Trading Distortions for New Thought Patterns
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
– Philippians 4:8
I like Paul’s words to the Philippians in theory, but truth be told these are not always the things I think of. A few weeks ago when I was waiting at the car wash, and someone pulled around and ahead of me in line, I thought how unfair that was, what the driver should have done and what a *^&%$#@! he was. I had an enraged, angry feeling because of what I was thinking. For a few minutes there, I did not have the awareness to realize that this situation was not awful. It was simply unpleasant. It was only a car wash for goodness sake!
Based on the writings of Aaron Beck and David Burns, there are at least ten thought distortions that lead to unrealistic thoughts and exaggerated feelings like the one I experienced at the car wash.
1. All-or-Nothing Thinking
All or nothing thinking is when we see things in black and white, right and wrong, good and bad, with no choices in between. If our performance falls short of perfect, we see ourselves as failures. If we eat one cookie, we are bad, so might as well eat the whole plate of cookies! But how do you feel after eating the plate of cookies? How do you feel when you focus on the one small mistake instead of the overall good performance?
This thinking in absolute terms often leads to perfectionism. It is interesting that while Jesus' words in Matthew 5:48 are often translated as "Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect," the word translated as perfect is "telios" in Greek. "Telios" is much closer translated as "whole or complete."
Our goal then is wholeness or completeness – not perfection. We need to see the whole picture. Just because I eat one cookie, I am not awful. Just because of one mistake, I am not worthless. I need to consider the whole performance and who God created me to be, rather than just one thing I did.
Linda is lonely and often spends most of her time at home. Her friends regularly ask her to come out for dinner and go to church. Linda feels that that is it useless to try to meet people. No one really could like her. People are mean and Christians are hypocrites.
When one overgeneralizes, one takes an isolated case or cases and assumes that all others are the same. Are people really all mean? Are all Christians hypocrites? What about her friends who are trying to get her to go out? Obviously she does have someone who cares about her. The next time you catch yourself overgeneralizing, remind yourself that even though a group of people may share something in common, they are also separate and unique individuals. No two people are exactly the same. In Linda's case, there may be mean and hypocritical people in this world. But, not every person will fit this description. By assuming that everyone is a certain way, you are building a wall that will prevent you from having what you crave the most – community.
3. Mental Filter
Mary is having a bad day. As she drives home, another driver cuts her off on Central. She grumbles to herself that there are nothing but rude and insensitive people in Dallas. Later, a kind person waves her go ahead of him. She continues on her way still angry at how rude all the people in her city are.
When a person falls victim to mental filters they are singling out only the bad events in their lives and overlooking the positive. Learn to look for the hope in every situation. It's all about how you choose to let events affect you. Mary could have turned her whole day around if she had paid attention to that nice man who went out of his way to help her.
4. Disqualifying the Positive
Rhonda writes a powerful article for the church blog. Her church friends compliment her on it. She brushed those compliments aside and experiences no joy over the article. She tells herself she got lucky and becomes paralyzed with the thought that she can never do that well again.
Sometimes we are masters at taking the good in a situation and turning it into a negative. We sometimes feel like we just don't deserve good things. How can you turn this around? Simple. The next time someone compliments you, resist the little voice inside that says "you don't deserve it." Remember that you are a child of the Lord of the Universe. Just say "thank you" and smile. The more you do this, the easier it will become.
5. Jumping to Conclusions
Jackie is trying to talk to Sheila before Sunday School. Sheila appears aloof and unapproachable. Jackie begins to obsess over what she could have done to hurt Sheila. Was it something she said at the Christmas party? Was it her husband's strong political opinions? What did she do? In reality, Sheila had just had a crazy morning getting her family ready for church and needed a few minutes to gather her thoughts.
Once again, we fall victim to our own insecurities. We expect the worst and begin preparing early for the disappointment. Many times we engage in mind-reading attempts. By the time we find out that all our fears were unfounded, we've worked ourselves into a frenzy and for what? Next time do this: Give the person the benefit of the doubt. You'll save yourself a lot of unnecessary worry.
6. Magnification & Minimization
Scott is playing football. He bungles a play that he's been practicing for weeks. He later scores the winning touchdown. His teammates compliment him. He tells them he should have played better; the touchdown was just dumb luck.
Have you ever looked through a telescope from the wrong direction? Everything looks tinier than it really is. When you look through the other end, everything looks larger. People who fall into the magnification/minimization trap look at all their successes through the wrong end of the telescope and their failures through the other end.
What can you do to avoid this error and stop your negative thoughts? Remember the old saying, "He can't see the forest for the trees?" When one mistake bogs us down, we forget to look at the overall picture. Step back and look at the forest now and then. Overall, Scott played a good game. So what if he made a mistake?
7. Emotional Reasoning
Laura is having a bad day. She feels like nothing she does makes a difference for her family. None of the volunteer work is making a difference for homelessness or poverty.
Laura has based her assessment of the situation on how it makes her feel, not how it really is. She may feel like nothing she does makes a difference, but is it all so meaningless? In reality, she is a great mother and doing an important job helping feed the homeless of Dallas.
When a situation feels meaningless or overwhelming try look at the facts instead of your feelings.
8. Should Statements
David is sitting in his doctor's waiting room. His doctor is running late. David sits stewing, thinking, "With how much I'm paying him, he should be on time. He ought to have more consideration." He ends up feeling bitter and resentful.
Sarah leaves a church committee meeting. She goes home and can't sleep. All she can think about is what she should have done, what she should have said, and how she should have said it.
We all think things should be a certain way, but let's face it, they aren't. Concentrate on what you can change in the present and if you can't change it, accept it as part of life and go on. Reinhold Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer is a good one here. "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference."
9. Labeling and Mislabeling
Donna just cheated on her diet. "I'm a fat, lazy pig," she thinks.
What Donna has done is label herself as lazy and hopeless. She most likely will reason that since she can't lose weight, she may as well eat. She has now effectively trapped herself by living up to the label she placed on herself. She has allowed a feeling to define her rather than be defined by God as a lovable human being. When we label ourselves, we set ourselves up to become whatever that label entails. This can just as easily work to our advantage.
Here's what Donna could have done to make labeling work in her favor: She could have considered the fact that up until now she has been strong. She could then forgive herself for only being human and acknowledge that she has been working hard to lose weight and been succeeding. This is a temporary setback that she can overcome. Overall, she is a strong person and has proven it by her successful weight loss. With this type of thinking, Donna will feel better and be back to work on her weight loss goals in no time.
Jean's son is doing poorly in school. She feels that she must be a bad mother. It's all her fault that he isn't studying.
Jean is taking all the responsibility for how her son is doing in school. She is failing to take into consideration that her son is an individual who is ultimately responsible for himself. She can do her best to guide him, but in the end he controls his own actions. Next time you find yourself doing this, ask yourself, "Would I take credit if this person were doing something praiseworthy? Chances are you'd say, "No, he accomplished that by himself." So why blame yourself when he does something not so praiseworthy? Beating yourself up is not going to change his behavior. Only he can do that.
If we ever begin experiencing these thought distortions in our church life, family, or work place my prayer is that we will counter them with some new, more helpful thoughts like the ones I have outlined. And if I ever get bypassed at a car wash again, maybe even I will be able to think about things differently.