Don’t Believe Everything You Think. A Consideration of Distorted Thinking and the Spiritual Life

062313In my work as a spiritual director, and also in deliverance ministry, as well as in my own experience of growth, it is very clear that there are common patterns of distorted thinking that disrupt spiritual growth and cause distress and disorder. These cognitive distortions lead one to misinterpret, or to over interpret the data of the world and to live in a kind of unreality, or exaggerated reality.

But of course holiness and wholeness presuppose what scripture calls a “sober mind” (cf 1 Thess 5ff; 1 Peter 1:13; 4:7; 5:8; Titus 2:2ff; among many others). Romans 12 exhorts us:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. (Romans 12:2-3)

Many sinful attitudes, fears, resentments, aversions and anxieties come from distorted thinking. These patterns emerge from our flesh but are also open doors for demonic influence as demons can exploit and further twist our experience of reality. The world too is able to exploit cognitive distortions both for profit and for influence.

The renewal of our minds is a key aim of spiritual direction, deliverance ministry and of overall spiritual growth. Hence, learning to recognize and name the more common forms of distorted thinking, also called cognitive distortions. Learning their “moves” we can begin to have mastery over them and begin to experience greater freedom and authority over our thought life. And, since most feelings come from thoughts, our emotional life will also be in greater repair. This includes having greater authority over and freedom from anxieties, resentments, anger, paranoia, and depression.

Lets take a brief look at some of these cognitive distortions and see their moves and bad fruits:

1. Overgeneralizing – The frequent tendency to think that a negative situation is part of a constant cycle of bad things that happen. People who overgeneralize often use words like “always” or “never.”

For example, a person might think: I had plans to go to the movie with friends, but the plans fell through. This always happens to me! I never get to have fun!

The more likely truth is that such a person does have enjoyable things in their life. And, like most other people, there are also disappointing moments. Life is a mixed bag. But, at the end of the day, most people have far more blessings than burdens.

Everyday ten trillion things go right and a few things go wrong. This is not an exaggeration when we consider that every function of every atom, molecule, cell and organ is a blessing and a success. Further, most every part of every system on this planet is up and running in a functional way so as to sustain our life. Things we seldom think about are taking place at every moment: photosynthesis is supplying oxygen, millions of ecosystems are running in symbiotic harmony, the Van Allen belts in the upper atmosphere are deflecting harmful radiation from the sun, the gulf stream and weather patterns are distributing warmth and rain, etc. Beyond the earth, Jupiter and Saturn are catching comets, the asteroid belt holds a lot of other space debris at bay, the sun is stable, and our earth has an orbit that is only 3 degrees off from a perfect circle, ensuring that the warmth of the sun is fairly even throughout our orbit.

The list could go on. But we ought to avoid overgeneralizing and exaggerating about how bad things “always” happen to us, and good things “never” come our way. This is not reality. It is not sober thinking. It makes us negative, fearful and anxious. It is not of God and has its origin in the sinful drive of ingratitude. There is much (ten trillion+) for which to be grateful for on any given day, even when certain disappointments have come. We need to embrace reality, and the reality is that overgeneralizing about negative outcomes is neither real nor balanced.

Satan can surely tap into this distortion to stir up resentment, fear, anxiety, and other negative emotions. The world too can “cash in” but string up the same negativity and proposing false or incomplete solutions for just $19.95 plus shipping and handling. Politicians and other organizations can also command too much of our loyalty and have too much power over us by inciting this distortion.

2. All or Nothing Thinking – Seeing things as only perfect or terrible, good or bad, 100% or Zero, with little or no room in between. For example, I am either a hero, or a total loser. Small mistakes are seen as total failure. Perhaps a person on diet slips, and has a large piece of cake, and then thinks, I am a total failure, I just gained ten pounds. There is very little “middle ground” in all or nothing thinking.

There is also the tendency in all or nothing thinking to think that affirming one thing, means denying others. For example, if I say, I like “A” that this therefore means I am somehow saying that B, C and D are of no value whatsoever. But of course that may not be the case at all. Yet, the all or nothing thinker may take offense at the affirmations or points made by others since they see no middle ground, or the possibility that many things can be affirmed and praised at once, or that preferences can be on a continuum somewhere between zero and one hundred.

