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

march 15 blogIn my work as a spiritual director and in deliverance ministry as well as in my own experience of personal growth, it has become very clear to me 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 overanalyze the data of the world and to live in a kind of unreality or an 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). Romans 12 exhorts us as follows:

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 demons, who can exploit and further twist our experience of reality. The world, too, is able to exploit cognitive distortions for both profit and influence.

The renewal of our minds, traditionally referred to in spiritual manuals as “the purification of the intellect” is a key aim of spiritual direction, deliverance ministry, and of overall spiritual growth. Hence, we should learn to recognize and name the more common forms of distorted thinking, also called cognitive distortions. In learning about them we can begin to master them and to experience greater freedom and authority over our thought life. And, since most feelings come from thoughts, our emotional life will also be improved. This includes having greater authority over and freedom from anxieties, resentments, anger, paranoia, and depression.

Let’s take a brief look at some of the most common cognitive distortions:

1. Overgeneralization – This refers to the 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 any fun!

The more likely truth is that such a person does have enjoyable things in his or her life. Life is a mixed bag, but overall, most people have far more blessings than burdens.

Everyday trillions of things go right while only a few things go wrong. This is not an exaggeration when one considers that every function of every atom, molecule, cell, and organ is a blessing and a success. Further, almost every part of every system on this planet is functioning in a 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; Jupiter and Saturn are catching comets; the asteroid belt is keeping a lot of space debris at bay; our sun is stable; and our earth is revolving in a nearly circular orbit around the sun, ensuring that we are never too warm or too cold. This list could go on and on.

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 so much for which to be grateful on any given day, even when we’ve had disappointments as well. We need to embrace reality: overgeneralization about negative outcomes is not balanced.

Satan can surely tap into this distortion to stir up resentment, fear, anxiety, and other negative emotions. The world, too, can “cash in” on this by stirring up the same negativity and then proposing false or incomplete solutions (for just $19.95 (plus shipping and handling)). Political parties and other organizations can also command too much of our loyalty, and with this power over us, incite such distortion.

2. All-or-Nothing Thinking – This refers to seeing things as only perfect or terrible, good or bad, 100% or zero, with little or no room in between. For example, I may label myself either a hero or a total loser. Small mistakes are seen as total failure. Perhaps a person on a diet backslides by eating 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 to think that affirming one thing means denying others. For example, if I say that I like A this must mean that I am somehow saying that B, C, and D are of no value whatsoever. Of course that may not be the case at all. The all-or-nothing thinker may take offense at the affirmations or points made by others because he sees no middle ground, no 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, most things in life fall somewhere on a continuum, with the vast majority being somewhere between all and nothing, 100% and zero. There are often many different outcomes and combinations of things that are praiseworthy and/or 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 on a personal level can be excessive pride (wherein one thinks of himself or his performance too highly) or low self-esteem (wherein one deems himself a complete loser by virtue of his less-than-perfect performance). There are many other issues that can occur because of this cognitive distortion: anxiety (e.g., performance anxiety), fear (e.g., fear of failure), resentment, and depression.

On the social level, the all-or-nothing thinker is often hostile to all opinions that are not completely in agreement with what he insists is best. Such people often take offense when none is intended. For example, if someone espouses something other than what he does, he thinks that he (and/or his opinion) is being wholly discarded or even 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 tap into this distorted drive of the flesh and hold people in bondage to fear, hostility, and many anxious notions that perceive no middle ground and no reason to hope. The all-or-nothing thinker believes that since the world is not perfect, there is nothing good to celebrate, and therefore dismisses those who do celebrate something as naïve, stupid, or worse. All-or-nothing thinkers presume that if a person affirms one thing, it must mean that he thinks everything is good (which, of course, is not necessarily true). This distortion leads them to scorn and even ridicule people unnecessarily. In this way, the evil one easily locks all-or-nothing thinkers into an ever-deepening spiral of negativity, hostility, and fear.

3. Fortune Telling – This is predicting that something bad will happen without any evidence. For example, a person may think, It doesn’t matter how hard I have prepared for my talk, it is going to go terribly. People will either hate it or be bored.

