6 Thought traps: How the way we think can influence our activism

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven” – Milton, 2007

How does what we think influence our activism?

Have you ever wondered how the thoughts that enter your mind influence your experience of the world? From the way you behave, the emotions you feel, to the very physical sensations in your body? Humans have thousands of thoughts in a day. They can range from observational commentary and casual ponderings, to worries, obsessions, images, or judgments. And they impact us in a variety of ways, sometimes motivating us, and other times hindering us from taking important action.

Often, thoughts come in the form of statements that we’re telling ourselves. The statement “I wonder how my day will pan out” is just as much a thought as “I’m a terrible person”, but of course each of these thoughts  is going to impact us in significantly different ways.

Our brains have evolved to be vigilant to negative detail. As a result, it is natural for our thoughts to often be negative; to criticise, judge, complain, to expect the worst. But having negative thoughts isn’t in itself a negative thing, in fact if we only had positive thoughts then we’d be greatly under-prepared for the realities of life. Having a variety of thoughts – negative and positive, is not only helpful, but also a very natural part of the human condition.

However, our brains are always finding ways to make quick interpretations about the world around us, sometimes using short-cuts to reflect reality in ways that can be unrealistic – like jumping to the worst conclusion, or thinking we’re at fault when we’re not. These interpretations only cause us problems when we forget that they are just that – interpretations. Whether truthful or skewed, often our minds like to convince us that our thoughts are absolute facts and that we should pay them our full attention. This can send us into emotional whirlwinds or impact us in ways that take us further away from the kind of people we want to be.

Fortunately when this happens there are things we can do to check in with ourselves so that our thoughts don’t take the driver’s seat behind our actions – like noticing our thoughts, questioning them, and opening up to new perspectives. In other words – we have the capacity to notice, challenge, and override our unhelpful thought traps.

Here are some common thought traps to watch out for, how they might influence our activism, and how to get out of them: 

1. Jumping to conclusions

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“The state of the world will never change for animals, why bother trying?”

“If I speak up for animals, my friends will judge me”

“People eat animals because they don’t care about animals”

“If I go vegan, I’ll become unhealthy”

“Animals raised for food are not treated badly in my country”

Do any of these sound familiar? Our mind is very good at creating conclusions and looking for any evidence that supports that conclusion, even if there’s little to none of it. It also likes to predict the future, though in reality we can rarely know the future with certainty. Sometimes, we can make a fairly educated guess; for example, if your friends have a tendency to judge others with different opinions about the world, it may be likely they’ll judge you for speaking out about something less popular. But our minds work quickly, they like to imagine potential future scenarios for us to deal with, even if those scenarios are unlikely.

The Impact

The trap here is convincing ourselves of a negative or unrealistic truth, or convincing ourselves of the future to the detriment of the present. Sometimes, our predictions may be true, and it may be important to prepare for that reality. But when we cling onto our interpreted reality as absolutely true, then we risk missing important facts about the situation, and we may get caught up in emotions or behaviours that stop us from taking important action.

For example, telling myself the world will never change may stop me from taking action now and into the future -preventing any chances of me contributing to the world I could help create. That negative future we imagine may never come, so getting stuck on a prediction may cause us to suffer unnecessarily. Jumping to conclusions can also be a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, if we think to ourselves that “people are selfish and don’t care about animals” then when it comes to interacting with others during our activism, we may be more aggressive or hostile towards the very people we want to have listen to us. This could cause them to switch off and turn away, seemingly confirming our belief that they don’t care.

Getting out of the trap

Ask yourself, is what I’m thinking true right now and based on the facts? Or am I making an assumption about what is true? Is what I’m thinking based on fear of what could be rather than what is? If you are imagining a hypothetical future that hasn’t happened yet, it may not be worth fighting that battle right now. If it’s likely that future will come true – is there something you can do about it right now? If yes, then take action or plan to take action later, if no, then letting go of this prediction may be the best path forward.

2. Overgeneralisation

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“All farmers are awful, cruel people”

“Animal activists are aggressive and annoying”

“Animals are not intelligent”

“Humanity is evil”

Overgeneralising is when we take a certain quality in a person or situation and generalise it across the board. It’s a very common thinking trap in prejudiced and discriminatory thinking – for example, ‘women are bad drivers’, ‘men are predatory’, or ‘all [members of a particular race] are dangerous’. But it may also involve generalising from one thing to another. For example, when we say animals are not intelligent, we are generalising our understanding of human intelligence to other species, while having little understanding of the unique qualities relevant to them.

