative, this is a mind trap. The negative bias of the brain can lead us to pay the most attention to the negative aspects of our partners, situations and even our lives in general. This means we may not even have positive and neutral experiences on our radar.
Mind Reading – Have you ever found yourself certain you know what another person is thinking? “My partner hasn’t responded to my text yet because he/she is losing interest in our relationship – in me!” Or, “My colleague’s indifference about where to go for lunch is a sign he/she is still upset with me for forgetting to invite them to the office holiday lunch!” Maybe your interpretations are spot on… or maybe you’re caught in the mind trap known as mind reading. This is where you fill in the gaps of actual information (aka facts or evidence) through the most negative possible lens. One thing you might notice is how often this under-informed mind reading is fed by our insecurities and vulnerabilities.
The Shoulds – Take a breath and try to recall something you know someone else SHOULD be doing, but isn’t. It could be something that seems like a no-brainer to you, like they SHOULD load the dishwasher “correctly!” (I mean, HELLO, everyone knows cutlery has to go face down!) These “Shoulds” are our mental rules for how we believe things should be done. They fall into the mind trap category because we don’t realize how irrational it is to expect everyone else to have the same expectations. When another person believes the dishwasher “should” be loaded differently, it can cause friction, frustration and even anxiousness. And while the dishwasher is a seemingly minor event, when you start adding up your list of “should” it is easy to see how our preferences becoming expectations placed on others actually creates a lot of suffering in our lives. Are you constantly expecting others to measure up in ways that they don’t and then finding yourself bewildered, disappointed, rejected, or angry?
Blaming – When is the last time you blamed someone for making you feel sad, angry, or anxious? Or blamed someone else, or your circumstances, for you not performing at your best? “I got a phone call from the school about my son acting up just before my interview, and I was barely able to focus on the interview questions – they didn’t get to see me at my best.” Or, “You always do things to make me angry.”
Why do we blame others? For one thing, it’s a great defense strategy that allows us to protect our own self-image by placing responsibility and focus on the faults of others. While we might protect our self-image, by deflecting personal responsibility, we prevent ourselves from learning from the situation, and making wise and effective choices as we move forward. And even if it is the other person’s fault, when we get caught up in blaming the other person we remain stuck in a situation gone wrong. It’s only when we can get out of the blame mind trap, and begin to focus on what we need in order to be resilient that we become unstuck and can move forward.
Mindfulness Can Free You From Mind Traps!
Mindfulness allows us to accept that although we usually cannot make other people change or even behave the way we want them to, a mindful approach to relationships can help you notice the familiar mind habits and traps that can turn small challenges into nuclear warzones. And a mindful approach can help lay the groundwork for the positive, healthy, effective relationships that lead to a little thing we might call, happiness.
If you’re curious, read on! Mindfulness is a mind state of awareness of what is being experienced in the present moment, with curiosity and without getting caught up in judgement or criticism. It’s our ability to acknowledge and accept that we are having whatever feelings, thoughts, body sensations and urges to react that we are. We can train our attention to be more finely tuned to notice our inner experiences, and we can also train ourselves to be on the lookout for particular patterns of thinking, like mind traps. Once we notice patterns of thinking, feeling and reacting that undermine the very connection we so genuinely desire to have with others, we now have the opportunity to rescript the way we’re reacting to a response that nurtures our relationships, instead of causing conflict and suffering.
Mindfully Observe & Challenge Your Thoughts
You might be wondering how exactly mindfulness can help you do this, since these mind traps can seem so sticky. One mindfulness strategy is to learn to become observers of our own thoughts. By now, you’re familiar with the mind traps you engage in, so you can even be on the lookout for those types of thoughts. And boy oh boy do we have a lot of thoughts. Around 10,000 each day. And guess what? A lot of them are not accurate. The thoughts are not a problem. The problem is that we don’t recognize that they’re not accurate and we make choices and react as if they were accurate.! This is exactly what happens with mind traps. They’re irrational or inaccurate thoughts, and we’re buying into them completely!
In our mindfulness practice, as we train ourselves to become observers of our thoughts, we can begin to notice that many of them are not entirely accurate, or not at all accurate. It may be that there is some truth to a thought, but we’ve filled in the gaps with our own worries. Or it may be that we’re predicting something catastrophic and we have no data to support it. Or maybe we’re completely blaming someone else, when deep down we know we have some responsibility for what happened.
Once we can observe thoughts without immediately believing them, and then question them for accuracy, we have freed ourselves from the lack of awareness that traps us. You might begin to notice that the anger, resentment, fear, or feeling of isolation begins to soften as you realize the thoughts were mind traps – not entirely accurate. And you can explore what is a more accurate way of thinking and responding. And as you begin to feel calmer, you can see yourself and others in your life more clearly, connect more easily, and enjoy them more fully. That’s the beauty and power of getting out of mind traps!
THIS WEEK AT EMINDFUL – Please join this week’s Mindful Daily sessions as we explore how to foster better relationships. We’ll be discussing the many ways to create more connected, healthy, joyful and effective personal and professional relationships. Come and practice with skilled teachers and clinicians as each day offers new views and skill sets, to bring our lives together.
Elaine Smookler is an eMindful instructor and registered psychotherapist, with a 20 year mindfulness practice.