Updated: Nov 27, 2020
Rarely do we encounter physical traps in our lives; most of the uncomfortable situations that we get stuck in for a long time are Psychological Traps. These are often the product of unrealistic fears, dysfunctional social dynamics, or unhelpful beliefs. Below, we’ve summarized eight of the most common mental pits that can sidetrack your success and undermine your wellbeing to help you better identify them! These Psychological Traps can limit our happiness for years unless we take action to combat them. Using the analogy of being trapped in an actual pit, this guide (below) sorts these eight pitfalls into three different kinds: Beliefs Traps, Social Traps, and Avoidance Traps & Desire Traps.
Belief Traps: pits of belief
These traps result from false or unacknowledged beliefs we have about the world, which hinder our ability to see a situation for what it is.
(1) Truman Show You don't realize (or have forgotten) that you're stuck in a pit. As far as you're concerned, this is just what normal life is like, so you don't make any efforts to change your situation.
Example 1: You were raised in a cult from a young age. Everyone around you lives the same kind of life and has the same beliefs, so you don’t consider that there could be any other options.
Example 2: Your partner has always abused you, just like your mom abused your dad. As far as you’re concerned, this kind of behavior is just what happens in intimate relationships.
(2) Mirage You could climb out of the pit, but you don't believe you can. You've convinced yourself the walls are twice as high as they are, or that you're not strong enough to make it. Perhaps this belief is the product of "learned helplessness": you tried and failed to get out of the pit in the past, so you’ve learned that it’s easier not to try.
Example 1: You hate your job, but you're convinced that if you quit, you'll fail to get hired anywhere else. Because of this, you don’t try to change your situation even though you’re deeply unhappy.
Example 2: You are convinced that it would be nearly impossible for you to find a romantic partner (due to many rejections you experienced early in life), so you don't bother going on dates or trying to meet people you find attractive.
(3) Inevitability You're convinced that if you get out of this pit, you'll just end up in another one - one which could be even worse - so there's no point in leaving. At least this pit is familiar to you.
Example 1: You’re depressed, and you know there are treatments out there that could help you, but you’re convinced that the world is just a bad, miserable place and that you’ll always find something to be unhappy about. Because of this, you don’t make any effort to tackle your depression.
Example 2: You're not happy with your current partner, but you're convinced that any other relationship you could have would be just as bad. You conclude that it’s probably you that’s defective, not the relationship, and decide to stick with it.
Social Traps: pits caused by social dynamics
These traps are the product of relationships with other people - relationships which might be actively unhealthy, or relationships whose success we take too much responsibility for.
(4) Prison of Solidarity
You could leave the pit, but there's someone stuck in there with you. If you think of leaving, you feel so guilty, or they get so sad when they find out that you abandon the plan.
Example 1: Your roommate is severely depressed. It’s harming you, but you know that their life is improved by your presence, and you don’t want to move out for fear that they’ll be even more unhappy.
Example 2: You committed to completing a project with a friend, but it has been beset by expensive and time-consuming set-backs. It is seriously affecting the quality of your life, but you don’t want to leave your friend alone to deal with it.
(5) Coerced Confinement
You could climb out of the pit, but whenever you try, someone uses manipulation to rope you back in, or threatens you with bad consequences if you leave.
Example 1: Your spouse is abusive and threatens to spread terrible lies about you and turn all of your friends against you if you leave. Understandably, this threat keeps you from leaving; even though, in actuality, you would be better off if you left even if they go through with the threat.
Example 2: You keep trying to quit the job you hate. Whenever you do, your boss makes you feel terrible, convincing you that you’re being ungrateful for everything the job has done for you, and that you owe it to the company to stay.
Avoidance & Desire Traps: pits of fear, pain and pleasure
(6) Toothless Tiger
A terrible danger is lurking outside the pit you're stuck in - a tiger. Tigers are scary, so it makes sense that you're afraid and haven't climbed out. But what if it’s an old tiger, with no teeth or claws? Now it’s your own fear that keeps you trapped in the pit.
Example 1: You’re terrified of looking stupid or embarrassing yourself in social situations, so you avoid all interaction with other people, instead of trying to face this fear. It ruins your life.
Example 2: You're terrified of failure, so you don't try to do things unless it’s certain that you will succeed. This fear prevents you from accomplishing the things you find truly meaningful in life.
(7) Barbed Wire Barrier
You could escape the pit, but it's going to hurt a lot to climb out. You avoid the short term pain, even though it means suffering much more serious pain in the future.
Example 1: Neither you or your spouse are happy in your marriage. But getting a divorce sounds stressful, humiliating, and painful. It would make everything much worse for a while. So you put off thinking about it.
Example 2: You have a medical problem that could turn into something serious without treatment. It doesn’t bother you much right now, and the treatment is very unpleasant and would require a month of recovery. Because of this, you put off getting treatment despite the risk of complications growing.
While there are bad things about being in the pit, it also helps you cope better with some aspects of your life (even though other parts of your life suffer as a result). You can leave the pit, but you keep giving in to temptation and returning there.
Example 1: You're addicted to alcohol, opiates, or pornography.
Example 2: You know your partner is unhealthy for you, but you feel so insanely attracted to them. Every time you leave, you find yourself thinking of them all the time, and eventually, you end up calling them up. You always get back together.
Did you recognize any of these psychological traps from your own experience, or from the experiences of people close to you? This article was written with brainstorming help from Kat Woods (who we’ve previously collaborated with on The Four States of Distress).