You’re hopeless, useless, burdensome. Nothing will ever go well, everyone is always better than you, you’ll never be perfect. You want to be liked, but you’re unlovable, and a failure at life. Sound familiar?
To the majority of people this language does. Mental traps serve as the rusty cogs that continue the mechanic cycles of pain, toxic shame, and hopelessness. In many instances, they are so deeply ingrained in the mind, that the victim lives completely oblivious of their existence.
The most important thing to realize about these cognitive errors is that they’re maladaptive ways of dealing with the world and the self. Living in the world of mental traps is like living a lie. Your perception is tainted with melancholic negativity that brings forth unrealistic and untruthful thoughts.
But it’s not your fault. Mental traps serve as automatic strategies to help you deal with the uncertainty and ambiguity of existence.
And thankfully, it’s possible to reframe and deprogram them.
Before doing that, however, we must become aware of what these traps are.
The 6 Mental Traps
How many can you relate to?
An assumption is a supposition. When we assume, we believe that something is true based on what we think is true – without proof. Assumptions can be about others, yourself, or a certain situation in life. Assumptions often sound like, for instance, “He treats me this way because ____”, “They think I’m a ____”, “I always do this because ____”.
Why it ruins your life: Assumptions create a lot of unnecessary emotional and mental pain, especially if you always assume the worst. Assumptions can also lead you into making false judgments about others. This can harm and even destroy relationships with the people you care about.
A belief is a conviction that something is true, even if it may not be. Often, beliefs are very extremist or black-and-white in nature. Beliefs often sound like the following: “I will never be able to speak normally,” “he/she hates me,” “other people are always out to get me,” “no one will ever like me because I’m ugly.” Like all mental traps, beliefs are unconsciously held: they can be so deep-rooted that they evade the conscious mind.
Why it ruins your life: Beliefs are very blinding by nature. If they’re false they can also affect your self-worth profoundly as they can be so deeply held. And when you struggle with low self-worth, every aspect of your life is negatively impacted and crippled.
A comparison is a judgment we make when we measure two or more people/things against each other. Comparisons, for example, can exist between you and others, for instance, “he’s way smarter than me,” “my body is so fat in comparison to hers.” Comparisons can also exist between ourselves and our ideals of what should happen, e.g. “I should be able to work harder,” “I should be better at socializing.” Dissatisfaction and low self-esteem are the two characteristics that drive comparison: we want to be better, more perfect, more ideal, and excel over others. Furthermore, comparison also drives competition: we use other people and our ideals as a yardstick of success.
Why it ruins your life: Comparison breed tremendous jealousy and envy resulting in anger, pain, and frustration. These angst-ridden emotions put a large strain on our relationships with others and frequently destroy friendships, family connections, and romantic partnerships.
To desire is to want something you don’t have. We do this because we’re discontent and feel as though, somewhere deep inside, we’re lacking. When we desire, we are plagued with the sensation that we don’t have enough. WE are not enough. Desires often sound like the following: “I want to be like ____ but I can’t,” “I want to buy ____ because it will make my life better,” “I want to be funny just like him.” Desires are closely linked to comparisons. When we compare ourselves to others or a mental ideal, we often find ourselves falling short, and thus arises desire.
Why it ruins your life: The basic principle of Buddhist thought is that desire equals pain. Often, desire results in lust, and lust results in idolization and obsession. The result is often feelings of unhappiness, anger, and jealousy. When we think of all the crime committed in the world (thefts, murders, rapes, etc.) they all result from an obsession which stems from desire. When we desire what we can’t have, the result is usually pain.
To expect is to have the preconceived idea that something should happen or will happen. Expectations are usually created by the mind that likes to possess control – even over future outcomes. When an expectation is challenged or not met, the result is anxiety, inner turmoil, and anger/rage. For instance, if you unconsciously expect your boss to treat you nicely, and are let down by their arrogance, you feel upset and filled with anger. Expectations stem from misguided certainty, and this is a symptom of security-seeking behavior. You can also create expectations for yourself, for instance, you may unconsciously think “I will blush and start to stutter,” and immediately … you do!
Why it ruins your life: Expecting certain behaviors from others usually results in disappointment, confusion, frustration, and anger – and this causes strain on our relationships. Furthermore, setting high expectations for yourself also results in suffering as you are, after all, human and imperfect. Expectations can also become self-fulfilling prophecies: they manipulate the outcome of a situation by predetermining whether it will be good or bad. For example, if you expect to be anxious, 99.9% of the time you will be. This can have an immensely negative impact on your life when your mind is already biased against you.
An ideal is an imagined perfect outcome. One example of a common ideal is to find the “perfect lover” (the “One True Love”) – which is unrealistic as everyone has flaws and a shadow self. Other ideals we may possess might include wanting to find the perfect house, perfect job, or do everything right when it comes to our self-growth. Ideals are a symptom of perfectionism and they are usually set up as unrealistic goals that are almost always impossible to live up to.
Why it ruins your life: Because ideals are hard to achieve, we frequently feel like failures, like our lives aren’t good enough, and like nothing will ever go right for us. Additionally, ideals can cause you to live under immense pressure, creating a lot of chronic anxiety that looms in the background. When we frequently fail to match our inner ideal with the outer reality, we experience an inward collapse which can trigger depression and sometimes an existential crisis. Finally, as those who hold many ideals are often perfectionists, their loved ones constantly feel like they’re “not doing enough” or not being enough. This can put tremendous strain on our relationships.
