Thinking Errors

May 20 2024 | by

Dear Mr Pfister, I struggle a great deal with my thoughts and how I think about things. I tend to be overly pessimistic about myself and others and generally spend a lot of my time critiquing everything and everyone that crosses my mind. Because of this I spend a lot of time in my head and not living my life as God intends me to. I’d like to get out of these patterns of thinking and experience more freedom from my thoughts and in my life as a whole, but I’ve had a great deal of difficulty getting them under control. Is this something that can be overcome? And if so, how do I begin?


The patterns of thinking you are describing are a phenomenon many psychologists see quite frequently in their practice today. In fact, mental health professionals see them so often that they refer to them collectively as “cognitive distortions,” or thinking errors, and have derived lists of the most common forms they take.

Cognitive distortions are ways of thinking that are commonly false or inaccurate and have a negative psychological impact on us. They can also be, as you described, quite tricky to get rid of if we don’t understand how they work or what’s necessary to overcome them.

The first thing one needs to do to overcome a cognitive distortion is to become aware of it. Awareness is key because you can’t change what you aren’t aware of. You can do this by simply asking yourself questions such as, “How do I tend to think about this sort of thing?”; “Why do I think about it in this way?” or “What events or circumstances tend to trigger this sort of thought?” You can even review the lists widely available online and put a name to your pattern of thinking to help you more easily recognize it when it occurs.

The second thing you need to do to overcome the thinking error is challenge it directly. For example, if I tend to see everything that happens in my life in a negative light, I can challenge these thoughts by looking purposefully for the positive things in the situation or my life as a whole. Over time, this leads to a new, positive habit in how I think and see these events in my life.

Consistency is also important. If I can be consistent in my challenging of the thoughts, I will begin to notice the results over a period of time. Inconsistency can be one of the biggest challenges to overcoming a cognitive distortion. Therefore, finding a way to maintain consistency is crucial. You can do this by writing down each day the distortions you noticed in a notebook in one column, and your challenge to the distortion in another column. Leaving the notebook in a place you’ll see every day will also help to maintain this consistency.

Lastly, it can be beneficial to also focus on building the virtue that is opposed to my cognitive distortion. For example, if I tend to think negatively about myself or others, there is a lack of charity in my thought. I can work on building this virtue both by inserting charity into my response when I challenge my thought (in the second step) as well as through my daily actions, such as doing something kind or saying a complimentary word to someone. Cultivating virtue will in itself have an effect on my way of thinking and perceiving and, as we read in Sacred Scripture, assist us in “… bringing into captivity every understanding unto the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).

Updated on May 21 2024