TAKING THOUGHTS CAPTIVE

AN OVERVIEW OF THE 12 COGNITIVE DISTORTIONS

By: MIGHTY PURSUIT TEAM

If you were to take an honest assessment of your thought patterns, what would the results be? The answer to this question has life-altering implications, if only because our thought life shapes our perception of reality and thus, forms the way we interact with the world around us.  And we humans do A LOT of thinking, by the way. A study from Queen’s University in Ontario reported that we average 6,200 thoughts per day. That’s 387 thoughts per waking hour and an astonishing 6.4 thoughts per waking minute. Research has later confirmed that the content of those thoughts are primarily negative, which inevitably leads to a distorted view of reality.  In 1972, world-renowned psychiatrist Aaron Beck played a big role in coining the common language of cognitive distortions. One of his students, David D. Burns, expounded upon Beck’s research on the topic, publishing Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy in 1980. So what are cognitive distortions?  Put simply, negative and erroneous thought patterns that alter the way we see reality, typically leading to anxiety and/or depression. These thought patterns are often unconscious and automatic, so far below the surface that we often don’t even realize they are a powerful force influencing our decision-making. Although Beck and Burns gave us the common language of cognitive distortions, which have shaped the world of modern psychology, they were not the first to call out the existence of faulty thinking and our tendency as humans to travel down the rabbit hole of negativity. When Jesus walked the Earth 2,000 years ago, his teachings were peppered with ways to harness our thought life amidst the presence of cognitive distortions.  One of Jesus’s original followers, Paul, called us to a life of self-examination, urging us to “take our thoughts captive” (2 Cor 10:5) and submit them to the litmus test of truth. He also taught that the renewal of our minds was essential towards personal transformation (Rom 12:2). In fact, a quick study of scripture would reveal that Jesus and his apostles gave us the tools to challenge the thought patterns now known as cognitive distortions. Taking this lens, we can use the foundation they laid on this subject, combining that with the common language of psychology to discover how to renew our minds, improve our mental health and overcome the exhausting cycle of cognitive distortions.