This is essentially a form pessimism and negativity that taps into the sin against hope called “despair.” Those who engage in this sort of thinking tend to see the world as a hostile place and to view opportunities 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; sometimes it is not even failure at all. The cross was a failure to many who witnessed it that day, but it was actually victory. Some of my “worst” sermons have had surprisingly good effects. Life is a funny proposition. But the fortune teller rejects all this and insists that disaster is lurking just over the next hill.

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

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

This negative thinking has to go. It is a distortion that denies the possibility that exists in every opportunity, and the possibility of paradoxical or surprising outcomes in all sorts of situations.

4. Emotional Reasoning – This is believing that bad feelings or emotions reflect the reality situation. For example, I feel anxious when I fly, therefore airplanes are not safe.

Our feelings have the ability to “damn reason.” We need to be very careful to remember that feelings are just feelings. They ought not to be wholly ignored, but neither should they be the deciding factor. Scripture warns, The heart is deceitful above all things (Jer 17:9). Many of our strong feelings are rooted in traumatic or powerful events of the past and may not reflect current reality. That I feel unsafe does not mean I am unsafe. That I feel badly about how a meeting went does not mean it actually went badly.

Once when I was out walking with a friend, a dog came running up to us. My friend, who had once been bitten and infected by a dog, was afraid. But I, having grown up with dogs, could tell that the dog just wanted to greet us, not attack us. Both of us were looking at the same situation, but we had different feelings. I ended up being right; the dog merely came up and sniffed my hand and wagged his tail.

The point is that the feelings were not the reality, they were just feelings. In this case, mine happened to reflect the situation more accurately, but neither set of feelings changed the reality.

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, seeing them as part of the picture but not the whole picture.

5. Mind Reading – This is jumping to conclusions about what others are thinking without any evidence. For example, My friend didn’t stop to say hello so she must be angry at me. Well, perhaps she was in a hurry and had no time to stop; or maybe she didn’t even see you. Here’s another example, My boss cast a negative glance my way so he must be upset with me and I’m going to get fired. Well, perhaps as he was looking in your direction he remembered something he forgot to do or an argument he had with his wife. Or maybe he just 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; I would often remind him that people had better things to do with their time than to think about him or plot 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 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 the many things we really can’t 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 Filtering – This is 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, so I guess the conference wasn’t so good after all.

This distortion is similar to overgeneralization.

7. Making “Should” Statements – This is 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 ourselves that are not necessarily reasonable or correct.

During spiritual direction, a person will often say to me, “I should do [this or that]” And I often respond, “Who told you that?” Not everything that we think we should do must in fact be done.

We must carefully discern what is required of 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 seem 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 increase your prayers and 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). Just because we could pray more (if, for example, we never slept) does not mean that we ought to do so or must do so.

Further, it is devilish because if the devil can sow the thought that we ought to pray more, then we can never have prayed enough. And that puts us right where he wants us: discouraged, guilty, and anxious; seeing prayer as an increasing burden and God as a taskmaster.

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

So, “should” statements can be very devilish. They are this way because they are clothed in false piety and moral duties. Too often “should” statements are wolves in sheep’s clothing. We do have legitimate duties, but do not trust every “should” thought. Discern carefully.

There are many more cognitive distortions we could discuss, but allow these to suffice. Feel free to add your own in the comments section below.

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.

The bottom line is, DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU THINK. Discern, distinguish, sift, and sort. Consider well that God wants to give you a sober mind, a clear mind, a mind that is in touch with reality rather than one lost in distortions and unreality. Ask for a sober mind and make the journey.

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

  1. This straight from the book “Feeling Good” – great book BTW; it helped me

    1. I have never read the Book. The categories used here are common in something called “Cognitive Behavior Therapy” and that is the original source for me. There are slight variations depending on whom you talk with, but they are all basically the same.

      1. It’s basically a best seller explaining cognitive behavior therapy or rational-emotive therapy. It’s rare case among talking therapies in that it has been shown to be more effective in conjunction with antidepressants than the medicine alone in a clinical setting. It’s totally readable and accessible. It makes sense to apply it to spiritual issues as well in that faith a reason are mutually supporting gifts.