How to Be Free From Mental Traps
Before you learn how to undo, rewrite, and deprogram your mind from the above mental traps, I want to highlight something important:
Not all mental patterns are bad.
Sometimes it’s necessary to have a certain belief in order to motivate yourself in the face of heart-breaking difficulty. Sometimes we need to jump to conclusions and make assumptions in order to protect ourselves from danger (e.g. assuming that the guy in a black hoodie lurking on the street corner might try and mug you.) And without desire, there could be no progress in life.
But mental patterns become mental traps when they start interfering with our mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing and we struggle to free ourselves from them.
Below, I’ll share how to liberate yourself from the damaging impacts of mental traps:
1. Practice self-inquiry
When a negative emotion arises within you, inquire into it. Think of yourself like a psychoanalyst, teacher, scientist, observer – whatever word appeals to you – and examine the nature of it.
Ask questions such as:
- What am I feeling?
- What thought is at the root of this feeling?
- What evidence can I find against this thought/feeling?
- What might be an alternative explanation?
- What other options do I have?
Be as open and curious as you can. You might even like to journal about your experiences with self-inquiry if it helps.
2. Approach life with loving-kindness
When we examine the energy inherent in toxic assumptions, beliefs, comparisons, desires, etc. we see that it all stems from fear. This fear may be that we’re not enough, that we might miss out, that we may be hurt, that we may be abandoned – whatever the case, it’s all fear-based.
What is the opposite of fear?
Fear constricts and closes whereas love open and expands.
In order to deprogram mental traps we need to approach ourselves, other people, and life itself with loving-kindness. Yes, this is easier said than done, but remember that it takes time and practice.
Even the inability to approach life with loving-kindness can be approached with compassion. Can you be gentle with your lack of gentleness? Can you forgive your lack of forgiveness? Can you practice softness in the midst of hardness?
If you would like to learn how to approach life with more loving-kindness, I recommend reading the following articles:
- How to Love Yourself (Ultimate Beginner’s Guide)
- How to Practice Mindful Self-Compassion: 6 Life-Changing Steps
- The Ultimate Guide to Heart Chakra Healing
3. Be defiant and challenge yourself
You have the right to ask “is that true?” any time a thought about yourself or someone else arises.
By poking and prodding at the presumptions that emerge in your mind, you’ll be able to take away their power by undermining their authority. After all, unchallenged thoughts can easily become like inner dictators that enslave us to painful emotions and demoralizing self-beliefs.
You don’t need to be a slave of your mind if you dare to question it.
Be defiant, be a rebel, be a provocateur. When an assumption, belief, or comparison arises, ask “can I be 100% sure that is true?” Such a simple question has a liberating impact on your psyche.
4. Meditate to develop witness consciousness
Meditation is an ancient technique used as a way of accessing more inner peace, clarity, and Oneness. However, you don’t need to be religious or even spiritual to practice it.
In this context, meditation is a dynamic technique for learning how to witness your thoughts instead of becoming them. Most people are so attached and identified with their thoughts that they aren’t aware that there’s a great stillness inside of them that exists outside of thought.
If you’ve never meditated, this may sound confusing to you. But think of it as the sky: the sky is always there, and thoughts are like clouds in that sky that come and go. No matter what cloud (thought) arises, the sky is always there underneath, unchanged. The same applies to your consciousness.
To take a step back from assumptions, beliefs, comparisons, desires, expectations, and ideals, the most direct method is to meditate. There are many free thought-witnessing meditations on youtube you can search for, or you can try downloading a free meditation app like Calm, InsightTimer, or Headspace to create a daily practice.
Dedicate 5-10 minutes at first to meditating and try your best to be consistent. Although the practice may be frustrating at first, it is the most powerful and scientifically validated practice I know of for undoing the damaging impacts of mental traps. So keep persisting, even if you suck at it at first (which you most likely will because we all do).
Here’s a simple five-minute meditation you can try:
- Find a quiet and undisturbed place
- If it helps to set the mood, play some quiet ambient music in the background
- Sit down on a chair or cushion, keeping your back straight
- Close your eyes (or if you prefer, leave them slightly ajar)
- Bring your attention to your breath
- Notice your chest/belly rise and fall, or the air enter and exit your nostrils (whichever is easier for you)
- When your thoughts wander, notice the thought, and draw your focus back to your breath
- Continue this practice for five minutes
- When finished, do a little stretch and slowly transition to the rest of your day
Eventually, you will be able to notice the thoughts that arise more and more. You’ll realize how busy and how much of a chatterbox your mind is (don’t worry, all of us struggle with hyperactive minds). But with constant meditation, your mind will begin to calm down and you’ll be able to catch mental traps as they arise.
Don’t be put off by the simplicity of this practice. It may be simple, but it is tremendously powerful and empowering.
5. Cut yourself some slack
Go easy on yourself. It’s easy to have a perfectionistic mindset even about the above healing techniques. So realize that you’re human, you’re bound to make mistakes, you very likely will mess up, and this is all normal and okay.
When you adopted a relaxed attitude that allows room for failure, there’s less stress and tension. Giving yourself permission to have a laidback mindset will also act as a natural defense against further mental traps from taking root.
I hope the advice in this article has helped. Remember to take your time and go easy on yourself.