Negative Thinking Traps in Families with Addiction

By Cathy Patterson-Sterling – MA, RCC

I have been thinking a lot lately about the power of thoughts and the impact they have on our personal realities. Much of our own life experiences are really quite innocuous; situations are not really bad or good. Therefore, how we interpret our own experiences in life is key to empowerment. We can create a happy existence by manifesting pleasant thoughts and turning negatives into positives.

In relationships impacted by addiction, families often feel like the addicted people in their lives are purposely trying to destroy relationships by choosing drugs and/or alcohol. Every person struggling with addiction I have met has never woken up each morning with the intention of upsetting everyone through their usage of mood-altering substances.

This does not mean that we as loved ones have to tolerate relapses or other similar forms of behaviour, but if we want to find happiness in life then we must release ourselves from harmful ways of thinking. We are not victims, and much of our happiness comes from the ways in which we think. Therefore in this article, we will examine different types of negative thinking traps as we continue on our own personal journeys toward empowerment.

Thinking Traps

The thinking traps described below come from a brand of therapy called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with influences from Aaron Beck, Albert Ellis, David Burns, etc. These thinking traps are also outlined in a book by McKay, Davis, and Fanning called “Thoughts and Feelings.”

1. Filtering

Filtering is taking negative details and magnifying them while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation. A single detail may be picked out, and the whole event becomes coloured by this detail. When you pull negative things out of context, isolated from all of the good experiences, you make them larger and more awful than they really are.

Have you ever done something and received a lot of compliments? Then one person makes a criticism of you or your work and you forget about all of the compliments and you focus on that one negative criticism? This is filtering. We can defeat ourselves by focusing just on the negatives and disregarding any positives.

2. Polarized Thinking

With this type of trap, you really buy into the idea of dichotomous choices. Things are black and white, good or bad. You tend to perceive everything with these extremes in mind and there is very little room for a middle ground. The greatest danger in polarized thinking is its impact on how you judge yourself. For example, you have to be perfect or you are a failure.

This is a difficult trap because of the personal pressure that we can place on ourselves. When things are good, we panic that they may turn bad instantly. Also, we forget about different options by living in black-or-white thinking. The challenge is to live in the “grey of life” and see opportunities rather than narrow our thoughts into extremes of good or bad.

3. Overgeneralizations

Have you ever come to a general conclusion based on a single incident or piece of evidence? If something bad happens once, you expect it to happen over and over again. “Always” and “never” are cues that this style of thinking is being utilized. This distortion can lead to a restricted life, as you avoid future failures based on a single incident or event.

This is a difficult trap because we can paralyze ourselves with fear or believe we never have options because something is “always” going to happen, or we believe it will “never” happen. We may even exclude ourselves from opportunities or positive situations because we believe we are not worthy of happiness and that great things, people, and experiences will “never” come into our lives.

young man stuck in negative thinking traps

4. Mind Reading

Without their saying so, you know what people are feeling and why they act the way they do. In particular, you are able to determine how people are feeling toward you. Mind reading depends on a process called projection. You imagine that people feel the same way you do and react to things the same way you do. Therefore, you don’t watch or listen carefully enough to notice that they are actually different. Mind readers jump to conclusions that are true for them, without checking whether they are true for the other person.

A significant problem with this thinking trap is that we assume people know what we are thinking and can fail to communicate to them our needs, wants, desires, or feelings. Instead, we set ourselves up for disappointment when we expect everyone to meet our needs all of the time, without first explaining what those needs are. As a result, we set ourselves up to be victims and live in a world where everyone else around us is constantly disappointing us.

5. Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing, or what I sometimes refer to as “building on negative scenarios”, is the expectation of disaster. This thinking trap happens when you notice or hear about a problem and start doing the “what if” scenario building. What if that happens to me? What if they start using again? Then you begin behaving as if this negative scenario is about to come true. For example, you prepare for relapse, even though your loved one is doing well in recovery and the arguments you have as you try to manage their sobriety ensue.

The problem with building on negative scenarios is that these situations can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, you create what you fear most by putting so much energy into this fear that it actually comes true. Then there are times that these greatest fears do not come true and all of this upset emotion was a waste of time. An important point is to deal with situations when they arise, rather than living the reality of always “bracing for the worst.” When we live in fear, we lose our quality of life.

6. Personalization

This is a tendency to relate everything around you to yourself. For example, thinking that everything people do or say is some kind of reaction to you. You also compare yourself to others, trying to determine who’s smarter, better-looking, etc.

