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Overcoming Cognitive Distortions

An Axis Course On Don’t Believe Everything You Think

In Appendix 1 of their book “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff outline nine steps that anyone can take to help deal with negative thoughts and cognitive distortions. Those nine steps are:

  1. When you are feeling anxious, depressed, or otherwise distracted, take a moment to write down what you are feeling.
    Write down your level of distress. (For example, you could score it on a scale of 1 to 100.)
  2. Write down what happened and what your automatic thoughts were when you felt the pang of anxiety or despair. (For example, “Someone I was interested in canceled our date. I said to myself, ‘This always happens. No one will ever want to go out with me. I’m a total loser.’”)
  3. Look at the categories of distorted automatic thoughts [throughout this course], and ask yourself: Is this thought a cognitive distortion? Write down the cognitive distortions you notice. (For example, looking at the automatic thoughts in number 3 above, you might write, “overgeneralizing and catastrophizing.”)
  4. Look at the evidence for and against your thought.
    Ask yourself what someone might say who disagreed with you. Is there any merit in that opinion?
    Consider again what happened, and reevaluate the situation without the cognitive distortions.
  5. Write down your new thoughts and feelings. (For example, “I am sad and disappointed that a date I was excited about got canceled.”)
    Write down again, using the same scale as before, how anxious, depressed, or otherwise distressed you feel. Chances are the number will be lower—perhaps a lot lower.

Doing this may feel like a lot of work—and it is. You are essentially performing a kind of surgery on your own inner dialogue. But the payoffs are massive. So much of the pain and suffering we feel is self-inflicted, because of cognitive distortions that we’ve mistaken for truth.

In 1 Corinthians 4:3-4, the Apostle Paul writes, “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.” What he’s getting at here is the idea that not only do people make wrong judgments about others, we can even make wrong judgments about ourselves. Painful things will inevitably happen to us in our lives, but we can easily make those painful things worse by building a narrative around them using cognitive distortions.

When we align our minds with reality and truth, we not only experience greater mental, emotional, and social health, we’re better able to love God as well. In Matthew 22:36-37, Jesus is asked which commandment is the greatest in the Law. He responds by saying, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Although we could do entire studies on what it means to love the Lord with all our heart and with all our soul, part of what it means to love God with all our mind is to align it with reality—which involves overcoming cognitive distortions.

Thanks for going through this course with us. We hope it was helpful and thought-provoking. And if you remember nothing else afterward, we hope you’ll at least remember the title: “Don’t believe everything you think.”