If I thought of one issue that comes up over and over again in counseling, it would be the issue of faulty thinking–things we tell ourselves that aren’t true. We all do it. The only difference between me, as a therapist, and my clients, is that I am quicker to recognize when I am falling into the trap of distorted thinking and so I am in a better position to correct the situation. I have lots of practice. Some of my clients have worked diligently on this issue and in session they amuse me by self-correcting before I even have a chance to open my mouth and comment. “I was doing it again, wasn’t I?” I once heard a sermon on exactly this issue. The pastor was preaching from Philippians 4 and he opened with the comment, “If you will really pay attention to what I am saying today, this could change your life.” I couldn’t agree more.
Faulty Thinking at the Root of Many Problems
Faulty thinking is at the root of many, if not most, problems that bring people in for therapy. False beliefs and distorted ideas are often a result of things we learned or experienced in childhood. They are a powerful but subconscious influence over the way we feel and the choices we make. For example, a child who experiences multiple losses through divorce and deaths might grow up to be someone who shies away from relationships because he over generalizes and believes people can’t be trusted. They leave, and that just hurts too much. False beliefs and distorted ideas are a problem because they keep us from seeing ourselves, our situation, and others accurately. They are also closely connected to many negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, and depression. I tell my clients sorting through thinking patterns is like sorting through old clothes in a closet. Some still fit, look pretty good, and are “keepers”. Some no longer fit or are horribly outdated- “What was I thinking?!” -and we get rid of those, replacing them with healthier, more balanced thoughts.
Common Faulty Thinking Patterns
Let me highlight a few common faulty thinking patterns.
Emotional reasoning: “I feel hopeless therefore the situation really is hopeless.” Reasoning from our emotions is a problem because our emotions can sometimes lie to us. People who are depressed, for example, have a hard time seeing the positive or seeing their options because they are moving through a thick, heavy fog of negative emotions. Just because you feel something doesn’t necessarily mean it is true.
Over generalizing: “I blew that job interview so I am never going to get a job.” Slowing down long enough to examine what we are telling ourselves is an important first step. When we slow down and examine our thoughts it is sometimes obvious how irrational our thinking is. Other times we find we are tapping into deeply held beliefs that are not easy to let go. “My past experience tells me people can’t be trusted” is an example of over generalizing that would be more complicated to sort through.
All-or-nothing: “I am either a straight A student, or I am a failure.” Words like “always” and “never” reveal this type of distorted thinking. Statements like “He is ALWAYS giving me a hard time.” reflect a lack of balance in how the situation is viewed and can lead to an emotional response that is out of proportion. If I tell myself that someone is ALWAYS giving me a hard time, I am going to be more agitated and hostile toward that person than if I told myself, “Right now he is making things difficult for me and I don’t like it, but it isn’t always like this. “ And, bottom line, it isn’t reality. Correcting distorted thinking patterns is about focusing on what is true, not just creating a positive spin.
What We Tell Ourselves Shapes Our View of Reality
These three examples of faulty thinking are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There are several other faulty thinking traps, too many to list here. The Apostle Paul encouraged us, in Philippians 4, to think about what is true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report. I used to think this portion of scripture was just a plug for positive thinking, but it is much more than that. It matters that we adjust our thinking to what is accurate, fair, and balanced because what we tell ourselves shapes our view of reality, impacts our emotions, and drives the choices we make. When we are thinking in a healthier way we are in a better place to make decisions that affect the quality of our lives.