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ALL OR NOTHING THINKING

The first cognitive distortion on our list is what psychologists call “all or nothing thinking” (or alternatively, black or white thinking). Definition: thinking in polarizing extremes. For many of us, all-or-nothing thinking is a distortion that hijacks our daily life. One minute, we feel like we’re going to conquer the world with a brilliant idea, the next minute we feel like a failure when the first thing doesn’t go our way in pursuit of that dream. Another person might be trying to lose weight. But once they cave to an urge for a cupcake, suddenly they think that ruins their entire diet. It’s either all-in or all-out. No in-between. One little sweet ruined all of your progress in an instant. This can be especially problematic in relationships or friendships, in which the terms “always” and “never” are thrown around flippantly. Married couples may be quite familiar with this experience. It’s not that sometimes you don’t make the effort, it’s that you never make an effort. Or it’s not that sometimes you criticize me, it’s that you’re always criticizing me. All-or-nothing thinking would take one mistake from a friend and move them from the “good person” category to a “bad person” category. What about dating? If someone doesn't meet your expectations, do they move from “good” to “bad”? In an extreme scenario, if they cheated on you, do they become the worst person on Earth? What about when it comes to your health? Got a few sniffles, now all of a sudden it’s COVID-19 and you find yourself planning out your entire funeral in your mind. Fears like this may constantly engulf our minds on a daily basis, whatever the topic may be. Prevalent in obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), all-or-nothing thinking in many ways acts as an umbrella for many of the other cognitive distortions we’ll talk about below. From a spiritual perspective, going back to our central text of “taking our thoughts captive”, we must evaluate our all-or-nothing thinking through the lens of Jesus. The power of this is in the details of what exactly you’re thinking about in black-or-white terms. But generally speaking, here are six stabilizing truths we must learn to instill into our minds:
  1. To accept the uncertainty of life.
  2. To embrace your eternal worth.
  3. To accept that life (and people) are both a mixed bag.
  4. To withhold judgment and believe the best about others.
  5. To embrace an "even-if" mentality
  6. To find the middle ground.
 When it comes to uncertainty, there’s always going to be an ambiguity in the gray area, which is what we don’t like. We want to know and we want to know now. In 1975, Charles Berger and Richard Calabrese even articulated the uncertainty reduction theory off this very idea. So in some ways, telling yourself you’ll never get better from cancer after a relapse can be a self-protective mechanism that shields you from any disappointment of getting your hopes up and helps resolve the situation with some level of finality.  But the truth is, you don’t know. There is usually a certain probability that exists within any given situation, but mostly, it’s living life in the gray. You may get really, really sick from COVID or you may be completely asymptomatic and not feel a thing. Time will tell. Putting on the Jesus lens means acknowledging that we are not God, we don’t know what tomorrow will bring and we have to live with this limited lens of reality. We see Jesus say directly in Matthew 6:34, “...do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” James 4:14 expounds on this idea saying, “...you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” This may sound morbid, but it’s actually incredibly freeing when we align ourselves to reality. Instead of draining our energy thinking about the “what-ifs”, we can choose to refocus our attention on the good. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things,” Paul says in Philippians 4:8. From a scientific perspective, UC Berkeley psychologist Rick Hanson based his entire book Hardwiring Happiness on this idea of “taking in the good” and how this can change your brain.   We often cannot control outcomes, but we can choose where to direct our focus and our self-talk. If you go on a job interview and they pass on hiring you, seeing things in black-or-white usually leads to you thinking your life is over and you’re a complete failure.  But applying the Jesus lens means understanding you are made in the image of God and your eternal worth does not change based on career success or human approval. Knowing this, you can choose to actively extract good from the situation, whether it be the experience, the conversation or even the good cup of coffee when you were in there. Gratitude is powerful. Alternatively, you can choose to meditate on how your spouse “never” lets out to the dog or you can choose to affirm them and point out all the other handiwork they do around the house. In our third truth above, we acknowledged that both life and people tend to be a mixed bag. Meaning, in a broken world both good and bad exist. There is good and bad within all of us. If we deny this, we risk living in unreality and in a mind ripe with cognitive distortion. Let's say someone you are dating did cheat on you. What does that ultimately mean? All-or-nothing thinking might lead you to make a judgment that you’re worthless and your significant other is a terrible person. Yet the day before you found out, you didn’t think you were worthless and you thought they were a wonderful person. One action flipped the narrative, having you play out worst-case scenarios about why they did before even having a conversation about it. But the truth? It’s a mixed bag.  As we said above, one person’s actions do not have any bearing on your self-worth.  There’s also the fact that before and after the infidelity, your significant other had both good and bad parts. Of course, experience would tell you that it is incredibly hard to view a friend who hurt you or a spouse who cheated on you this way. While we’re in the feels, all-or-nothing thinking convinces us in the moment they deserve the “worst person ever” label. Yet if we are to look at our situation from a non-judgmental perspective, it becomes obvious that people are a mixed bag. In fact, this is central to the story of Jesus. We were made in the image of God, meaning there is a part of us that reflects the inherently loving, kind and good nature of God, but at some point down the line, we became infected with sin. Now that word might hold a lot of baggage for you, depending on where you land on the spiritual spectrum. But in its simplest form, it means to miss the mark. Think in terms of archery, as we pull back on the arrow and we release, we are essentially missing the bull’s eye of everything that is good and loving. So sin is the indicator that human beings are, in essence, a mixed bag. And thus, it makes no sense to view people with an all-or-nothing lens. People are not going to meet our expectations all the time and we will not meet theirs, which is why we are to mutually extend grace. Maybe the way someone is behaving is related to something in their past, something they learned or something they went through. Ultimately, the aim is to believe the best about others (1 Cor. 13:7) and that begins with our thought life. It is essential that we point out that this doesn’t mean to deny your emotions, either. When someone hurts us, it causes grief and pain. We have to go through that cycle of pain and process those emotions to the end point of healing. To ignore and numb your emotions creates a less authentic and more dysfunctional situation. Naturally, broken relationships can create feelings of betrayal and mistrust. But the key is that when we make a decision about the relationship, we do so from a non-judgmental perspective after healthy processing instead of when we’re in the storm of all-or-nothing thinking.

Learning how to do this takes time and as we mentioned above, sometimes the all-or-nothing thinking can be so automatic that we don’t even realize when it’s happening. But we must master the art of interrupting our toxic thought patterns and replace them with these practices.

Finally, we also must be willing to release our grasp on outcome anxiety to overcome all-or-nothing thinking. Rather than living life at the extremes, we choose to adopt an “even if” mentality when it comes to outcomes. Even if my worst fear comes true, then what? This is particularly relevant to those who struggle with OCD, but through the evidence-based exposure-and-response prevention (ERP), we learn to embrace the “maybes”. If the chips don’t fall my way with cancer, how will I respond?  Can I choose to still make the most out of my life? This does not mean attaching certainty to your fears either way, good or bad. Rather it’s to learn to embrace the ambiguity and live in the tension of not knowing. To prepare for either scenario and to not run from pain. Ultimately, much of the first five truths are interwoven with this idea of finding a middle ground.

