3 mental traps we fall into all-the-time

3 mental traps we fall into all-the-time

Life can be shitty sometimes. People often comfort us when bad things happen by saying, "look at the bright side!". But frankly, becoming an optimist is easier said than done, and sometimes the negativity feels overwhelming, creating mental chatters that interfere with the clarity of our mind.

After years of studying how people deal with adversity, the American psychologist Martin Seligman identified three common cognitive distortions (the 3Ps) that stunt people's recovery from unpleasant events. He believes that optimism can be cultivated and learned [1]. Keeping in mind the 3Ps can be a powerful tool when facing uncertainty and adversity. Let's have a look at each of them:


Cognitive distortion #1: Personalization



 The belief that you are entirely to be blamed for causing the problem instead of considering other causes.


Personalization is a common type of negative thinking that attributes the cause of setbacks to internal factors instead of external ones. It usually hinges on negative self-talk, such as:

  • Blaming yourself when someone else is not having a good time when they are with you [2].

  • Choosing to believe that bad things happened because you did something wrong.

Solution: We need to understand that problems come to our life for multiple reasons, that we are not the cause of all problems. The next time you criticize yourself for causing a problem, pause and ask yourself: Did I have control over all factors that led to the problem? If you frequently experience personalization, decreasing the times of saying "I'm sorry...", "I regret (doing sth)..." can also help you let go.



Cognitive distortion #2: Pervasiveness


Catastrophizing that a bad situation affects all areas of your life, instead of just one aspect.


For example, a person who just got turned down by a job interview can think that they will never be hired again, they will not be able to support themselves financially, and that they are unlovable by their partner (i.e. Perceiving that a setback in their career will ruin their financial status, personal value and relationship.)

Solution: Try to focus on areas in your life that are not negative. Listing your strengths + 3 things that you are grateful for everyday can help. Invest more time in these areas and cherish the positive things you still have in life.


Cognitive distortion #2: Permanence


The belief that the negative feelings will last forever, and we will never overcome the problem.


Many studies on predictions of how people will feel in the future reveal that people tend to overestimate how long adverse events will affect them: young adults overestimated the amount of time it takes for them to become happy again after a break-up; participants overestimated how long it takes them to feel better after given negative feedback about their personalities... [3,4]

Solution: Although your mind might be telling you things with words like "always" and "never," no problem lasts forever, we just need time to heal the pain. When you hear yourself thinking like "I will never feel happy again," replace these words with "sometimes" and "lately" --"Lately, I've been feeling unhappy." Moreover, notice and recall moments where the pain temporarily eased up. For example, you still laughed at a colleague's joke this morning; you saw the beautiful sunset last night and forgot about what was occupying your mind for a while. Our emotion comes and goes, and no matter how strong you are experiencing an emotion, know that another break will eventually arrive.


Putting it together

Now, let's do an exercise together to implement the 3Ps and see how we perceive an experience differently.

1) Choose a challenging experience that has been bothering you recently.

2) Write out how you think about the situation as Personal, Pervasive, and Permanent.

3) Try to think of ways that the experience could be Impersonal, specific, and impermanent. Write them down. [6]


For example, say you've been preparing for an important project for a long time, but it did not go well.

Pessimistic thinking
Optimistic thinking
It's all my fault I didn't do well.
The project was very challenging. Every team member is responsible for the result. There's no need to blame myself because I could improve by trying a different approach next time.
Everything is so terrible.
Many other aspects of my life are going well: I am healthy. I have loving family and friends.
I'll never excel at my work.
This project was just one isolated situation. I can recall times where I made achievements at work.


Hundreds of studies have demonstrated that children and adults recover more quickly from hardships when they realize the 3Ps. They also have a lower chance of developing anxiety and depression and perform better in all areas of their lives [5].

Successful leaders, such as the COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, also mentioned in her book [Option B] that knowing about the 3P principle helped her tremendously after the heartbreaking death of her husband. When dealing with grief, she reminded herself daily how her suffering could be impersonal, impermanent, and specific. She also found it extremely helpful to write down three things she is grateful for each day [5]. As backed up by studies, doing so can foster gratitude, leading to significantly better mood and reduced health problems [7].



"You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle, you can build it up, draw on it when you need it."
-Sheryl Sandberg




[1] Moore, C. (2021, June 8). Learned optimism: Is Martin Seligman's glass half full? PositivePsychology.com. https://positivepsychology.com/learned-optimism/.

[2] PERSONALIZATION: A COMMON TYPE OF NEGATIVE THINKING. Therapy Now SF. (2021, January 25). https://www.therapynowsf.com/blog/personalization-a-common-type-of-negative-thinking.

[3] Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2005). Affective Forecasting: Knowing What to Want. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(3), 131–134. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00355.x

[4] Gilbert, D. T., Pinel, E. C., Wilson, T. D., Blumberg, S. J., & Wheatley, T. P. (1998). Immune neglect: A source of durability bias in affective forecasting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(3), 617–638. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.75.3.617

[5] Sandberg, S., & Grant, A. M. (2019). Breathing Again. In Option b: Facing adversity, building resilience, and finding joy (pp. 15–29). essay, WH Allen.

[6] 3 P's. Growing Resilient. (2018, February 15). https://growingresilient.com/home/tools/3-ps/.

[7] Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of personality and social psychology, 84(2), 377–389. https://doi.org/10.1037//0022-3514.84.2.377

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