Indeed, the reality is that most things in life, and most scenarios admit of a kind of continuum of outcomes between all and nothing, 100 and zero. There are often many different outcomes and possible combinations that are both praiseworthy and acceptable. But the all or nothing thinker, because of this cognitive distortion has a difficult time remembering and accepting this.

The result of all or nothing thinking at the personal level is either pride, wherein one thinks of themselves or their performance too highly, or low self esteem wherein one, seeing something less than perfect in their performance deems themselves to be a total loser. There are any number of issues that revolve around anxiety (e.g. performance anxiety) and fear (fear of failure), resentments and depression that set up on account of this cognitive distortion.

At the social level there is often hostility to all opinions that are not 100% in sync with what the all or nothing thinker insists is best. Such people often take offense when none is intended. For example, perhaps someone other than them, or what they think, is affirmed.  They then think that they, or  what they think, is therefore wholly discarded or ridiculed. In this way, all or nothing thinking tends to make people hostile, fearful, thin-skinned and unnecessarily insistent on perfect agreement or outcomes.

It is not hard to imagine how both the devil and the world can lay hold of and tap into this distorted drive of the flesh and hold people in bondage to fear, hostility and many anxious notions that see no middle ground, and no reason to hope. Since the world is not perfect, there is nothing good to celebrate, and those who do celebrate something are dismissed as naive, stupid or worse. The all or nothing thinker presumes that if someone affirms one thing, they “must think it is all good,” which, of course is not necessarily true. But the distortion leads them to scorn and even ridicule people unnecessarily. Thus the evil one easily locks all or nothing thinkers into ever deepening degrees of negativity, hostility and fear.

3. Fortune Telling – Predicting that something bad will happen, without any evidence. For example, a person may think, “I don’t care how hard I have prepared for the talk, it is going to go terribly. People will hate my talk or be bored.”

Essentially this is a form pessimism and negativity that taps into the sin against hope called “despair.” Fortune tellers tend to see the world merely as a hostile place, and opportunities merely as burdens and traps.

But, of course opportunities are not necessarily good or bad, hostile or benign. They are just opportunities.

Further, ‘failure’ is not always total, or even failure at all. The cross was a failure to many who saw it that day, but it was actually victory. Some of my “worst” sermons have had surprising effects. Life is a funny proposition. But the Fortune teller rejects all this and insists that disaster is just over the next ridge.

Sadly, most fortunetellers set up self-fulfilling prophecies. Expecting bad things, they usually get it, or can at least collect ample evidence to prove their thesis and be confirmed in their downward cycle of negativity, anxiety, depression, despair, and cynicism.

Satan can easily exploit negativity and the “hunch” that bad things are going to happen. Fortunetellers keep the door wide open to the devil’s shenanigans, practically delighting in his works so as to say, “See, I told you so.”

This negative thinking has to go. It is a distortion that denies the possibilities of every opportunity, and the possibility of paradoxical and surprising outcomes.

4. Emotional Reasoning – Believing that bad feelings or emotions reflect the situation. For example, I feel anxious when I fly, so airplanes are not safe.

Our feelings have the capacity to “damn reason.” We need to be very careful to remember that feelings are just feelings. They ought not be wholly ignored, but neither should they be the deciding factor. Many of our feelings are simply wrong and rooted in traumatic or powerful events of the past.They may not in fact reflect the current reality. That I feel unsafe does not mean I am unsafe. That I feeling bad about a meeting does not mean it was a bad meeting etc.

Once I was walking with a friend and a dog came running up to up. My friend, who had once been bitten and infected by a dog was afraid. But I had grown up with dogs and could see that the dogs was lumbering up to us to greet us, not attack us. Both of us were looking at the same data, and both of us had different feelings. I was right, there was nothing to fear. The dog came an sniffed my hand and wagged its tail. No harm.

But the point is that the feelings were not the reality, they were just feelings. Mine happened to be right, and my friend’s were wrong. But neither set of feelings changed the reality.

Here too, Satan and the world can easily exploit feelings to make us think things that are not necessarily so. An important part of spiritual growth is learn how to discern feelings, and seem them as part of the picture, not the whole picture.

5. Mind Reading – Jumping to conclusions about what others are thinking, without any evidence. For example, My friend didn’t stop to say hello. She must be angry at me. Well, perhaps, or perhaps too she was in a hurry, or maybe she didn’t even see you or know you were there. Or, My boss cast a negative glance at me, he is upset and I am going to get fired. Maybe, or perhaps as he was looking in your direction he remembered something he forgot to do, or an argument he had with his wife. Perhaps too he had gas pains!

