Avoiding Self-Defeating Thinking

After a layoff, many of our thoughts and evaluations about the situation are knee-jerk responses that pop into our minds without reasoning or deliberation. These thoughts are frequently negative, distorted and unrealistic. They can be viewed as thinking traps because they lock us into self-defeating ways of perceiving and acting that heighten the stressfulness of the situation and undermine our coping confidence. The key to breaking out of these thinking traps is to recognize them, challenge them and change them into more helpful and constructive thoughts.

This exercise is aimed at helping you practice changing your thinking so that you don’t make stressful situations more distressing. Below, you’ll find a list of common thinking traps, with examples of how they might impact your thinking after a layoff. Review the list and determine which of the thinking traps you tend to experience.

The last section presents a method for challenging and changing these self-defeating thinking traps.

Remember, even when we cannot control what happens to us, we can always control how we approach it.

Common Thinking Traps

All or Nothing Thinking

You tend to evaluate situations in extreme, black and white categories. One negative event or mistake is seen as a sign of complete failure or inadequacy. This belief is the basis for perfectionism.

  • When evaluating a job posting, a person decides not to apply because she lacks one of the five “preferable” job characteristics that are listed.
  • You conclude you are less of a person because of unemployment.

You tend to see a single negative event as indicative of a never-ending pattern.

  • Two of your eight displaced colleagues find work before you and you conclude, “Everyone is going to find work before me.”
  • The belief that all your problems are due to your job loss.

You exaggerate the importance of a negative event and roll it into a series of larger and more negative consequences. This tendency is sometimes referred to as “borrowing trouble.”

  • Upon being let go, you say to yourself “I’ll never find another job that pays this well. It won’t be long before I won't be able to pay my bills. I will lose my house and my family and I will be forced to live on the street.”
Discounting the Positive

You tend to transform neutral or positive experiences into negative ones.

  • You take a much needed break from your job search and enjoy a day with a friends or children. That night, you conclude that you can’t really enjoy anything until you find another job.
  • When complimented by a colleague about your resume, you tell yourself "She’s just saying that to be nice."
Fortune Telling

You anticipate that things will turn out negatively and you are convinced that your prediction is an already established fact.

  • You tell yourself “I will never find a job I liked as much as my last one.”
  • You are certain that all your work friends will move on without you.
Emotional Reasoning

You tend to conclude that if you feel something, it must be true. Remember, our feelings are always real, but they are not always accurate.

  • You feel anxious and overwhelmed after losing your job so you conclude there is no way you can cope with this.
  • You feel discouraged and down after chasing down a few futile job leads and you conclude that your situation is hopeless.

Challenging Common Thinking Traps

This exercise is aimed at helping you practice changing your thinking so that you don’t make stressful situations more distressing.

  1. Using a table like the one below, briefly explain a stressful situation in the first column.
  2. In the next column, identify your initial automatic thoughts about the problem.
  3. In the third column, describe how you feel when you think about the problem the way you described.
  4. Examine whether you are engaging in any of the thinking traps on this page. If you are using a thinking trap, record it in the fourth column.
  5. Challenge the thinking trap by asking the following questions:
    • Is this true?
    • What is the evidence?
    • Am I jumping to conclusions?
    • Would it really be that bad if it happened?
    • Is it helping me to think this way?
    • Is there another way to think about this?
  6. Substitute more realistic and positive thoughts/beliefs and notice your feelings.

Dealing with Rejection

I was just informed I was not selected for a job I wanted.

Automatic Thought

This is hopeless.

I'm not qualified for anything out there.






Thinking Trap

Emotional Reasoning



This is disappointing but I am good at what I do and if I keep plugging away, my persistence will pay off.

This is a competitive market and I may have to increase my skills. I can do that.

Maintaining a Positive Attitude: Positive Self-Statements

The following statements can be used to replace negative or pessimistic thinking about your situation. People enduring many different types of crises have provided these statements. Write those that you might find helpful on a 3x5 index card and carry them with you as a reminder.

  • Many people have survived job loss, I will too.
  • This is a tough job market, but I’m tough too!
  • Starting over isn’t easy, but I have a lot going for me.
  • I’m okay; feeling sad and discouraged after a layoff is normal.
  • I can replace fear with faith that things will work out.
  • I can solve this problem.
  • If I keep trying, I can do it!
  • I can get help from _______ if I need it.
  • Things are usually easier once I get started.
  • I can do this, I just have to hang in there.
  • Today was tough, but tomorrow is a new day.
  • There will be an end to this difficulty.
  • I just need to slow down and relax.
  • I can’t get too far ahead of myself; I just need to stay on track.
  • If I can’t direct the wind, I can surely adjust the sails.
  • Sometimes positive things come from difficult situations.
  • Add your own.