MIND READING

Second up on the list of cognitive distortions is mind reading. Definition: mind reading is when we assume we know what other people are thinking. This usually involves crafting a narrative in our minds around a) how others feel about us, b) how they view other people and c) how they view a particular situation. And then here comes the worst part: we live as if everything we’re thinking is true. Sometimes we base our entire reality on these sets of assumptions, as our mind works hard to convince us that our thoughts are rational and logical. As experience would tell you, this becomes very problematic in nearly any social dynamic.  Let’s say you’re on Hinge and the conversation is flowing with somebody on there. You end up going out on a date and you’re getting a sense that this is really going somewhere. You’re texting all the following week, then they stop answering after a series of texts. It’s been a whole 12 hours now. Did I say something wrong? Did they lose interest?  You start getting anxious, crafting up plans in your head of how you’ll move on or that you didn’t really like them anyway. You start scrolling through other profiles to make yourself feel better. Ping. They had no service that entire time because they were at a family outing. They’re excited to chat on the phone and tell you all about it. Admittingly, this is a bit exaggerated, but it’s a real-world example that some of you have probably experienced (us included). How about when you’re waiting at work, about to hop into a meeting with your manager and present an idea you’ve been working on. At this point, you’ve already had a story in your head for quite awhile on how they feel about you (but of course, you’ve never talked about it). You’re slightly insecure around them, convinced you know how they feel about you, judging their body language and facial expressions. You start the meeting, finish up the presentation and they tell you they’re going to get back to you with feedback. Immediately when you leave the meeting, you get a rush of anxiety.  Why do they need to think about it? They definitely thought the idea was dumb. They’re going to realize they shouldn’t have hired me. I’m not good enough for the job. I shouldn’t be here.  Maybe they’ve already been discussing letting me go. Anxiety surges throughout the rest of the day. You start deconstructing why they probably hated everything you worked on, your self-esteem at an all-time low by the time you go to bed.  Ping. The next morning you open your email only to see that your manager loved your idea and wants to move forward on the project. They just had to check budgets with their manager, before giving the final go-ahead.

Mind reading invades every area of life. It creates a disconnect between father and son, between spouses, between friends, between colleagues and everything in-between. In the most extreme scenarios, operating with a mind-reading mentality can last a lifetime, without ever posing the question to the person: can I clarify an assumption?

Author Pete Scazzero, puts it this way in his bestseller Emotionally Healthy Relationships “When we leave reality for a mental creation of our own doing (hidden assumptions), we create a counterfeit world… in doing so we wreck relationships by creating endless confusion and conflict”.  Many of us learned to mind read at a young age. We were exposed to it in grade school, it blossomed in high school and bled into our romantic relationships, following us into college and now plagues us in the real-world. Moreover, our family’s operating system is mind-reading. Our friends mind-read. The people we have dated mind-read. And thus we have no frame of reference of how to operate any other way. But a simple tool, if we have the courage to use it, will help free us from mind-reading.  That is simply to facilitate a culture in our relationships of clarifying assumptions. This might feel uncomfortable at first, especially if you don’t like conflict, but practice makes perfect. Ask your manager, “can I clarify a set of assumptions with you?” After they invite you to do so, tell them how you think they feel about you and ask if that is true. Practice this with your significant other, on your dates, with your family and friends. Of course, not everyone will receive this well. Not everyone is emotionally healthy and can communicate well. But as we practice this with the people around us, we’ll find that remarkably some will admire us for our vulnerability.  And this is ultimately the risk – we think we’ll look weak or foolish by being so open with others. We don’t want them to know what we think they think of us or a particular situation. But in a world that is starved of authenticity, this level of vulnerability becomes startlingly refreshing. Yes, there is the chance that the person lies to you about how they’re feeling or isn’t even aware of what’s going on inside, but you can’t control that. You are only in control of your own emotional health and by clarifying assumptions, you avoid disastrous situations that didn’t need to happen. You save yourself from unnecessary anxiety. In the end, we can also employ some of the practices we talked about above with all-or-nothing thinking. To believe the best about others, give them grace and the benefit of the doubt that what they are saying to us is true. And if it does so happen that if what you're thinking is true, whether they confirm it after they clarify your assumption or you find out they were lying in the end, adopt the “even-if” mentality. Even if what I’m thinking is true… then what? This is where Jesus calls us back to our foundation, to root ourselves in his words and face what is in front of us from a healthy perspective. Paul ultimately speaks to the futility of mind reading, whilst writing in 1 Corinthians 2:11:  “For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him?”

