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How to Avoid Relationship-Damaging Mental Traps

Ashamed as I am to admit after all these years, my instinctive reaction is to defend or retreat still kicks into gear when I feel wronged or simply slightly mistreated.

When others appear to be behaving badly, we tend to sink into our own feelings, blinding ourselves to theirs

Out of our primitive fight or flight instinct, our first move is self-protection. Empathy evaporates.  Friendships fray.  Instead, as in defensive driving where we look several cars ahead to avoid accidents, recognize these traps. The ultimate reward, as Peter Bregman so astutely noted in “Do You Know What You Are Feeling” is that you can actually deepen a relationship rather than damage it.

Avoid Some of the Damaging Ways of Thinking and Behaving

1. Mental Filter

You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it, ignoring all others. For example, one sentence of perceived criticism erases all praise you have received from someone. Just like healthy marriages, enduring relationships need at least a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions to thrive. Those with negative Mental Filters need a much higher ratio and, sadly, are less likely to attract it.

“If it’s mentionable, it’s manageable.” ~ Mr. Rogers

2. Over-Generalization

You see a single, negative event as the extension of a never-ending pattern of negativity. Probably you use “never” or “always” when thinking speaking or writing about it.  This is one of the three patterns of pessimistic people cited by Marty Seligman in Learned Optimism for which he offers alternative behaviors.

“Every person you fight with has many other people in his life with whom he gets along quite well. You cannot look at a person who seems difficult to you without also looking at yourself.” ~ Jeffrey Kottler

3. All or Nothing Perception

You see things as white or black categories. If a situation is anything less than perfect, you see it as a total failure.  You probably have trouble making a decision, when faced with a plethora of choices. As Barry Schwartz notes in The Paradox of Choice, you are less likely to be satisficing — making a choice sooner, with less stress and with which you feel comfortable.

“We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.” ~ Anais Nin

See more of the most frequent mental traps, and what you can do about them at my column (that you can “follow”) Connected and Quotable in the Leadership section at Forbes. Find more ideas on human behavior at

Categories: behavior, Book, Choice, Conflict, Connecting, decisionmaking and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , .
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