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Elisa Goldstein, Ph.D.Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.
A blog about mindfulness, stress-reduction, psychotherapy and mental health.

The Mind Traps that Hold Us Back

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. Updated: Aug 10th 2010

man stuckI teach Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) groups to prevent relapse into depression. MBCT is an 8-week course where people learn the fundamentals of mindfulness meditation, combined with some cognitive therapy and we begin to see how cultivating a present moment nonjudgmental awareness of our minds and bodies can actually prevent or reduce the severity of relapse into depression. This course asks participants to engage in 30-45 minutes of practice on a daily basis and for most that is quite rigorous at first. So it’s inevitable that some or many people in the class at some point or another struggle with the thoughts “I should be doing it 30-45 minutes a day and I’m not, therefore I’m failing, I’ll never get it right, what’s the point.” This is a common Mind Trap that affects many of our lives in different ways, let’s look at it.

Initially, this comments starts with the Mind Trap, “the shoulds.” This is a very common trap in our mind because what it does, as we can see in the comment above, is set up a cascade of self-judgments that stir up all kinds of feelings of guilt and shame, which a behavior of isolation. Isolation is often the exact opposite of what is healing or in making progress.

If you remember that game Mouse Trap from the 1960’s and beyond, we can consider this reaction in the same way. In Mouse Trap a lever is pressed which inevitably activates a ball to fall down a hole which causes a chain reaction of events.

I might say that the mental event that includes “I should be…” does very much the same thing. It causes a chain of events that leads to feelings of guilt and shame which ofcourse, leads to more judgments (e.g., I’m falling, I’ll never get it right) about the feelings or other automatic negative thoughts (e.g., what’s the point), and inevitably to a behavior that is often the opposite of healing (e.g., isolation or disengagement).

Once we become familiar of this reaction we can begin to step outside of it more often as it’s occurring. We might even play a game with ourselves predicting or becoming curious about what thoughts will continue to unfold.

While these thoughts are convincing and believable in the moment, the truth is, they are a subjective interpretation of your experience that is mood dependent. If someone didn’t meet a desired goal, but had been complimented many times that day or felt secure in some way, those thoughts be less frequent or be less intense. However, we are still the same person.

If the judgment about our character was a fact (e.g., “I’m a failure”) it would stand the test of time, but it doesn’t.

This doesn’t mean our thoughts carry no credibility, just that if we are going to let a thought cause a downward emotional spiral, it’s worth checking it out for its validity.  

Next time “the shoulds” arise, recognize it as a mind trap, check in with the emotional and physical experience of the present moment, breathe, and see if there are other ways to view this moment.

As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.


Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles and is author of the upcoming book The Now Effect, co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of the Mindful Solutions audio series, and the Mindfulness at Work™ program currently being adopted in multiple multinational corporations.

Check out Dr. Goldstein's acclaimed CD's on Mindful Solutions for Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, Mindful Solutions for Addiction and RelapsePrevention, and Mindful Solutions for Success and Stress Reduction at Work. -- "They are so relevant, I have marked them as one of my favorites on a handout I give to all new clients" ~ Psychiatrist.

If you're wanting to integrate more mindfulness into your daily life, sign up for his Mindful Living Twitter Feed. Dr. Goldstein is also available for private psychotherapy.

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