EMOTIONAL REASONING

So what are we then to make of our feelings and emotions?  Many of us have (unknowingly) adopted the mentality of emotional reasoning. Definition: if we feel it, it must be true. It doesn’t matter how much evidence there might be to the contrary, we are convinced that if a particular emotion is present, that is where reality lands. So let’s just say you did clarify assumptions with your manager and they have a less-than-favorable review of your performance or your ideas. Emotional reasoning might have you react and explode in the moment on them in a bout of defensiveness.  How dare they think such a thing? Or maybe emotional reasoning causes you to go inward and spiral into feelings of worthlessness. It might cause you to want to numb yourself with whatever vice of your choice – binge-watching Netflix, smoking weed, watching porn and the list goes on. In many ways emotional reasoning is linked with all-or-nothing thinking, in the sense we go to the extreme based on our emotions reaction to someone’s feedback. Nevermind all the positive stuff that was woven into your manager’s feedback or the fact that you are not what you do. Nevermind the fact that you are inherently worthy and wonderfully unique simply by being a thinking, breathing, living human being. But if I feel worthless then it must be true. Now, don’t get us wrong. We mentioned above that it is just as destructive to suppress your feelings of worthlessness or pretend that they don’t exist. One way or another, these feelings are going to come to the surface. So the difference in how we’re to deal with our feelings is not to suppress or immediately react to them, but to take them captive and measure them against what’s actually true. For example:
  • I might feel worthless, but factually I know I have inherent worth.
  • I might feel jealousy towards my girlfriend, but the fact is that she’s being faithful.
  • I might feel angry at my co-worker for an assignment he dropped, but the reality is I didn’t communicate the expectations well with them.
 But the process here doesn’t stop with simply identifying what’s true in any given situation, but exploring why you’re feeling the way you are beneath the surface. Scazzero observes in Emotionally Healthy: “Most people shipwreck, or live inconsistent lives, because of forces and motivations beneath the surface of their lives that they have never considered.”

To move away from emotional reasoning, we need to grow in self-awareness and emotional intelligence. So perhaps you’re jealous towards your girlfriend because of perceived abandonment from your parents as a child, however subtle that might have been.

Perhaps it’s linked to your own feelings of worthlessness, which come from bullying in grade school. Perhaps you actually have been cheated on in the past, so you need to wrestle with that and process the feelings of grief in order to move forward.  In the end, often we find that our emotions are much more about us or something that’s happened to us, than what the person is doing in the present moment.  And let’s just say they are doing something wrong or hurtful, not reacting in the moment and shouting expletives to them in an outburst is still going to be the best move. Usually the surface emotions that come out aren’t helpful to reconciliation, no matter if your anger is justified or not. In the end, contemplative prayer and journaling can be incredibly powerful tools to go beneath the surface of your emotions. To get to the root and measure that up against truth, praying for help that your mind would be renewed, in this incredible process science calls neuroplasticity.

