Satan specializes in distortion lies. They are really the only lies he has. Distortion is taking a truth and changing it into something it is not. The change can be slight, like making a funny face. Or the change can be drastic, like looking at yourself in a warped carnival mirror. Since Satan has never made anything new, the only resources available to him are distortion lies. He must use what God has already created and twist it to deceive us. It started in the garden when he tempted Eve to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree. “‘You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman, ‘For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” (Genesis 3:4-5) When they ate the fruit, their eyes were opened to both good and evil, but also to death and suffering.
These lies can be particularly difficult to identify at first because they are interwoven into truth. It takes some digging to find them. But as you dig them up, you will discover they become easier to spot. Distortion lies are subtle and they insert themselves into every crevice of our lives, hindering our emotional and spiritual growth and our general sense of well-being. So it is important we do the hard work of identifying them.
The less clearly we see the reality of the world – the more our minds are befuddled by falsehood, misperceptions, and illusions – the less able we will be to determine correct courses of action and make wise decisions. M. Scott Peck
Magnification: Making a Mountain Out of a Molehill
Magnification is making something a bigger issue than it really is. It is taking a $20 event and giving it a value of $200 or $400. It is taking an event that warrants a little frustration and giving it your full emotional attention, heightening to full-blown anger or rage.
Magnification is much easier to see in another person than in ourselves. We are quick to identify the real value of an issue when it is not happening to us. But when we are in the thick of things, it is not so easy. We are especially prone to magnification when we are lacking a basic need like sleep or food. And the event is often the last in a long list of small irritations. We get to ‘the straw that tipped the camel’s back’ and we blow up on the person that just so happened to give us that last straw.
This type of lie impacts our lives in a very profound way. An event that has a high emotional value, like the death of a loved one, is devastating. But how many times do you have an event that warrants those high emotional values? Not very often when you consider the entire course of your life. Now how many times can a molehill arise? Hundreds and hundreds of times a year. Everyday has the opportunity for many molehills. When you think of the sheer number of them, you realize that it is these events that most impact our daily lives. If we choose to make mountains out of them, we can expect to spend most of lives in turmoil.
We also must beware of minimization, which is making an issue smaller than it really is. How many times do you say, ‘it’s no big deal’ or ‘it’s nothing’? This can be especially true of those who have suffered from abuse. We minimize the harm done to us or compare it to the lives of others and think ‘they have it worse than I do.’ That causes us to deny the reality of the situation; thereby perpetuating it. Both magnification and minimization are unhealthy patterns of thinking. God calls us to live in truth – “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31b-32)
Personalization: Taking Everything Personally
Personalization is overstating the extent to which an event is related to you. I often remind myself that I am not the center of the universe. What happens around me is rarely related directly to me. In my self-focus, though, I see all events through the eyes of how they relate to me. The reality is that everyone else is doing the same thing. So, ultimately, people are much more focused on themselves and much less focused on me than I think they are.
Once you understand this, it is quite freeing. Those people at the next table may be gazing in your direction, but they are probably not discussing your choice of shoes. Your neighbors may be whispering over the fence, but there is a good chance you are not the topic of their discussion. More often than not, people are simply not paying that much attention to us. Here’s a unanimous quote that puts it into perspective: At age twenty, we worry about what others think of us. At forty, we don’t care what they think of us. At sixty, we discover they haven’t been thinking about us at all.
There are times people do focus on us but, but ultimately, someone’s behavior towards you reveals more about the other person than about you. Your co-worker may have made an accusation against you, but it is likely they were driven to do so by a need to protect their sense of self-worth. Or your spouse came home yelling about the house being messy. They may have had a bad day at work and find it easier to express their anger at you rather than addressing the situation at work. Their angry toward you is not a reflection of you. It reveals their inability to engage in healthy confrontations in the workplace.
Someone’s behavior is a reflection of their character, not yours. But when we personalize the situation, we tend to overreact. When we overreact, we end up compounding the problem. We still have the initial event to deal with, but now we also have resentment and bitterness.
A very practical way to combat this lie is to assume the situation has nothing to do with you and identify other possible reasons why the person acted as they did. If someone missed an appointment with you, your initial reaction may be to assume they do not care enough about you to remember the appointment. Here are some alternative reasons they missed the appointment: an emergency situation arose that they had to address; they are habitually unreliable and cannot be depended upon; they try to fit so much into their lives that they do not plan well and forget about important appointments. All of these reasons are related to the person who forgot the appointment. They have nothing to do with you. You may never know the truth of why they missed the appointment, but when you stop taking the event personally, you will be able to make a rational decision on whether or not you want to reschedule the appointment. When we stop personalizing, we start seeing reality and that sets us on the road to making wise decisions.
Polarization: Making Everything Black or White
Polarization is all about extremes – fantastic or terrible, always or never, black or white. “I would be perfectly happy if I were divorced.” “I always get into the longest line at the store.” “No one ever cares about me.” On paper, these statements appear extreme – and they are. But it is much more difficult to identify extremes in our minds, especially in the midst of the situation, because they are often our defaults. As soon as someone acts in a way that is negative to us, we tend to think they ‘always’ do that. It is reminiscent of magnification. We typically make situations into extreme, big deals when most are not.
In addition to viewing situations in extremes, we also tend to view ourselves and others in terms of extremes. One particularly destructive form of polarization is scum/saint thinking. We view ourselves and others as either scums or saints. The reality is that we do good things and we do bad things. We are human beings that make mistakes. Sometimes we even act with intent to harm. But we can also be caring and loving and self-sacrificing. When we view people as only one way, we distort the reality of the human condition.
