Giving up distorted thinking for Lent

When I began my spiritual journey years and years ago, the teacher I followed in those days taught a form of centering meditation, an exercise in being still, in the present moment, aware of one’s body and surroundings and anchored there, observing the thought stream, detaching from it without trying to force it to stop.  His constant advice was not to judge, to give up playing God, in other words.  Instead he urged us to stay in the present moment, observe our thought stream instead of reacting to it and judging ourselves, and, when out in the world to overlook on the spot, to discern rather than judge.  Above all, he urged us to give up resentment.  He promised that if we did this faithfully, God would expose  us to ourselves and we would experience true repentance if our motive was sincere.

This kind of discipline is a lot harder than it looks.  I used to sometimes watch the clock to sit for a half an hour in the morning and again before bed, experiencing extreme boredom, anxiety, frustration at constantly getting swept away in the thought stream.  I wish this teacher did not have some questionable additional teachings because this meditation exercise really helped a lot in helping me overcome a problem of being lost in my thoughts and imagination, of thinking my thoughts and feelings were reality when in fact Reality is something altogether different.   And ah, the rewards of this discipline, as I pressed in, of times of silence, the peace that passes understanding, contemplation and the sweet tears of repentance in the Presence of the love of God.  This exercise helped me to face myself and learn to love myself with a correcting love, because the real me, the new me with my God-given identity, could observe the “old man” in all his/her ugliness in that quiet place with God, knowing His light was putting that ugly sin self to death.

I had a friend who started to go a little crazy and she challenged me one time to tell me what I was thinking.  I told her nothing, which was the truth.  After years of this kind of discipline my mind is not filled with judgment clacking away and when I do find myself tempted by a critical spirit I resist it.  That does not mean I do not see things but I am not always putting what I see into words and judging those words and what I see.  There are people  I meet, however, who seem incapable of detaching from their thought stream.  They seem to think that what they think, coupled with depressed feelings or manic feelings, is reality.  They seem unable to have insight into their own thoughts and feelings.  This makes me thankful, extremely thankful God has given me the grace of insight into my faults, my thoughts, my feelings, and so on.

From time to time in the blogosphere and every now and then in real life I encounter bloggers, commenters and individuals with habits of distorted thinking that would certainly benefit from the exercise of sitting quietly in a room somewhere and resisting the temptation to judge, to assume, to jump to conclusions.   Here’s a rundown of cognitive distortions from Wikipedia:

The cognitive distortions listed below[1] are categories of automatic thinking, and are to be distinguished from logical fallacies.[4]

