The Time I Fell Into All the Thinking Traps in the Whole World

Do you remember the children’s book (later turned movie that I never saw), Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day?  I had a day like that recently.  A day when it felt like everything that could go wrong did go wrong.  My family and I were travelling to the opposite side of the world to do some service work and I was well prepared for anything that could come our way!  I had thought through all of the details meticulously, packed everything but the kitchen sink, chosen an itinerary that would help us all adjust to the jet lag that accompanies a 15 hour time difference, carefully selected the most exciting countries where we would have layovers, chosen great seats on the flights, arranged for special meals to accommodate dietary restrictions, and even had cute little matching outfits for my young children.  It was going to be smooth sailing, except that before our first plane even took off, things started unraveling.  My husband lost his wallet that contained all the cash for our trip, our plane had mechanical issues, our flight was cancelled, we had to change airlines and get a whole new (far from ideal) itinerary and layovers, we no longer had seats together, there was no food for us, we lost a night of sleep and a day of our trip, and our luggage was lost.  Before we even left our own city a day later, when a flight became available, we were discouraged, sleep deprived, and unsure where in the world all of our bags were and if/when we would get them back.

I am naturally pretty level headed and even tempered.  It takes a lot to get me worked up and one of the things I like about myself is my ability to maintain a sense of peace in the midst of chaos.  This day, however, was different.  I took the first few incidents in stride and then at some point, I just broke.  In addition to the many tears that I shed, my thinking became distorted.  The main thought bouncing around my mind was, “It is not supposed to be this way!”  I also had thoughts along the lines of, “We aren’t going to have what we need.”  “This is going to impact our entire trip.”  “I can’t do this.”  Once I started down this line of thinking, it was hard to course correct.  I also beat myself up for struggling so much and for not being able to maintain composure.  In addition to the distress from the situation itself, I heaped judgment and shame onto myself for not handling it all with more grace. 

Everyone falls into thinking traps and experiences cognitive distortions (and that statement is not all-or-nothing thinking or overgeneralizing).  It is part of our human condition.  We don’t always see things clearly.  There are times when we are especially vulnerable to losing perspective and having distorted thoughts.  The acronym HALT is often used to bring attention to this phenomenon by positing that when we are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, we are less in control and are more susceptible to impulsive or self-destructive behavior.  This acronym also serves to remind us what to do when that is the case, halt! 

When I noticed I was responding in an exaggerated way, I halted and checked in with myself.  With some space to think and journal (there was no shortage of that for me during the 28 hours in flight), I realized I was overestimating the negative aspects of the situation and underestimating my ability to cope.  I recognized several distortions with my thinking.  I was not accepting the reality of the situation by spending all my energy brooding over the unfortunate circumstances rather than accepting what was going on and putting my energy into figuring out how to best deal with it.  I was fortune telling by looking ahead into the unknown future and telling myself things were definitely going to go terribly and we wouldn’t have what we needed.  I was succumbing to negative filtering and overgeneralizing by only acknowledging the things we did not have and allowing that to color my expectations of the trip overall.  I was catastrophizing by blowing things out of proportion and I fell into the trap of should/must thinking by pressuring myself to immediately identify some deep and meaningful life lesson from the experience and maneuver the situation and my emotions around it perfectly. 

Changing our distorted thinking is not just pretending everything is wonderful or ignoring things that are difficult.  Instead, it is having an accurate perspective and seeing things as they truly are.  If I held onto my distorted thoughts on the first days of our trip, I would have missed so many beautiful things around me.  I wouldn’t have acknowledged or been grateful for the abundance of snacks we had in our carry on luggage, how relaxing it was to play games, read books, and watch movies on the flights, how although we ended up not getting our luggage for several days, we were able to buy or borrow some things we needed once we got to our destination, that our kids were absolute troopers and had the time of their lives, and what a privilege it was to go on this adventure in the first place.

Just like Alexander said, some days can feel terrible, horrible, no good, and very bad.  His day truly was hard, as was mine; however, that is not the full picture.  There can be beauty in the midst of struggle; there can be peace in the midst of chaos, and there can be gratitude in the midst of disappointment.  Let’s allow ourselves to embrace the frustrating and the wonderful at the same time and give ourselves grace in the journey, no matter how many thinking traps we fall into along the way. 

Article by Shelly M. Reed, PsyD, S-PSB