FORTUNE-TELLING

While the three cognitive distortions above have explored different fallacies of the same basic type, we have yet to fully explore how our brains process the future. Which is where we get into fortune-telling. Definition: a cognition distortion that involves predicting how a sequence of events will unfold, usually in a negative manner. At face value, engaging in this type of thinking seems silly, but it's something we all succumb to from time-to-time. The brain is an incredibly imaginative organ, capable of playing out vivid scenarios as we contemplate our next move. Since it’s low hanging fruit, let’s explore the conversation with your manager once again. As you contemplate clarifying an assumption you have with them, you play out the whole conversation with them in 3D. You walk into the room, you close the door, they look at you disinterested and you ask to clarify an assumption, body filling up with intense anxiety. They look up from their computer screen, you blurt the words out and they didn’t come out right. Your manager immediately gets annoyed and feels attacked, which escalates into a shouting match, which leads to gossip spreading in the office and you getting fired the next day. Doomsday scenario, courtesy of fortune-telling. Or how about that pesky cough? At the first hint of the cough, your anxiety starts picking up, mind questioning if this is a sign of COVID. You dismiss it, but later in the day it starts intensifying. The anxiety is not mild anymore, it starts increasing. And now you can’t tell the difference between your own panic and something going on in your chest.  You then really start having trouble breathing and call an ambulance. You’re 100% convinced it’s now COVID. You end up in a hospital bed, consciousness fading in and out. Before you know it, you’re on a ventilator. And then quickly, you end up being one of those cases you see on the news of a healthy person who spontaneously died of COVID. Now, none of this is to make light about how a severe COVID infection does go down. Tragically, this has been the case millions of times worldwide since the disease first popped up and there is still a tremendous amount of trauma to process for doctors, nurses, hospital staff, the sufferers and their families. Yet as we mentioned above, for the one who has not experienced this yet (or perhaps fears facing this again) accepting uncertainty is a critical part of overcoming cognitive distortions.  Some of you might be thinking, but we have to assess the situation and the risk involved. And to this you’d be right. If you’re standing at the edge of a cliff on a mountain in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, 5,000 feet in the air, chances are you could imagine the entire scenario from start to finish of falling off that cliff. By a large probability, jumping would result in death.  Assessing a situation before going into it and running through how someone might respond to particular things you might say also is a very healthy form of assessing risk. If your spouse has a trigger and has asked for you to not bring your sex life in demanding way, chances are the next time you do that they’re going to be frustrated and triggered.  You know based on past experience and past conversations that bringing up sex in a manner akin to ordering a burger at In-And-Out would be bad news. And so in this situation, you’re actually failing to recognize the high probability of an explosive outcome.  So then ultimately when it comes to fortune-telling, the fallacy is related to the inability to assess the odds of a particular outcome. How do you know your boss will react like that? Have they ever done it before? How do you know your cough isn’t just a common cold? How would you think your spouse WOULDN’T react like that? Burns, the psychologist we mentioned in the opening paragraphs, associates fortune-telling with jumping to conclusions. There’s not enough evidence at our disposal to try to convince ourselves that this scenario we’re playing out in our head will happen. We are designed to assess risk, but we will also save a lot of trouble (and anxiety) by not prematurely jumping to conclusions. This is where we need to interrupt our toxic thinking patterns and infuse truth into the situation. What fears lie beneath the surface of our emotions? Yet fortune-telling isn’t always correlated with negative outcomes. You can also jump to conclusions about something positive happening in your life by incorrectly assessing the variables at play. You went out on a first date and she said she had a good time, now you think that means she loves you. The record label liked a few of your songs, now you automatically correlate that with signing a million dollar deal. Jesus once said, “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11) This doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate exciting things that are happening in our life, but rather it’s a call to stay humble and not prematurely jump to conclusions. As Jesus says, when we do that we will most certainly have a come-me-down and be humbled.

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CATASTROPHIZING

