Avoid These Thinking Traps to Stay Happy, Clean, and Sober

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Avoid These Thinking Traps to Stay Happy, Clean, and Sober

In CBT we say it’s not outside events that cause our feelings and behaviours, but rather our thoughts about them; how we interpret those inputs.

We can change our thoughts and therefore we can change how we feel.

Often we think in unrealistic, illogical and unhelpful ways, thereby causing ourselves unnecessary distress.

There are a number of common thinking traps that people fall into. These are sometimes referred to as cognitive distortions.

In addiction, thinking becomes particularly distorted. These distortions don’t just disappear when you get clean. But by learning to identify and challenge these thinking traps, you can avoid falling into them, thereby sparing yourself unnecessary pain, becoming more stable, happy and confident and sustaining long-term sobriety.

All-Or-Nothing Thinking

This is sometimes referred to as polarised thinking. It involves seeing the world in terms of extremes, placing things in black-and-white categories rather than viewing things on a continuum that leaves room for grey areas. It is a simplification of reality that overlooks the nuances. It can fuel anger and depression.

Example: Seeing people as either totally good or totally bad, with nothing in between.


This is predicting the worst case scenario without considering other more likely scenarios. It is often a source of anxiety and depression.

Example: My partner is home a bit late from work so she must have had a car crash or she is cheating on me.

Example: If I take on that challenging task at work I’m going to screw it up and end up getting fired.

…it’s not outside events that cause our feelings and behaviours, but rather our thoughts about them…

Disqualifying the Positive

We find reasons to dismiss positive qualities, deeds or experiences.

Example: I only got the job because the interviewer was in a good mood.

Example: I only passed the test because I got lucky with the questions.

Example: He only said those nice things because he wanted to make me feel better.

On the other hand, bad things are perceived as evidence of fundamental personal flaws.

This thinking trap fuels low self-esteem and imposter syndrome. No matter how much success and potential evidence of your worth you accumulate, you dismiss it as insignificant.

Emotional Reasoning

You believe something must be true because you feel it and you dismiss any evidence to the contrary. In other words you use your emotional reaction to define reality.

Example: You wake up and you feel like it’s going to be a bad day so you assume something bad is going to happen.

Example: You feel jealous and suspicious of your partner so you assume they have done something wrong.


You take one action or characteristic and generalise it into a fixed global label, for yourself or another person. Then you project other characteristics that go with that label, even if they don’t apply. You also neglect any evidence that goes against the label.

Example: I failed the test so I’m a total failure

Example: He didn’t come to my football match. He’s so selfish, he doesn’t care about anyone but himself.


You blow the negative aspects of a person or a situation out of proportion and minimise the positive aspects.

Example: Kevin stumbled over a few words in his speech and viewed it as a disaster, playing down the fact that the rest of it flowed smoothly and he received resounding applause.

Mental Filtering

You filter out all the positive information and focus only on the negative. This can fuel low self-esteem and depression.

Example: In your performance review at work your boss says you did nine things excellently and highlighted room for improvement in one area. You ignore the nine and focus on the one, berating yourself and feeling miserable.


You think you know what other people are thinking. Your predictions are typically far more negative than the reality.

Example: When you speak at an AA meeting you think: “Everyone is thinking how stupid I sound and how I made no sense.” In reality most people probably can’t even remember what you said.


You take one situation and make a sweeping generalisation that goes far beyond the evidence.

Example: You make one mistake and you say “I always mess up everything”

Example: Your brother forgets to call you one your birthday and you say, “Nobody cares about me”.


You assume that people’s behaviours and feelings are caused by you. This can drive anxiety, paranoia and anger.

Example: You walk into a room and see people laughing, so you assume they must be laughing at you.

Example: You see your partner is angry so you assume you must have done something wrong.

“Should” and “Must” Statements

You have rigid expectations of how you should be, how others should be and how life should be. If these expectations are not met, which will inevitably happen at some point, you set yourself up for unnecessary distress.

CBT grandaddy Albert Ellis referred to this as “musturbation”.

Example: “I must be perfect.” You set unrealistically high standards for yourself and put excruciating pressure on yourself to meet them all the time. When you don’t meet them you berate yourself.

Example: “People must be nice to me.” This would be great in an ideal world, but it won’t happen all the time. When you expect it, you set yourself up for pain and disappointment

Example: “Life must be fair.” Again, this would be lovely in an ideal world, but it’s just not possible all the time. By expecting it you set yourself up for conflict with reality.

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