The Impact

Overgeneralising can take away the nuance of situations, as well as the individual identity and diversity in people. When we look at everyone with the same lens, we vastly misunderstand people and the mechanisms that explain our behaviours. For example, farmers are complicit in very cruel acts towards animals, but generalise this to their characters as people, we miss some important details in this picture – that many farmers (and most people in general) have spent a lifetime believing these actions towards animals, even if cruel, are warranted or necessary. If this is the case, they may believe their actions are a form of contribution to society. If we see all farmers as bad people, it would make influencing a change in their thinking towards how we treat animals very difficult. It’s much more difficult to imagine changing a cruel “person” or “people” than it is changing cruel “behaviour”. We would be less motivated or even effective in doing so – in fact we’d probably feel defeated, disillusioned, hopeless and chronically angry.

Getting out of the trap

Sometimes a simple change in language can be enough to help decrease the intensity of our emotions and the distorted nature of our thought. Look out for any extreme words in your thinking like ‘all’ (all the time, all people), ‘everyone’, ‘no one’, ‘never’, ‘always’ etc, and shift these for more flexible and balanced words that take into account the variability in situations – like sometimes, often, some, many etc. Try saying this to yourself in place of your original thought.

Also ask yourself – what am I generalising? what happens when I paint each of these situations or people with the same brush? What factors have contributed to this particular situation that aren’t always the case in other situations? What are some examples that don’t fit my negative thought?

3.’Shoulding’

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“I should be doing more, I’m not doing enough”

“People should know how cruel eating meat and dairy is”

“People should be better”

“It shouldn’t be this way”

Now, I haven’t got a personal vendetta against the word “should” here. Sometimes it’s appropriate, even important in getting things in order. Many people fight for animal rights today because they’ve recognised that animals killed for food should be given the right to their life and the right to freedom.

But then there are the ‘shoulds’ that leave us feeling perpetually disappointed and discouraged. ‘Shoulding’ can mean bounding ourselves and others to arbitrary rules that we’ve created. ‘Should’ can make us feel pressured and obligated rather than inspired, and puts us at risk of frequent disappointment with ourselves and others when our self-inflicted standards are not met. In some cases ‘should’ also takes us away from accepting reality as it is which can add to our pain (note when I say ‘accepting’, I don’t mean giving in to reality and giving up, but instead acknowledging what is truly happening here). For example – ‘it shouldn’t be this way’, whilst this statement may be true, and may inspire us to change the way it is, other times it can prevent us from accepting that ‘it is this way’ and moving towards doing something about it, or letting go if we can’t. Or the statement “they should know not to act that way” – what if they simply just don’t know? Expecting them to know unfortunately doesn’t change that they don’t know, nor their behaviour even if they do know.

Getting out of the trap

First ask yourself, what is the impact of holding onto this ‘should’? Does it drive me to change the situation? Does it leave me feeling disheartened and frustrated? If it’s the latter, then see if you can change this ‘rule’ instead to a ‘preference’, a desire, or an acknowledgement of reality. Let’s try this with the statements above-

  • I would like if I were doing more, it would help the cause
  • I wish people knew how cruel eating meat and dairy is, but many don’t, and I can continue to do something to change this
  • People don’t do better than what I expect, that’s how it is sometimes
  • I wish it wasn’t this way, but it is (and I can do something to change that)

If it’s a ‘should’ that you feel passionate about and is in line with what you value, then let it guide you towards your chosen action!

4. ‘All or Nothing’ Thinking

polarised thinking

You either care about animals, or you don’t. If you eat animals, you don’t.

You’re either perfectly vegan or you’re not

I can’t go vegan because I can’t give up cheese

You can’t stop all animals from suffering, so you may as well continue eating animals // you kill animals when harvesting crops, so there’s no point in going vegan

I haven’t got many followers on my activism channel, it’s a failure

Also called ‘black or white’ or ‘polarised’ thinking. All or nothing is when we see things as falling into one of two categories, rather than on a continuum. In other words, seeing things as an either/or extreme, rather than the ‘grey’ areas in between.  For example, things have to be perfect, or they’re a failure; if it’s not good, it’s completely bad; you’re either loved or you’re hated.