This sort of distortion is often rooted in a form of pride called grandiosity, wherein  we think we are always the main thing on other people’s mind, or the reason they act. I once knew a man who was very paranoid and I would often remind him that people had better things to do with their time than think of him or ways to trip him up.

Mind reading is also rooted in pride because we trust too much that we have command of all the facts and really know what is going on. We do not. This is a distortion. We do well to develop a healthy type of reserve in our conclusions about what others are thinking or about their motives. We ought to ask of God a certain kind of “blindness” that fails to notice so many things we really can’t even understand.

This form of distorted thinking leads to many fears and anxieties that are usually needless and baseless. Satan surely has many doorways through this form of pride and anxiety producing thinking.

6. Mental Filter – Focusing only on the negative parts of a situation and ignoring anything good or positive. For example, I got a lot of good feedback from the conference I led. But one person disagreed with my premise. I guess the conference wasn’t so good after all.

This distortion is similar to number one above.

7. ‘Should’ Statement – excessively telling yourself how you “should” or “must” act. For example, I should be able to handle this without getting upset and crying!

Clearly there are moral parameters that we must observe in our Christian walk. But there are also many other “rules” and norms we demand of our self that are not necessarily reasonable or correct.

In spiritual direction a person will often say, “I should do this or that” And often I must ask, “Who told you that?” Not everything we think we should do, must in fact be done.

And thus we must carefully discern what is really required from us, and what is not, or what is merely optional based on circumstances.

The devil loves “should” statements because he loves to destroy truth by exaggerating it and making it an unbearable burden. It also gives him the opportunity to masquerade in pious clothes.

For example consider the following “should” scenario. “You know, your prayers would be answered if you just prayed or fasted a little more. You really “should”  multiply your prayers and double your fasts.” But this can be very devilish.

First it is devilish because to some degree it is true. We probably could pray more (if we neglected other things). But, that we can pray more, if for example, we never slept, does not me we ought to do so or must do so.

Further it is devilish, because if the devil can sow that the sought that we could or ought to pray more, they we have NEVER prayed enough. And now he has us where he wants us: discouraged, guilty, anxious, and seeing prayer as an increasing burden, and God as a task master.

Finally it is devilish because it suggests that we will get what we want as a result of our efforts, rather than the grace of God.

So, “should” statements can be very devilish. And they are this way because they masquerade in pious clothing and moral duties. But too often should statements are wolves in sheep clothing. There are legitimate duties we have, but do not trust every should thought. Discern carefully.

There are more cognitive distortions we could discuss, but allow these to suffice. Add your own in the comments file.

The life of the mind is very important in the spiritual life. Our thoughts are critical to what we do, how we feel and to our sense of well being and serenity.

Bottom line – DO NOT BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU THINK. Discern, distinguish, sift and sort. Consider well that God wants to give you a sober mind, that is, a clear mind, a mind that is in touch with reality, not lost in distortions, and unreality. Ask for a sober mind and make the journey.

Video – Maybe our cluttered lives reflect our often cluttered thoughts:

13 Replies to “Don’t Believe Everything You Think. A Consideration of Distorted Thinking and the Spiritual Life”

  1. It is striking how much of this reminds me of my bout with clinical depression: the paranoia, the irrational negativity…I recognized all this, but in the end needed medical help to overcome it. I have a hunch that what you are talking about is a more ordinary kind of negativity, but I thought it would be worth mentioning for those whose pessimism is disproportionate, out of character, or has no apparent cause — especially if it lasts a couple weeks or more.

  2. Lots to think about. And after seeing that video I now have a sudden urge to clean my closet!

  3. Thank you so much Father. I forwarded your article to my daughter who has just graduated frim a rigorous engineering college with a highly technical degree and doesn’t want to get a job in her field because she thinks she can’t do it. She wasn’t even happy at her graduation. I send her this article and told her, God wants you to be happy! and positive about your future. I am hoping this will help her to see that she can change her negative thinking.

    1. Elizabeth, let me offer your daughter some words of empathy: I’m 28 and have a degree in aero engineering w/ 5 yrs professional exp in aircraft design. (Currently taking a break to be Mommy.) Technical school is often EXHAUSTING and difficult. I felt burned out and uncertain about my abilities by the time I finished college.