  • All-or-nothing thinking: seeing things in black or white as opposed to shades of gray; thinking in terms of false dilemmas. Splitting involves using terms like “always”, “every” or “never” when this is neither true, nor equivalent to the truth.
    Example: When an admired person makes a minor mistake, the admiration is turned into contempt.
  • Overgeneralization: Making hasty generalizations from insufficient experiences and evidence.
    Example: A person is lonely and often spends most of her time at home. Her friends sometimes ask her to come out for dinner and meet new people. She feels it is useless to try to meet people. No one really could like her.[5]
  • Filtering: focusing entirely on negative elements of a situation, to the exclusion of the positive. Also, the brain’s tendency to filter out information which does not conform to already held beliefs.
    Example: After receiving comments about a work presentation, a person focuses on the single critical comment and ignores what went well.
  • Disqualifying the positive: discounting positive events.
    Example: Upon receiving a congratulation, a person dismisses it out-of-hand, believing it to be undeserved, and automatically interpreting the complement (at least inwardly) as an attempt at flattery or perhaps as arising out of naïveté.
  • Jumping to conclusions: reaching preliminary conclusions (usually negative) from little (if any) evidence. Two specific subtypes are identified:
    • Mind readingInferring a person’s possible or probable (usually negative) thoughts from their behavior and nonverbal communication; taking precautions against the worst reasonably suspected case or some other preliminary conclusion, without asking the person.
      Example: A student assumes the readers of their paper have already made up their mind concerning its topic, and therefore writing the paper is a pointless exercise.[4]
    • Fortune-telling: predicting negative outcomes of events.
      Example: Being convinced of failure before a test, when the student is in fact prepared.
  • Magnification and minimization – Giving proportionally greater weight to a perceived failure, weakness or threat, or lesser weight to a perceived success, strength or opportunity, so the weight differs from that assigned to the event or thing by others. This is common enough in the normal population to popularize idioms such as “make a mountain out of a molehill“. In depressed clients, often the positive characteristics of other people are exaggerated and negative characteristics are understated. There is one subtype of magnification:
    • Catastrophizing – Giving greater weight to the worst possible outcome, however unlikely, or experiencing a situation as unbearable or impossible when it is just uncomfortable.
  • Emotional reasoning: presuming that negative feelings expose the true nature of things, and experiencing reality as a reflection of emotionally linked thoughts. Thinking something is true, solely based on a feeling.
    Example: “I feel (i.e. think that I am) stupid or boring, therefore I must be.”[6] Or, feeling that fear of flying in planes means planes are a very dangerous way to travel. Or, concluding that it’s hopeless to clean one’s house due to being overwhelmed by the prospect of cleaning.[5]
  • Should statements: doing, or expecting others to do, what they morally should or ought to do irrespective of the particular case the person is faced with. This involves conforming strenuously to ethical categorical imperatives which, by definition, “always apply,” or to hypothetical imperatives which apply in that general type of case. Albert Ellis termed this “musturbation”.
    Example: After a performance, a concert pianist believes he or she should not have made so many mistakes. Or, while waiting for an appointment, thinking that the service provider should be on time, and feeling bitter and resentful as a result.[5]
  • Labeling and mislabeling: a more severe type of overgeneralization; attributing a person’s actions to their character instead of some accidental attribute. Rather than assuming the behavior to be accidental or extrinsic, the person assigns a label to someone or something that implies the character of that person or thing. Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that has a strong connotation of a person’s evaluation of the event.
    Example of “labeling”: Instead of believing that you made a mistake, you believe that you are a loser, because only a loser would make that kind of mistake. Or, someone who made a bad first impression is a “jerk”, in the absence of some more specific cause.
    Example of “mislabeling”: A woman who places her children in a day care center is “abandoning her children to strangers,” because the person who says so highly values the bond between mother and child.
  • Personalization – attributing personal responsibility, including the resulting praise or blame, for events over which a person has no control.
    Example: A mother whose child is struggling in school blames herself entirely for being a bad mother, because she believes that her deficient parenting is responsible. In fact, the real cause may be something else entirely.
  • Blaming: the opposite of personalization; holding other people responsible for the harm they cause, and especially for their intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress on us.[6]
Example: a spouse blames their husband or wife entirely for marital problems, instead of looking at his/her own part in the problems.
  • Fallacy of change – Relying on social control to obtain cooperative actions from another person.[6]
  • Always being right – Prioritizing self-interest over the feelings of another person.[6]


Gosh, that sure makes me think of some of the coverage and reaction to the Fisher More College situation.  I see it in reaction to Pope Francis from time to time as well.

Sigh.  Jumping to conclusions, mind-reading, imputing motives, filtering.  You see what I’m talking about?

Let’s desist, okay?

It’s interesting that Wikipedia describes these things as forms of automatic thinking.  They are for some default settings.  People who are depressed often have these cognitive distortions.


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5 Responses to Giving up distorted thinking for Lent

  1. Benedict Marshall says:

    There’s a reason why people back in the day went to the desert, or why they go to secluded monastic communities. But don’t be fooled, the battle with the devil only becomes clear in those circumstances. You become prime target the more you advance in holiness. People usually fail.

  2. Pingback: Giving up distorted thinking for Lent | Catholic Canada

  3. Paul Nicholls ofs says:

    “Commenters and individuals with habits of distorted thinking that would certainly benefit from the exercise of sitting quietly in a room somewhere and resisting the temptation to judge, to assume, to jump to conclusions.”

    Instead of sitting in a room quietly somewhere, how about spending more time quietly before the Blessed Sacrament instead of on the internet, churning out posts and writing blog comments?

    Is it really all that complicated? I think not.
    Pray that Our Lord will guide you in this area.

    Deborah, I am not directing this at you but rather at myself and others.

  4. Benedict Marshall says:

    ARE YOU READY FOR SOME HARDCORE PENANCE!? (and fasting, prayer, and almsgiving)!?

    I know I’m not, Lord help me.

  5. Paul Nicholls ofs says:

    May the Good Lord help us live a life of penance, not only during Lent, but all the days of our life.

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