    2. Feel Good: New mood Therapy by David Burns. He is an associate of Aaron Beck, Father of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Great book! I have given it out to students and friends.

  2. I should add that the while the list is from the book, the commentary, especially the spiritual aspects, are all new.

  3. Great list. I especially like the last one, “should.” How much spiritual heartache has happened because of that! It seems the devil only uses that one souls who are making progress in the spiritual life. I always compare it to when Satan quotes scripture to Christ. He is saying things that are partial truths, hence the father of lies. If he can’t get you to sin, he can get you discouraged, confused, doubtful, anxious etc which in turn affects so much in life. St. Ignatius of Loyola’s second set of rules for discernment of spirits are VERY helpful in this respect. It is usually the choice between two good things we could be doing. What will bear the most fruit and what is God calling for you, in your situation, with your responsibilities, your strengths, your weaknesses to do right now, today? Don’t think should, think what is God calling me to do in this situation? Not other people, just me. The last thing your best friend, the love of your life wants for your spiritual life is to be full of doubt, anxiety, or confusion.

  4. Another home run Monsignor. If I may add just one little thought, I would say that it is no wonder we all suffer a common pattern of distorted thinking because we inherited it from our mother Miss Eve, the mother of all. If I recall correctly it was she, while lounging about the tree of good and evil, that came up with the totally false conclusion that this tree while it did have an aura of death about it was still a worthy thing to have because it was good for food and that it would make you wise, as if that out weights the dying part. Problem is she got it all wrong except the dying part. This is so like people of today who have a distorted idea about Heaven and Hell but they think that what they do believe is enough to save them. And then you see our immediate decisions after eating the fruit, Oh no I’am naked, better get dressed, Oh no here comes God better go hide, and you see that we went astray and we have no way of finding our way home without the saving Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

  5. Thank you so much for this, Msgr. Pope. I have a teen who really struggles with some of these issues — especially numbers 1, 2, 4 and 7. Can you recommend a good book (for parents or teens) on cognitive distortions and the spiritual life? I think regular spiritual direction might help my child but it’s difficult to find a priest with knowledge of CBT. It’s also hard to find Catholic Cognitive Behavioral Therapists.

  6. Well, Monsignor, the next time I find myself in a debate over the practical meaning of the word “pastoral,” I’m just going to steer my opponent to this article and shut up. Really, this was enormously helpful, especially about the dangers of “should.” The Christian conscience and the superego are two very different beasts, and only the first is friendly. Would that I — along with many others — had an easier time remembering that.

    One note: Pride isn’t always fun. I knew a woman whose mother used to tell her, “It’s raining because you were bad.” Now, as a grown up, she imagines that her badness — or rather, some general perception of her badness — is the force driving the world. Does she suffer from an inflated sense of her own importance? Yes, she does, but I’d emphasize the suffering part.

  7. Interesting….but I don’t agree with the dog example…it is “ok” for people to be frightened by loose dogs. Not everyone likes dogs. That dog ought to have been on a leash. Just the same as if I saw a loose lion on the run approaching my way I would be frightened…being frightened in such a situation is ok…being scared is an emotion God gave us. We are not called to be zen like.

    1. Ok, but I think you’re missing the point which is: thoughts influence feelings. It is arguable whether a dog is worth being frightened over, but that merit of the fear is not the issue, the thoughts that give rise to it do. That two men can look to the same reality and have very different feelings is due to having different thoughts. You go ahead and decide who has the right thoughts, but the different feelings are caused by different thoughts.

  8. Dear Msgr., I could see myself in each of the categories you have listed above. and yes, for no reason i go through too much emotional turmoil and distress. even a simple enjoyable thing becomes a nightmare. How do i go forward ? just sit and mentally go through each of these categories ? how can I pray and receive the grace of Christ to overcome these tendencies ? except for the grace of Christ, I wonder if i can really make it forward. thank you.

    – pio

Comments are closed.