We believe so many lies about ourselves. We believe we’re hopeless, that we can never change, that things will never change, that nothing we do matters, that we don’t deserve love or goodness or justice or dignity or a million other things. We are trapped by the lies we tell ourselves and the lies that others tell us.
Consolations V. Desolations
Jesus told us that the truth will set us free (c.f., Jn 8:32). St Ignatius of Loyola developed a system of discernment that could help us to determine the difference between movements of good spirits and movements of evil spirits. A million or more times a day, a thought will pop into our head. We have no idea where these thoughts come from but if we own them and take them in, they will affect our emotions and behavior. If we let them pass through our minds without claiming them, they leave us unaffected. In a sense, we could say that these thoughts are the result of good spirits and bad spirits whispering thoughts into our spiritual ear. We have free will, so they have no direct power over us, but if they can persuade us to accept their whisperings as true, those thoughts become part of who we are, how we feel, and how we act. It is our job to learn which of these whisperings we should attend to and which we should ignore. St. Ignatius called the thoughts and feelings that draw us closer to God and his will “consolations.” In spite of their name, consolations don’t always feel good, but they always cause to have clarity of the best and godliest way to respond to our circumstances. If we attend and act upon those consolations, we can discover God’s will for our lives and fulfill our destiny of becoming whole in this life and happy with God in the next.
Similarly, St. Ignatius called the thoughts and feelings that move us away from God and his will “desolations” because they tend to separate us from God and make us feel powerless, hopeless, and self-indulgent. The more we attend to these desolations, the more we pull away from God and become confused about who we are and how we are to live.
In addition to these spiritual helps, cognitive psychotherapy has identified 15 Cognitive Distortions. These distortions represent the lies we hear in our heads about who we are and how life works. The more we believe these lies, the more complicated, confusing, and unhealthy our life and relationships become.
I would argue that just as God is the author of all truth whether found in revelation or nature, we know that Satan is the Father of Lies. As such, whether the lies we hear in our heads are of a more spiritual or psychological nature, we can understand that all of these lies spring from Satan’s own heart. By uncovering those lies and exposing them for what they are we can begin to live in the truth. Here is a complete list of the 15 Cognitive Distortions that wreck our lives, ruin our relationships and steal our peace. Are you living in the truth that will set you free? Read through the list to see what lies are holding you back (H/T PsychCentral).
We take the negative details and magnify them while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation. For instance, a person may pick out a single, unpleasant detail and dwell on it exclusively so that their vision of reality becomes darkened or distorted.
2. Polarized Thinking (or “Black and White” Thinking).
In polarized thinking, things are either “black-or-white.” We have to be perfect or we’re a failure — there is no middle ground. You place people or situations in “either/or” categories, with no shades of gray or allowing for the complexity of most people and situations. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.
In this cognitive distortion, we come to a general conclusion based on a single incident or a single piece of evidence. If something bad happens only once, we expect it to happen over and over again. A person may see a single, unpleasant event as part of a never-ending pattern of defeat.
4. Jumping to Conclusions.
Without individuals saying so, we know what they are feeling and why they act the way they do. In particular, we are able to determine how people are feeling toward us.
For example, a person may conclude that someone is reacting negatively toward them but doesn’t actually bother to find out if they are correct. Another example is a person may anticipate that things will turn out badly, and will feel convinced that their prediction is already an established fact.
We expect disaster to strike, no matter what. This is also referred to as “magnifying or minimizing.” We hear about a problem and use what if questions (e.g., “What if tragedy strikes?” “What if it happens to me?”).
For example, a person might exaggerate the importance of insignificant events (such as their mistake, or someone else’s achievement). Or they may inappropriately shrink the magnitude of significant events until they appear tiny (for example, a person’s own desirable qualities or someone else’s imperfections).
Personalization is a distortion where a person believes that everything others do or say is some kind of direct, personal reaction to the person. We also compare ourselves to others trying to determine who is smarter, better looking, etc.
A person engaging in personalization may also see themselves as the cause of some unhealthy external event that they were not responsible for. For example, “We were late to the dinner party and caused the hostess to overcook the meal. If I had only pushed my husband to leave on time, this wouldn’t have happened.”
7. Control Fallacies.
If we feel externally controlled, we see ourselves as helpless a victim of fate. For example, “I can’t help it if the quality of the work is poor, my boss demanded I work overtime on it.” The fallacy of internal control has us assuming responsibility for the pain and happiness of everyone around us. For example, “Why aren’t you happy? Is it because of something I did?”
8. Fallacy of Fairness.
We feel resentful because we think we know what is fair, but other people won’t agree with us. As our parents tell us, “Life is always fair,” and people who go through life applying a measuring ruler against every situation judging its “fairness” will often feel badly and negative because of it.
We hold other people responsible for our pain, or take the other track and blame ourselves for every problem. For example, “Stop making me feel bad about myself!” Nobody can “make” us feel any particular way — only we have control over our own emotions and emotional reactions.
We have a list of ironclad rules about how others and we should behave. People who break the rules make us angry, and we feel guilty when we violate these rules. A person may often believe they are trying to motivate themselves with shoulds and shouldn’ts, as if they have to be punished before they can do anything.
For example, “I really should exercise. I shouldn’t be so lazy.” Musts and oughts are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When a person directs should statements toward others, they often feel anger, frustration and resentment.
11. Emotional Reasoning.
We believe that what we feel must be true automatically. If we feel stupid and boring, then we must be stupid and boring. You assume that your unhealthy emotions reflect he way things really are — “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”
12. Fallacy of Change.
We expect that other people will change to suit us if we just pressure or cajole them enough. We need to change people because our hopes for happiness seem to depend entirely on them.
13. Global Labeling.
We generalize one or two qualities into a negative global judgment. These are extreme forms of generalizing, and are also referred to as “labeling” and “mislabeling.” Instead of describing an error in context of a specific situation, a person will attach an unhealthy label to themselves.
For example, they may say, “I’m a loser” in a situation where they failed at a specific task. When someone else’s behavior rubs a person the wrong way, they may attach an unhealthy label to him, such as “He’s a real jerk.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded. For example, instead of saying someone drops her children off at daycare every day, a person who is mislabeling might say that “she abandons her children to strangers.”
14. Always Being Right.
We are continually on trial to prove that our opinions and actions are correct. Being wrong is unthinkable and we will go to any length to demonstrate our rightness. For example, “I don’t care how badly arguing with me makes you feel, I’m going to win this argument no matter what because I’m right.” Being right often is more important than the feelings of others around a person who engages in this cognitive distortion, even loved ones.
15. Heaven’s Reward Fallacy.
We expect our sacrifice and self-denial to pay off, as if someone is keeping score. We feel bitter when the reward doesn’t come.
Sometimes becoming aware of these lies is all a person needs to break free of their bonds, but sometimes we need more specific techniques and guidance. If you would more help in overcoming the lies that hold you back, check out God Help Me, This Stress is Driving Me Crazy! Finding Balance through God’s Grace or contact the Pastoral Solutions Institute at 740-266-6461 to learn how you can work with a faithful, professional Catholic counselor though our marriage, family, and personal tele-counseling practice.