The underlying assumption is that your worth is in question. You are therefore continually forced to test your value as a person by measuring yourself against others. If you come out better, you get a moment’s relief. If you come up short, you feel diminished. The basic thinking problem is that you interpret each experience, each conversation, and each look as a clue to your worth and value. The result is that you can end up riding a self-esteem rollercoaster as you wait for outside people, places, and situations to provide you with good feelings about yourself.

The reality is that we often live in a world where people are so absorbed into their own routines that they are not even taking the time to have an opinion about much of anything, except if someone gets in their way of making their next appointment etc. A brutal reality in life is that we are often not as important as we think we are, and not everyone around us is looking at us.

7. Control Fallacies

There are two ways in which you can distort your sense of power and control. If you feel externally controlled, you see yourself as helpless or as a victim of fate. With the fallacy of internal control, you become responsible for the pain and happiness of everyone around you.

You are stuck when you feel externally controlled. For example, you do not feel like you can affect the basic shape of your life, let alone make any difference in the world. The truth of the matter is that we are constantly making decisions and that every decision affects our lives.

On the other hand, with the fallacy of internal control, you might feel exhausted as you attempt to fill the needs of everyone around you and feel responsible for accomplishing this task. Often, when you do not meet everyone else’s needs all of the time, you likely feel guilty.

negative thinking trap

8. Fallacy of Fairness

Everyone has their own version of fairness. The problem is that fairness is individually defined by you, and your sense of fairness is often self-serving. You feel resentful because you think you know what is fair, but other people will not agree with you. Often it can be tempting to make assumptions about how things would change if people were only fair or really valued you. In this trap, other people likely do not act fair, and you are left with resentment.

The difficulty with resentments is that we create emotional distance from others, but the reality is that life is often not fair and we are not special. If we expect life to be fair, then we can rob ourselves of happiness because we are forever resenting the fact that the world is not organized in our image of what it should be.

9. Blaming

Blaming often involves making someone else responsible for choices and decisions that are actually your own responsibility. You hold other people responsible for your pain or blame yourself for every problem. With blame, you deny your own right to assert your needs, say no, or go elsewhere for what you want. In other words, you set yourself up to be a victim because you blame others, rather than take responsibility for your own actions and decisions.

10. Shoulds

With this thinking trap, we rob ourselves of happiness, and can also negatively affect others if we are “shoulding on them” by telling individuals that they should do better as well. You have a list of rules about how you and other people should act. People who break those rules make you angry and you feel guilty when you violate these same rules. These rules that you set up for yourself are indisputable and, as a result, you are often in the position of judging and finding fault in not only yourself but others as well.

Now all of you polarized thinkers, I can hear you because you are saying…well if you don’t have standards then everything falls apart and you should do your best. Just remember that living in the “land of shoulds” is a miserable existence.

11. Emotional Reasoning

The problem with emotional reasoning is that our emotions interact and correlate with our thinking process. Therefore, if you have these negative thoughts or beliefs, then your emotions will reflect these distortions. You automatically believe that what you feel must be true. If you feel stupid or boring, then you must be stupid or boring. If you feel guilty, then you must have done something wrong. Remember, what you feel is not necessarily reality! You may just be acting hard on yourself and you are not boring, stupid, lazy, and so on.  Be careful of that internal critic.

12. Being Right

A huge problem with this thinking trap is that you can selectively ignore very important details or information in your quest to be right. You feel like life is a trial and it is your job to prove that your opinions, as well as actions, are right. In fact, you may even go to any length to demonstrate that you are right. You are not interested in what other people have to say because you are so busy defending your own position. With this type of trap, you may even be so focused on being right that it can be at the expense of your own relationships.

In fact, with relationships, we need to take the time to validate as well as care about others. If we are so busy being right all of the time, then we are constantly discounting other people’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences. A question we may want to ask ourselves is “Do we want to be right or happy?” Often the value is in listening to others so that we can connect on deeper, emotional levels rather than positioning ourselves to be right.


The key to empowering your life and creating your own reality really starts with managing, as well as monitoring the types of thinking traps, self-defeatist thinking, and cognitive distortions that you have. When we get into problems, a starting point is not just examining what happened, but also closely looking at asking ourselves. “How am I interpreting what just happened to me?”

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health and/or addiction, connect with us today. Our team of professionals is ready to answer any questions you may have about our programs and services.

Recommended Reading

Burns, David D., Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy

McKay, M., Davis, M. & Fanning, P. Thoughts and Feelings

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