Another cognitive distortion that often includes elements of fortune telling and all-or-nothing thinking is catastrophizing.  Definition: magnify or minimize a situation that is at hand. For example, let’s say your spouse goes out for groceries and you figured it would take an hour, but they’ve now been gone for two. Catastrophizing would try to convince you of the worst case scenario. Maybe they were hit by a car. Maybe they were kidnapped. Another hour goes by and you now start rallying together all the evidence that this is true. They didn’t pick up my calls. There were only 15-20 things on the grocery list. We live near a dangerous neighborhood. I shouldn’t have let them go alone. (You hear the front door open) It just so happens their phone died, the line at the grocery store was extremely long (you forgot it’s holiday season) and the store ran out of some of the items your spouse needed, so she had to go through traffic to get to another store. Sure, it is possible what you were thinking is true, but how often do people get hit by cars, as tragic as that would be? They’ve gone out for groceries hundreds of times over a period of years, have they ever gotten hit by a car? Of course, some of us have experienced the tragedy of this actually happening, which is another story. Trauma needs to be processed so we can heal.  But in the event there isn’t some sort of traumatic past experience linked to the situation at hand, catastrophizing is yet another cognitive distortion that is intolerant of uncertainty. Because there are unknowns at play, we try to make sense of this in our minds.  This cognitive distortion easily becomes debilitating because if we let our minds get used to running on this track, it starts to cause heightened anxiety in different areas of our lives. A headache or a cough now becomes a fatal illness to us. The first fight with a boyfriend or girlfriend means that now we’re suddenly going to break up. A bout of depression means we’ll never, ever get out of this season in our lives.  As you can imagine (and perhaps experienced), this type of toxic thinking is crushing and it doesn’t take long for it to lead to hopelessness. To make this toxic thinking pattern even more dire, sometimes that magnification of a doomsday scenario leads us to minimize any positive evidence that would challenge our thinking. We have a headache, but the last 10 times we had a headache, it ended up amounting to nothing. We failed a test and therefore consider ourselves a failure, minimizing the fact that we got an A+ on the previous two tests. Up until this point, our new relationship has been an incredibly positive and uplifting experience, but one hint of conflict means we’re going to break up. We minimize the fact that fights are a normal (and healthy) part of a relationship, that could actually be grounds for growth. So how are we to move forward with the ongoing battle of catastrophizing? From our estimation, there are five things we must consider if we’re to rewire our brains to think differently and avoid the temptation to catastrophize. They are as follows:
  1. Grow in self-awareness
  2. Objectively assess the situation
  3. Examine your relationship to that thing
  4. Accept the uncertainty of life
  5. Adopt an “even-if” mentality
 To wrestle with catastrophizing, we must be aware that it is happening in the first place. This might sound obvious, except it’s not for many of us. It is actually quite easy to be knee-deep in catastrophizing for hours before ever becoming consciously aware of the cognitive distortion. This takes practice over time, but we must learn the practice of interrupting our thought patterns to objectively step back and assess the situation at hand. Why am I filled with so much anxiety? Is my response an accurate assessment of the situation? In the world of catastrophizing, it usually isn’t, but as Scazzero mentioned above it will likely require going beneath the surface. Is there something from my past that is influencing my reaction to this situation? Am I actually fearful because I have placed an excessive amount of importance on that person or thing in my life? Do I fear breaking up from a fight, because the relationship has become wrapped up in my identity and I’ve now become codependent? These aren’t easy questions to explore and there’s certainly no answer that is one-size-fits-all.  It will require work to uncover all the variables at play and ultimately, we have to come back to what we discussed above. There is a level of ambiguity in some of these situations we have to accept. Yes, your spouse could have been bit by a car. And even if that did happen, how would you respond? Coping with tragedy and suffering is a part of life that we can neither avoid or deny. Would you rather become proactive in your approach to suffering or rather find yourself spiraling (before anything has even happened) because you can’t accept the mere thought of a potential tragic situation happening? So again, even if you broke up with your boyfriend or girlfriend, what then? Even if you did have COVID and went to the hospital, how would you cope? If you actually did fail out of medical school, what would that mean? How would you respond in a healthy way?