Polarization leads to unhealthy thinking, which leads to unhealthy behaviors. For instance, if we see ourselves as scum, and especially if we couple that with viewing others as saints, we condemn ourselves, leading to depression and despair. Or we may see ourselves as saints. This leads to condemnation of others, thinking ‘I would never do that.’ We remove the caring, nurturing component from our relationships and replace it with pride and arrogance. And that easily leads to a fall. It is like having a blind spot on a car. If you cannot see what is coming, you may move into another lane and cause an accident. Similarly, if you have ‘blind spots’ in your character, you will not be alert to temptations and danger areas in your life. Romans 12:3b says, ‘Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment.”
Selective Abstraction: Missing the Forest for the Trees
Abstraction is similar to polarization except instead of seeing an event in all black or all white, we shorten our focus even more and concentrate on only one aspect of the event. And it’s usually a negative aspect. We may have worked hard all day and been successful in many tasks, but at the end of the day, all we can think about is the one task we didn’t have time to complete. Perhaps we went to a social gathering and we were gracious and kind and personable. There was just that one instance when we made a joke and no one ‘got it.’ We leave the gathering feeling like a social failure, forgetting about all the wonderful conversations we had and focusing only on the failed joke.
This type of distortion is common to all of us and it is part of our nature to focus on ‘that one negative.’ We need to actively fight against this lie by taking an honest inventory of ourselves and our behavior. In any recovery or twelve-step program, taking an inventory of ourselves is an important step. Most people’s tendency, however, is to inventory only their sins and negative behaviors. But it is equally important to identify our positive qualities and to acknowledge when we have done good things. A daily inventory, taking into account both our flaws and the good aspects of our character, can help us stay on the right track and help us resist our tendency to focus on the negative.
Overgeneralization: History Always Repeats Itself
This lie can distort our future, causing exactly what we don’t want to happen – to happen. This lie tells us that nothing ever changes, that our future is based on the events of our past. You’ve always been fat, so you’ll always be fat. You fight with your spouse all the time, so you can expect more of the same for the rest of your marriage. You’ve always been a worrier and you won’t be able to change that mindset. You never worked on a computer before, so you’ll never be able to learn now. You failed the last exam, so you will most likely fail the next one, too.
Overgeneralization can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let’s walk through that last example - you failed an exam, so you believe you will fail the next one, too. If you do pass the next exam, you believe it is a ‘fluke’ and you’ll be back to failing again soon. You are tense, anticipating the future failure. This makes it difficult to concentrate and study. This makes you doubt your ability to retain information. You are so upset about failing that you freeze while you are taking the test…leading to a failing grade.
The truth is that we can change. We do not need to be doomed to failing another exam. The sooner we can identify and rid ourselves of these lies, the sooner we will be able to live up to our true full potential. With God our past is never final. As Philippians 4:13 says, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’
Emotional Reasoning: Feelings Equals Facts
This may be the most common and dangerous of the distortion lies. Our feelings are so dominant and so hard to control that they easily become the focal point of our lives. It starts when we wake up in the morning – do we feel good about the day to come, looking forward to it? Or is it hard to get out of bed – our joints hurt or perhaps some project is looming before us and we don’t feel like dealing with it. The day continues with our feelings leading the way. We are anxious because we’re late to work and the line at the store is taking such a long time. We know the day will be a bad one. Then someone lets us go in front of them in line. OK, maybe the day won’t be so bad – we have a moment of hope and peace. But then the next event occurs….and on and on. We become swayed by the wind of circumstances and the day is not our own.
We need to stand guard against letting our feelings lead the way. Feelings easily change and if we don’t control them, they will dominant us, making our daily lives unpredictable and chaotic. The truth is that feelings are important and should not be disregarded. They are good indicators of the reality we live in. But they are not the reality itself. Feeling something does not make it true. It can feel right to me that 2 and 2 equals 5. But it doesn’t – it equals 4. Feelings are not superior to facts. We can and should take our feelings into account, but wise decisions are made primarily on the facts.
Many of the lies we believe about ourselves come from emotional reasoning. Our reasoning tells us that since we feel worthless, we are worthless. We feel incompetent, therefore we are incompetent. We feel ugly, therefore we are ugly. We probably do fail at times. And sometimes we do bad things. And sometimes we have bad hair days. But that does not mean we are ugly, incompetent or worthless. It is very difficult to counter emotional reasoning, however, because we accept our feelings as facts. And who can argue with facts? We can – and we need to argue with them. We need to question our feelings and look beyond them. Only then can we see our circumstances objectively and start changing our thinking, which ultimately will change our behavior and change our lives.
“Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” 1 Corinthians 13:12
- Magnification – Making a Mountain Out of a Molehill & Minimization. Are you often triggered by a small event; do you often make mountains out of molehills? Have you ever minimized a situation?
- Personalization – Taking Everything Personally. Share an event (past or present) that you took personally. Now assume the person’s actions had nothing to do with you - identify three reasons they may have acted as they did.
- Polarization – Making Everything Black or White. Share a time when a situation you thought was completely negative turned out to have some positives as well.
- Selective Abstraction – Missing the Forest for the Trees. Do you tend to look at the one negative aspect of a situation, ignoring all the positives? Have you taken an objective inventory of your life, listing both positives and negatives?
- Overgeneralization – History Always Repeats Itself. Is there a situation in your or someone else’s life that is happening as a result of a self-fulfilling prophesy (i.e., it happened like that before, so it will again)?
- Emotional Reasoning – Accepting Feelings as Facts. Share a feeling you have about yourself, another person or a situation. And then explore the facts and determine whether or not your feelings line up with the facts.