Historical Trauma

Lesson 4: Emotional Traps


  • Understanding emotional traps


  • Self evaluation


Ever wonder how we develop our thoughts, ideas, and views about the world around us?  Or question why we feel the way we do about certain things?  As we become more aware of our surroundings and other peoples behaviors we see other views and wonder why?

American Indian people have rich cultures that are distinct and connected to where they come from as a people.  Our place of origin is recorded in oral histories, just as our identities are tied to our origins, our cosmological beliefs, and traditional lifestyles.  We normally don’t question our culture because it is our way of life and we are a spiritual people, but there are things that make us question the world in general.

Written histories have contributed distorted views about our people, using negative words like savages, wild animals, dirty heathens, unintelligible, and in war our people massacred while the military defeated.

Some of our reservations are burdened by drugs, alcohol, violence and high rates of suicide.  We live in a stressful society and many of us can cope with this, while some of our people use drugs and alcohol.   Sometimes we can only see the negative things in our lives and this begins to shape how we feel all the time, unless we reflect upon our own thinking we will be unable to change and see more positive things in life.

The negative thinking is bad for our emotional and mental state because it leads to unhealthy reactive behaviors in our people.  So how do I know that I have negative thoughts and where might they have started?  For some of us it’s from our worldviews.

What is a worldview?

It is our mental model of reality built on our ideas and attitudes about the world, ourselves, life, and our system of beliefs.  Some of these come from hearing and seeing how others treat us or how we treat others and these ideas and attitudes can be passed on to our children.  This type of thinking is relative to intergenerational trauma and becomes a cycle our children and grandchildren can get caught up in, so it is important that we understand emotional traps and try to change how we see ourselves and the world we live in.

According Dr. David Burns there are ten types of distorted thinking that lead to problems with negative emotions or emotional traps.  He suggest that Cognitive Therapy can help deal with anxiety and emotional stress caused by distorted thinking and negative emotions, that is changing how we see situations about us and changing how we think about those situations.

Here is an example of an elder speaking on dealing with psychological stress from the Wisdom of the Elders interview transcripts.

Karen Zachary, Nez Perce elder, 2005

WISDOM: So, the psychological stress of just having the disease and dealing with it is itself a problem you need to overcome.  So tell me about the talking circle, how does it work?

Karen: We were talking about having a talking circle to bring out our problems or maybe, you know, share some good information.  It’s helped me because I see somebody that’s maybe in worse shape or has more problems than I do, and then how to deal with it and help each other…for a while it seemed like a couple of us were under stress for something that might have happened yesterday, and it really got to us.  When we had our talking circle we brought it (problems) out and left it there.

WISDOM: During the interview Karen was asked if our culture influence how we react or deal with our feelings.

Karen: I think it is a cultural thing, because that’s the way I was brought up.  We were to be seen but not heard.  I think that’s why a lot of us really hate to get up and speak or because maybe we’ll offend somebody.  Or, you know, we better not just say nothing, and we’d be better off.  It’s really too bad because you see children or even myself walking with our head down instead of walking like were really strong.  We need to be given more strength and being able to talk out what our feelings are and what our problems are.

There are times when we get frustrated with our personal problems and when we have to deal with diabetes it creates even more emotional feelings and negative thinking, so we might even deny our feelings which cause us to be stuck in emotional traps.  Here are words from the interview with Valerie Albert, Nez Perce

WISDOM: Do you have, you’re, in the education of the people that actually have diabetes, I assume there’s some frustratioins involved in that and trying to get people to take care of themselves?  How do you approach that?  You have the dinner, but do people come to the dinner?

Valerie:   It does have its times when it’s frustrating.  It’s hard to see somebody that you give the knowledge to but they’re not ready to accept that they even have a problem.  Some people don’t accept that they have diabetes yet.  We talk about, “Well I’bm borderline”.  I don’t believe there’s anything such as borderline diabetic.  You are or you aren’t.

WISDOM: You don’t accept any denial talk.  So its denials difficult to overcome and do you have any techniques other than just going and bugging them about it?