The Impact

Putting things into one of two categories often helps us simplify the way we look at the world, but that’s what makes it a problem sometimes – the world isn’t quite that simple! Simplifying it makes us miss important details, or create unrealistic or rigid expectations. If things are seen in terms of categories, often the ‘good’ category has such a high standard that it’s easy for things to fall into the ‘bad’ category. For example, thinking “I’m a complete failure at this” will likely lead to feeling overwhelmed, or make us throw in the towel with our activism, than something like “I didn’t do a good job at this task, but that doesn’t make me a bad activist”. Or thinking “I ate dairy today, I can’t call myself a vegan” means we may be more likely to give up trying to be vegan, compared to “I’m making many changes, I will slip up sometimes but that doesn’t mean I can’t be vegan”.

Getting out of the trap

See if you can put your categories on a spectrum instead, to help see the “the grey area” and the “in betweens”. If failure was on one end of the spectrum, and success on the other – where would you fall as an activist if you made a mistake? If “rejecting all animal use” was on one end of the spectrum, and “rejecting no animal use” was on the other end, where would you fall as a vegan? Or as someone trying to help animals?

5. Mental Filtering

Person holding magnifying glass pointed towards smoke during ...

“The activist community is terrible”

“Nothing is changing for animals”

“I’m no good at doing activism”

Just like the name suggests, this is when we ‘filter out’ information or evidence that doesn’t fit our already-held beliefs, and we only pay attention to details that do fit our beliefs. Take for example the idea that the activist community is terrible – when thinking this, it may be possible we’re focusing on the members of the community who have caused trouble or with whom we’ve had conflict, missing the many people who are working hard in their own fields, or the larger community of activists in other parts of the world who we don’t yet know.

The Impact

As you can imagine, if we only focus on some details and not others, it’s a sure-fire way to developing a biased way of looking at a situation. If we think ‘nothing is changing’ for example, we may only be focusing on the areas where change is truly not happening (e.g. farming animals and killing them continues), while missing all the ways in which progress is being made (e.g. the massive growth of plantbased food, and shifting culture towards the normalisation of veganism). I’ve held on to this kind of thinking before, and it’s made me feel defeated, in fact even throw in the towel. Unfortunately, that only seemed to compound the pain I felt from the state of the world for animals, taking me further away from doing something that might help, or that might help me get back on my feet, and then feeling additional guilt for not acting in line with my values! Our thoughts can take us on long and tiring journeys when we pay them too much attention.

Getting out of the trap

Keep an open mind and ask yourself – is there information being missed here? Am I filtering out any important detail? Am I looking at the whole picture or focusing on something in particular? What is the effect of filtering out this information, and what happens when I bring it back into focus?

6. Labelling

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“Humanity is evil

“You’re selfish for eating animals”

“People who say they love animals and eat them too are hypocrites

Labelling is when we slap on a simplified word (usually a judgment) to describe something or someone that is otherwise more complicated and nuanced. Labelling takes out the fact of the situation, and immediately turns it into an evaluation, our personal evaluation.

The impact

When we label, we shrink the many colours, angles, and perspectives of a concept down into one narrowed view that ends up defining that concept – for you & others.  Labelling can take us away from seeing reality as it is. For example – when we think “this person is bad“, it doesn’t quite capture reality – what does bad mean in this situation? What did the person do or say? Labelling can also quickly intensify our emotions. We’re more likely to feel disgust or anger towards someone if we see them as a “selfish” person for example, compared to if we see them as having acted in a manner that causes us to feel hurt. When we see reality as it is, or step back from a simple word solution to a complex situation, we give ourselves room for empathy, understanding, or perspective.

Getting out of the trap

Sometimes labelling can be a short-hand to communicate something. So we don’t always need to step out of it. For example, if we say “this food has gone bad”, it can be a quick way to communicate that the food has expired and is now harmful to eat. But when labelling is not adding value to the situation but instead diminishing value, stick to facts, feelings, or both. Let’s try this what the statements above:

  • “humanity is capable of causing great harm (fact)”
  • “when you eat animals (fact), it hurts (feeling) knowing that animals suffer as a result”
  • “when people say they love animals and eat them too, their action of eating them contrasts with their attitudes of loving them (fact) which is frustrating (feeling)”

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