“This has been the worst year ever!” “What’s the point in trying? I never do anything right.” “Nobody cares about me.” “Everyone I see is happy except me.” Have you ever had thoughts like these? What emotions are fueled and produced by such thoughts? What behaviors (or lack thereof) follow in the wake of these thoughts?When you take a step back and evaluate these thoughts, they probably don’t sound very reasonable. Your rational self would likely reject them as overly extreme or reactive. However, in the heat of the moment, they affect you deeply and color the way you see life, yourself, and the world around you.
Professionals in the field of psychology have a name for these types of thoughts: Cognitive Distortions. In other words, thoughts that are twisted out of shape, so they distort your perception of reality.
5 Cognitive Distortions
In this article, we will look at five cognitive distortions that people like you and me commonly struggle with, and then seek wisdom from Scripture to counteract these distortions. It turns out that distortions like these have been a problem for ages, and even before the field of psychology was born, the Biblical texts were full of insights about how they can be managed. With God’s help, you can overcome broken ways of thinking and start living your life with greater light and clarity.
1. All or Nothing Thinking
What it is: Also known as “Black and White Thinking”, this type of thinking views life in either/or extremes. “Either I get the job or I’m a failure”, for example. It often leads to incredibly lofty standards, which can result in procrastination or even paralyze people out of fear (“If I can’t do it perfectly, I won’t even try”), or to deep shame that can weigh a person down after a mistake or a setback (“I didn’t pass the test, so I’ll never make it in life”).
Biblical Antidote: Do Your Best and Trust God with the Results
Reference: In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good. – Ecclesiastes 11:6
The principle here is that we should not try to anticipate the outcome of our actions, but rather look to glorify God through productive and meaningful activity, entrusting the ultimate results to God. This can take the overwhelming pressure off and allow us the freedom to do our best in life. After all, “neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7)
2. Mental Filter
What it is: This type of thinking only pays attention to certain things. When you think this way, you listen to part of the story. Anytime you think something like “I always let people down” or “He never listens to me!”, it’s highly likely that you are filtering out whatever evidence doesn’t support that one-dimensional storyline. This can become a significant problem when people develop inaccurate core beliefs about themselves, about others, or life.
Using mental filter thinking, people tend to find ways to confirm what they fear might be true. Sometimes strong emotions can reinforce a “mental filter” by leading you to reject any thoughts that don’t line up with them. For example, if you feel particularly angry at someone, you’ll filter out anything that might cast him or her in a positive light.
Biblical Antidote: Consider and evaluate everything, then decide what to trust
Reference: Test everything; hold on to what is good. – 1 Thessalonians 5:21
The antidote to this type of limited thinking is to be open-minded, to postpone judgment, and to be interested in learning all the balanced information you can before concluding. It is so important to consider an issue from multiple angles to gain a sense of the whole picture. This takes patience and humility, both of which are the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5).
3. Mind Reading
What it is: This cognitive distortion causes us to imagine that we know what other people are thinking or feeling. This thinking type is quite common, and it often leads to fear and anxiety about perceived judgments or rejection by others. Once you guess what someone else might be thinking (that’s all it is, a guess), you quickly react to the thoughts you’ve projected on them. This might cause you to feel unnecessarily hurt or offended.
Biblical Antidote: Don’t assume you know another person’s thoughts or emotions.
Reference: Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy. – Proverbs 14:10The antidote here is straightforward. The only thoughts and emotions you have access to are your own. If you wonder what others think, you have two options: Either you can ask another person to share honestly what they are thinking and feeling, or simply accept that you don’t need to know because it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Many of the worries we tend to have about other people’s thoughts are unfounded and turn out to be completely inaccurate.
Most people are not spending as much thought or emotion on you as you are on yourself. If you are consistently worrying about what someone close to you is thinking or feeling, it might be necessary to have an open conversation about your relationship with him or her. Ultimately, remember that what God thinks of you is what matters. Hint: The Bible says He delights in you! (Psalm 18:19).
4. Fortune Telling
What it is: This type of thinking imagines that you can predict what will happen in the future. Once you believe you know what’s coming, you’ll naturally react to that reality. This is most often problematic because as humans we tend to predict negative outcomes, which often holds us back.
Imagine thinking “This is going to be terrible; I just know I’m going to completely humiliate myself!” right before stepping up to the podium to deliver a public speech. Do you think that might affect the outcome at all? Predicting failure often becomes a “self-fulfilling prophecy” when this type of thinking is at work.
Biblical Antidote: Realize the limitations of your perspective and trust in God
Reference: Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business, and make a profit.’ You do not even know what will happen tomorrow! What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that. – James 4:13-15The antidote here is to accept with humility that your knowledge is finite, and that you don’t know what will happen in the future. But it doesn’t end there. The next step is to trust in the all-good, all-wise, and all-powerful God to direct your steps and to seek the best for you. This takes the pressure off any need to predict the future or imagine you can see further than you can. You can rest assured that God will be with you.
5. Disqualifying the Positive
What it is: This type of thinking specifically discounts positive examples or information in favor of negative ideas and perspectives. It is like Mental Filter, except that when you think this way you might notice good things, but quickly disqualify them. For example, to the good things in your life, your thoughts might say “that doesn’t count” or “that’s not a big deal.” This thinking style minimizes the positive while zooming in on the negative and gazing at it with a magnifying glass, making it the most important.
Biblical Antidote: Focus your thoughts toward the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.
Reference: Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things. – Philippians 4:8
You might not be able to choose all your thoughts, but you can decide what you want to intentionally think about. This ability can help your overall attitude and perspective. There are dark and difficult things in life that will also get your attention, there is no avoiding them completely. However, if you spend more time and mental energy dwelling on praise, gratitude, and adoration, you will notice a significant shift in your holistic wellbeing.
If you’d like support or guidance working through cognitive distortions like these using Biblical wisdom and psychological insights, please reach out to me or another counselor on this site. We would consider it an honor to come alongside you on this journey.
“Holy Bible”, Courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Broken Glasses”, Courtesy of Jorien Loman, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Anxiety”, Courtesy of Ethan Sykes, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Carrying a Bible”, Courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License