Valerie: We have talking circles.  Where they talk about I think dealing with the problems of being diabetic.  I’ve heard them talk a little bit when we have our diabetes clinics.  And I hear some of them talk about some of the frustrations they go through dealing with diabetes.  We do realize it and we do have a Mental Health staff that is there for them.  Sometimes it’s hard getting them to see Mental Health but at least its there.

Awareness of what is available and that others are experiencing similar frustrations, assures us that we are not different or that our negative thinking defines who we are.  What we need to understand is that we can change our thinking by recognizing those negative thoughts.


Need paper and pencil

Self evaluation:

  • Do the test below to see if you distort the way you think about things.
  • Can you think of a situation; write it down detailing how it made you feel.  Then think of some positive ways you could learn from the situation
  • Discuss with someone you trust about ways to change these ways of thinking. Or with a group.

>  If you feel you want more support, speak with your care provider.

  • All-or-Nothing Thinking

You see things as either black or white. If you are not perfect you see yourself as a total failure. You make one mistake at work and you are convinced that you are going to be fired. You get a B on a test and it is the end of the world. Your partner moans at you for not putting gas in the car and you decide that you are no longer loved. If you recognize yourself here then maybe you think of yourself as a perfectionist. This can make you terribly anxious and cause you to spend a lot of time being ashamed of yourself because, of course, no one is perfect.

  • Labeling

Labeling is an extension of the all-or-nothing emotional trap. You make a mistake but instead of thinking, "I made a mistake," you label yourself: "I'm an idiot." Your girlfriend breaks up with you and instead of thinking, "She doesn't love me anymore," you decide "I am unlovable." You find an exam really difficult and think, "I am so stupid," instead of "This exam is tough."

  • Overgeneralization

The signs of this kind of distorted thinking that lead to an emotional trap are the use of the words always or never. You drop something and say to yourself, "I am always so clumsy." You make a mistake and think, "I will never get this right."

  • Mental Filtering

In complicated situations that involve both negative and positive elements, you always dwell on the negative. Your husband clearly enjoyed the birthday dinner that you gave for him but comments that the cake was a bit dry. You ignore all the positive comments and whip yourself for being a lousy baker. You get a minor criticism at work and filter out all the good feedback and convince yourself that your boss hates you and that you are going to be fired when all that is needed is a minor correction.

  • Discounting the Positive

Do you ever catch yourself thinking, "That doesn't count," or "Anyone could have done that," or "That really wasn't so good"? You do well on a test and think, "That doesn't really count." Your colleagues praise your presentation and you say, "It really wasn't that good." You win an award and think, "Anyone could have done that."

  • Jumping To Conclusions

You assume the worst based on no real evidence. Dr. Burns describes two sub-categories in this emotional trap - mind reading and fortune-telling. In mind reading you decide that another person is reacting negatively to you. Two of your co-workers are chatting at the coffee machine and as you approach, they fall silent. Chances are that they have finished their conversation, but you assume that they were talking about you behind your back. In fortune telling you predict the worst possible outcome. A test is difficult so you decide you have failed.

  • Magnification

The emotional trap here is that you exaggerate the importance of problems, short comings and minor disturbances. Your toilet gets blocked and you imagine that you will have to get the entire plumbing system replaced. You forget to close a window when you leave home and it rains; you are sure that you are going to return to a flooded house.

  • Emotional Reasoning

Distorted thinking happens when you mistake your emotions for reality. Aren't we all guilty of that? "I feel nervous about flying so it must be dangerous." "I feel guilty about forgetting my brother’s birthday therefore I am a bad person." "I feel alone, I must not be good company."

  • Should and Shouldn't Statements

This kind of thinking involves blaming yourself. You play well in a football match but miss one goal and berate yourself: "I should have got that goal. I shouldn't have missed." You eat a chocolate and think "I shouldn't have eaten that. I should lose ten pounds." Other forms of this emotional trap include must, ought to, have to, etc.

  • Personalizing the Blame

Here you hold yourself personally responsible for things beyond your control. Your child gets into trouble at school and you think "I am a bad mother." You are late for an appointment because of a traffic jam and you personalize it "I must be irresponsible." But people do understand, it happens to everyone and sometimes circumstances are beyond your control.

The idea is to be able recognize when we might think or feel these thoughts or emotions and learn to deal with them in a positive way.