      It’s important not to construct false expectations, thus setting yourself up to feel like a failure. Tech school is hard for the vast majority of people, and the first couple years in a technical field are often tough too. These early experiences can feel a lot like floundering around after being thrown into deep water. The social environment at a tech job can also be isolating, especially for a young woman. (Speaking for myself, I did not find it easy to connect to my nerdy, mostly male, middle age and older colleagues.) All of this struggle can lead someone to think she is just not cut out for the work, especially if she already struggles with doubts about her abilities. BUT things do improve markedly after you get your bearings in the job, build some professional relationships, and have your first few professional successes! It takes time (usually at least 2 years), dedication, and patience. But, getting past these early struggles is worth it.

  4. Wonderful post that reminds me of the time that I read a poetry board in a homeless shelter. Residents were encouraged to post poems and one post had a brief and concise comment that satan lies by almost telling the truth.
    The distorted focus on negative things, in the “overgeneralization” portion, may be that negative things catch our attention because they are what need to be addressed, hopefully at the core cause. This can deceive one into see-ing a conspicuous, and tiny, minority as a majority. Do we see this as only the problem and not as the challenge when it is actually both?
    The “should” part reminds me of a support group which has a warning about “shoulding on ourselves” and focusses that mainly look at the shoulda saids or shoulda dones. A hero in a story book may regularly say quick and to the point things in response to false viewpoints but, how many hours did the authour spend composing these instant quips?
    Life involves growth. The first time I put pen to paper, at six years old, it was a struggle to write poorly shaped letters that expressed awkward comments. What one can miss is the wonderful experience of having begun this new thing. The first step in a new journey had been taken.

  5. Here’s a quote from the mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace that supports #5 Mind Reading:

    “What we know us not much; what we do not know is immense.”

    And for #3 Fortune Telling, baseball great Yogi Berra says,

    “It’s tough to make predictions. Especially about the future.”

  6. Great Insights and some definite things to reflect upon and be aware of. Thanks for all you do for Christ’s Church!

  7. I once told one of my sisters, “A little paranoia helps get you through the day.” A danger with pretend paranoia is that it can turn into real paranoia, I guess.

    Mind reading: I used to engage this same sister in mind reading. I would actually finish her sentences for her. Then, my brother, who I don’t see too often, showed up and he did the same thing to me. The thing is he was wrong in his mind reading and I didn’t correct him. That made me think that I was probably wrong with my mind reading my sister and that she didn’t correct me, either. Then, later, when we would speak she would pause waiting for me to finish the sentence and I wouldn’t say anything.

    Life is a strange thing.

  8. this is a great article. There are those of us who temperamentally always seem to see the glass half empty– that is why we need blogs like this– to pull us up. Thanks Father.

  9. Yup, too much stuff. The enemy wants us so busy, we cannot focus on HIM, our source of being. Lk 10:42 One thing is needed… 1Thess 5:16 Pray unceasingly. “Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”
    ― Thérèse de Lisieux

  10. Thank you so much, I understand you are talking about disordered emotions but to make a clear distinction so there is no misunderstanding, I refer to what God tells us… once again I refer to Scripture and there is plenty of negative situations, anxieties, sadness, doubt, fear, etc. etc. … and these are from the Apostles and the first Church!! There was no glossing over the persecutions and trials and tribulations they went through or knew they would continue to endure, and they were not afraid to warn others of the “cross”. Christ says without reservation: “Blessed are you when you are hatred, reviled and falsely accused of all manner of evil because of Me, rejoice and be glad for great is your reward in Heaven for they treated the prophets in the same way.” Wow, I’m sure that sounds pretty paranoid to some who don’t understand the sacrifice Jesus calls all of us to make in this world as Christians and the “cross” He tells up to “pick up”. What Jesus does not want us to do is to dwell on the pain and suffering that we will surely endure if we are following Him, but to keep our eyes continually fixed on Him, to seek His Face and He will be our Joy (rejoice!!) and Hope and All and All, no matter what we endure in this life for His Name. Isn’t God Good!!!

    Luke 6:22 Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man’s sake.

    23 Rejoice ye in that day, and leap for joy: for, behold, your reward is great in heaven: for in the like manner did their fathers unto the prophets.

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