MENTAL FILTERING

This brings us to our next cognitive distortion, which is mental filtering.  Definition: filtering out all of the positive aspects of a particular situation and only fixating on the negative. In a world dominated by mental filtering, things become very dark quickly.  Internally, we find ourselves developing a nasty habit of complaining, to the point that we might even be described as a cynical person. A prolonged period of mental filtering could also lead you to believe the world is out to get you, creating an inability to see the good in almost any situation. People become inherently bad and you’re cautiously skeptical at any sort of kindness. What’s the catch?  While this is a bit of a dramatic picture of mental filtering, this cognitive distortion exists on some level within all of us. It may even be attached to real-world experience. Maybe you tried to start a company and you failed, creating a feeling of dejection that it was all a waste of time. Revisiting the office scenario from before, maybe you’re presenting an idea to your manager and reviewing your performance, to which they give constructive criticism. But they didn’t stop there, they also gave you glowing affirmations, which you have decided to conveniently filter out.

Over time, becoming a person who constantly filters out the positive and focuses on the negative turns us into somewhat of a social black-hole. We carry around a permanently negative aura, which infects the people around us. 

Yes, the goal in life is to form authentic connections and cultivate a community of people who can help bear your burdens and pick you back up when you’re down. But at the end of the day, we must remember that people are human.  Overwhelming them with constant negativity will inevitably take a toll. We must grieve, we must acknowledge disappointment, we must process our emotions, but we’re not supposed to permanently plant in that place. To that point, throwing the baby out with the bathwater and saying, “well I just can’t confide in anyone then” would be an example of all-or-nothing thinking. Perhaps you’ve been through real trauma. You were sexually abused as a kid. You went through a divorce. You’ve constantly struggled to pay rent. You grew up in poverty and had a single-parent household. You lost a child. These situations can feel unbearably tough.  And in the most dire of circumstances, not many people would blame you for viewing them through a primarily negative lens. It makes a ton of sense. But to plant in this place will only have us on a one-way street towards depression, hopelessness and cynicism.  What then are we to make of the positive and negative experiences we go through?  It starts with a paradigm shift. James, the younger half-brother of Jesus, says that we are called to “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds”. The hebrew  Of course, nothing seems joyful about losing a child to cancer at the age of five. It would actually be incredibly insensitive for someone to say to you, “hey, look at the bright side” in the midst of your grieving. The reality is that things may feel off for quite some time. Which is why James continues on the next line saying, “for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” We can’t escape the fact that in times of suffering and hardship, we will be tested. How will we respond? What are we to make of life moving forward from this point? Is life suddenly over, an existence best served for engaging in mental filtering and fixating on the bad? James challenges this, saying that if we keep the faith, it will produce perseverance in us. And the longer we persevere to its fullest extent, we will find ourselves transforming ourselves into people who can handle tough situations and become stronger for it. Putting on the Jesus lens here means knowing that our suffering on earth is used by God in our sanctification (becoming more like Jesus) and that these things impact the substance of who we are (character, integrity, etc). In this sense, the "who we are" determines how we respond in the midst of these varying circumstances in life. A deeply formed character may also enable you to help others down the road. Maybe it simply means you encounter one other person who lost their kid to cancer and your experience is what helps them get through to the other side. Maybe you teach others how to process their own grief, which gives you a tremendous sense of purpose. This won’t bring back your child. And it’s not a replacement. In some ways, there will always be grief that they are not here right now with you. But it is to see the “joy” or beauty that came from a tragic situation. That we decided to grieve, process and persevere instead of seeing our predicament as an insurmountable tragedy that we will never recover from. Since we are all unique individuals with our own personal story, this process might look different for each of us. If our business failed, can we “count it joy” for what it has formed in us? Can we see how it will inevitably open up future opportunities that couldn’t have existed any other way? Can you see the valuable learning experience you gained from a breakup, despite how devastating it is to not have that person around anymore?  Can you see how growing up in poverty equipped you to become more humble, more resilient and more authentic than if you hadn’t experienced that? None of these words may be resonating with you, but the point is that there is beauty to find in every situation. There is something that can be built in us. That beauty may be visible immediately or perhaps it’s illuminated at a much later point. Like Jesus, we must learn the tightrope walk between grief and joy, holding the tension between the two in our hands.  In a fallen world, both exist and thus, we need to acknowledge the presence of both in the midst of our emotions. One of the biggest obstacles to overcome in this process is our own internal self-talk. Consider the words that are coming out of your mouth. Is your mental filtering expressing itself outwardly towards others?  Later on in his personal epistle, James reflects on the power of our words, “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.”  Strong words, but true nonetheless. The more we engage in mental filtering and then outwardly express that through our words, the more we corrupt our minds. It forms a pattern, a neural pathway that trains us to think and speak in that way.

