A mental trap is any conscious or unconscious thought habit that is not grounded in God or in objective reality and that will consistently create within you emotional disturbance and ineffective behavior.  The goals of understanding these traps is to increase  awareness of the ways we upset ourselves so you can help yourself and others stop negative thinking and self-defeating behavior.  Which (if any) of the following eight patterns best defines you?

1. The Harsh Critic

This is the voice inside your mind that calls you names, scolds you for every minor mistake, puts you down, and harshly judges you.  Examples, “I’m such a rotten jerk for telling Bob I didn’t like his haircut and hurting his feelings.”  We often put God here.

Positive intention: To motivate yourself to try harder, to do better. Sometimes the critic is used to avoid punishment by others by beating them to the punch or to avoid feelings and expressing uncomfortable anger at others, i.e., it’s easier to blame me than to blame them.

Actual result: Depression, low self-esteem, less energy, more mistakes, anxiety, insecurity.

Suggested replacement: Thinking that is supportive, encouraging and aimed at learning or problem solving. Start seeing mistakes as mistakes and opportunities to learn and grow.


2. Unrealistic Expectations

Expecting the impossible or near impossible from yourself.  Thinking you have to be perfect or the best; concluding that you must be a failure whenever you don’t measure up to your own standards.

Positive intention: To get you to be a “better person”, to motivate you to try harder.

Actual result: Depression, feelings of hopelessness, inadequacy or failure. 'Why try?'

Suggested replacement: Moving your standards in line with reality; encouragement and support for effort made; developing a realistic understanding of the learning process. Skills are developed gradually through knowledge and practice. Get that performance and value are not the same.


3. Comparing self to others

The habit of selecting people who are smarter, have accomplished more, are more attractive or have what we don’t have and concluding we are inferior.

Positive intention: To become more like those we admire, to motivate ourselves, to be better, OK.

Actual result: feelings of inferiority, depression, and hopelessness. Lack of peace and joy.

Suggested replacement: Compete only with yourself. Your primary goal is to do a little better today than you did yesterday. Your standard of judgment is: “Am I learning?” “Am I gradually improving my skills?’ Acknowledge your gains, reinforce your progress.


4. Filtering/Selective Perception

This is the trap of only seeing the bad in yourself; tuning out and ignoring any positives.  Filtering is seeing what you want to see or seeing only those things that fit your beliefs or attitudes.  If your attitude is mostly negative, that’s how you’ll see the world and yourself, as if looking through dark glasses.

Positive intention: To reduce mental confusion, to reinforce existing attitudes, to feel Ok.

Actual result: Increases depression, leads to exaggerated conclusions or superstitious beliefs.

Suggest replacement: Open your eyes to all the facts—positive and negative. Do what you realistically can to change the negatives. Self-acceptance is based on reality—who you are. You are the best “you” you can be at this moment. Celebrate this and then let yourself grow.


5. Either/Or Thinking

This trap consists of judging yourself according to only two standards with no in-between: I’m either: a success or failure; smart or stupid; worthwhile or scum. Usually our standards of success are so high that we wind up constantly judging ourselves a failure.

Positive intention: An attempt to become or stay perfect.

Actual result: Depression, feelings of failure, hopelessness, giving up, and inflexibility.

Suggested replacement: Understand that standards or judgments are more realistically thought of as a continuum or a range (like 0-10) and that wherever you are on this scale is only an indication of what you need to work on next, not a global indictment of who your are as person.

6. Overgeneralization/Labeling

This is the process of totally trashing yourself on the basis of one or two incidents.  It’s the mistake of thinking that one part of me is the same as all of me.  Example, I lock the keys in the car and conclude I’m an idiot.  Or a work project doesn’t come together as expected so I conclude I’m a failure.

Positive intention: To beat oneself into higher accomplishments or better performance.


Actual result: Defeated, depressed, less energy or motivation to keep trying. You end up quitting.


Suggested replacement: Take the attitude, “I don’t have to be perfect.” Practice forgiving yourself. Learn from your mistakes. Accept responsibility but not blame for your choices. Discover that what you OK is inside you, created by God.

7. Regret Trap

This one involves going over and over past mistakes and kicking yourself for not knowing then what you know now.  Example, “I should have known that car would turn out to be a lemon.  I should have taken that other job.”

Positive intention: Magical idea that you can re-write history if you replay it often enough. A sense that beating yourself up will help you in future decisions. A false release for frustration and anger.


Actual result: an exercise in self-torture. Makes you more prone to mistakes and reduces the chances that you will take effective action or learn anything of real value from looking at the past.


Suggested replacement: Honest appraisal. “I don’t like what happened.” “A different choice would have been better.” Setting out to learn from past decisions and become a better decision-maker. Choosing not to live in the past. Hindsight will always be 20/20.

8. Pseudo-Guilt

This involves the decision to blame or hate yourself for situations that you have no control over and the tendency to see yourself negatively when someone else does not fare as well as you.

Positive intention: To keep us from getting into trouble by beating others to the punch. It’s often easier to blame ourselves than to feel and express anger toward someone else.


Actual result: Depressed felling as a result of downing ourselves unfairly and not taking ownership of the real problems, i.e. our anger and the obnoxious behavior of someone else.


Suggested replacement: Feel guilty for only those situations in which you have consciously done something to deliberately hurt another. Anything else is either an accident or a mistaken reaction on the part of others, perhaps designed to manipulate you. Be responsible for yourself first.

Many of these negative traps involve the word “should.”  “I should know better, I should have done better.  I should be perfect, I shouldn’t have said that.”  Replace “should” with a more realistic ‘would’, such as, “It would be better if… I would prefer… but I will face reality and to the best I can.”  Depression is not the same as self-pity.  Depression is the result of being angry at oneself, feeling helpless and hopeless and not having a sense of control over your future.  These traps invalidate God’s message that we are created in His image, that we are new creatures in Christ and that, as the Psalmist wrote, we are fearfully and wonderfully made.  The powerful voice of God’s acceptance must eventually become louder than the voices of our past wounds and experiences.