SHOULD STATEMENTS

In many ways what we’ve discussed thus far provides a natural pathway into the next cognitive distortion, which is “should” statements.  Definition: A phenomenon that creates a frustrating cycle of disappointment and shame, we often find ourselves meditating on what we "should" be doing. I should be exercising more. I should be farther along in my grief process. I should have stopped mindreading by now. I should be a better husband. I should have gotten a better score on the test. My performance should be better at work. I should be praying more. In almost every instance, there is a future goal attached to our “should'' statements (i.e. to lose weight, be a good husband, be successful). But the problem with these statements is not the goal itself, rather the undertone of condemnation and judgment.  As we pursue our goals, we often attach an arbitrary set of rules and expectations on ourselves, which leads us to conclude we’re not where we “should” be.  I should be exercising more. But you used to never exercise and now you’re doing it twice a week.  I should be doing it four times a week. The follow-up to “should” statements is usually a greater exertion of effort, which can last for a while, but commonly the endgame is burnout and decreased motivation. Since we exhausted ourselves trying to achieve the arbitrary goal and it wasn’t sustainable, the failure to achieve that goal leads us to now believe that it’s not possible. But this messaging doesn’t solely come from an internal place. It’s hard to ignore the influence of cultural messaging and peer groups, which create a sense of comparison. One woman looks at another woman thinking, I should look like that. One husband is driven by his wife’s comments about how wonderful the neighbor’s husband is. An old high school friend posts on Instagram about getting promoted and we think I should be farther along. To get to where we “should” be, internally and externally the tactic of “tough love” is employed, as we become convinced this will make a difference. Audrey Gordon, writes about this in her book What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat: “Shows like the Biggest Loser and Extreme Makeover glorify “tough love” for fat people, while shows like My 600-Pound-Life feature a never-ending intervention, a Mobius loop of fat suffering… messages seeking to make fat people thin, whether through shame or concern simply don’t work.” She goes on to reference the endless scientific research that shows how shame (and comparison) are terrible motivators for people.  In fact, on popular weight loss shows like the Biggest Loser, many of the contestants found themselves steadily gaining back the weight after the show was over.  Gordon even bears first-person witness to some of the unkinder experiences around “tough love” she’s had in her own life. In one particular instance, after a late night in the office, a random man came up to her in the parking lot to simply say: “No one will ever love you… not looking like that.” She goes on to say that some people even mask these types of comments under the umbrella of “concern”, thinking it will create a healthy sense of motivation. We're left thinking.. I'm fat and if I become thin, my life would be instantly better. Everything will change. “Tough love” can be found transcending cultures and across different spheres of life. One Chinese American man, Will, speaks of the phenomenon that is “Tiger Parenting”. “I’ve lost motivation for getting Straight A’s a couple times when my parents stopped providing any reward or reaction for good grades. It’s common for Asian parents to freak out if you get anything other than an A on your grades but have no reaction if you get Straight A’s. Without a smile or celebratory look, it can make a child wonder, “That’s all there is to it?” The Chinese man acknowledges that this is not a blanket statement on all Asian parents, rather to say it’s something common he found in his own social circles and amongst his peers. Across cultures, parents think that tough love will make their child succeed. But shaming, or tough love, doesn’t work because it’s not motivated by love.  Will’s parents might have had the best intentions when shelling out tough love to him. And while it’s harder to see that with the man shouting at Aubrey in the parking lot, there is a large segment of the population that thinks tough love is the way to motivate heavier people. It’s a core strategy on shows like the Biggest Loser. Shame and tough love are also core practices that sweep across modern and ancient religious circles.  Tough love can be seen rearing its ugly head by shaming the congregants into reading their Bible more and praying more.  It’s what happens in marriages in the midst of conflict and one of you throws out the dreaded I wish you were more like this. Scientifically speaking, shaming is also antithetical to attachment theory, which explains the innate need for humans to develop trusting, loving and secure relationships from birth. Shelling out tough love isn’t exactly creating safe and secure places for people to exist within. We say this while also acknowledging we can’t go to the extreme, as we then risk falling into all-or-nothing thinking once again. As we mentioned, goal-setting can be a good thing. Having healthy conversations with your spouse about changes you’d like to see is a good thing. Wanting to perform better on the next test is an admirable thing.  Developing rhythms around nutrition and fitness can be wonderful things.  The key feature that makes should statements a cognitive distortion, however, is the underlying message of I’m not good enough. This phrase can be found ringing across heads all over the globe and it’s enforced both internally and externally.  “I should” is interchangeable with “I’m not”. I should be a better husband, therefore I’m not a good enough one right now. I should be exercising more, so my body is not good enough as is. I should have gotten a better score on the test, so I’m a failure as a student. I should be performing better at work, so therefore I’m an imposter. When we believe these underlying messages, we live from that equilibrium. And the hope embedded in the message of Jesus is that we don’t have to be enough, because he is enough.  This is so freeing. We no longer have to strive to accomplish through our own works or merit because we find the source of our life in him. When we find our life in him, we live our lives as a reflection of him in the world through our words and actions. As Paul writes in Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” By following his way of life, we embrace the invitation to live into this reality and eliminate cognitive distortions, providing us with grace and the example of Jesus to follow. As the ultimate role model and the perfect human, he is loving, joyful, patient, kind, generous and gentle.   He has the perfect recipe for dealing with the fact that we are all a mixed bag, which we discussed in the opening paragraphs. Because of that thorny word called sin, we are not always going to meet our own expectations and people are not going to meet ours.  We all miss the mark, in a variety of ways, so we all exist from a level playing field. We’re all cut from the same cloth, all on our journeys of becoming but never really fully arriving. This humbles us, bringing our pride back down to Earth, as Jesus teaches us to treat people with dignity, as we wish to be treated with dignity. Jesus tells us to love, as we wish to be loved And when a conversation is necessary to have with someone about their own “mixedbagness”, we don’t come at it from a posture of “you should”. Jesus teaches that these types of conversations require proximity. Before you tell someone they should lose weight, get to know them. Care for them. You’ll find that proximity creates empathy.  Gordon alludes to this in her book, “concern is curious, tender, loving. Concern is direct and heartfelt. Concern does its work delicately, with great care. It looks after the people we hold dear. Concern is rooted in love”.  It’s hard to miss the parallels of Gordon’s words to those of Paul, one of Jesus’s original followers. In his letter to the city of Corinth, Greece, he writes:  “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Later on in life, he also called us to “speak truth in love” following the example of Jesus.  So if your husband is doing something that’s hurtful, are you communicating that to him in a way that builds him up? Is it loving? Tender? Is it wrapped in affirmations, leaving him encouraged? And when you’re listening to your own self-talk, is the cognitive distortion of “I should” running through your mind? Or do you remember that with Jesus, you’re covered by grace? That you will never be worth less or more than you are right now?  After decades of inundating yourself with “I should” statements and hearing “you should” messaging from the outside world, this can be quite difficult to implement. But just as we learned should statements, we can unlearn them.  This becomes a day-by-day process of catching ourselves and reminding ourselves of truth as we trade “I should” for “I’m covered by grace”.

LABELING

As judgment is a core theme with should statements, it is also the central basis for labeling.  Definition: This cognitive distortion is when we assign judgment and slap a label on ourselves and/or others based on a singular incident. Let’s say your friend has a one-night-stand, all of a sudden you slap the label of slut on them. Your spouse doesn’t want to cook dinner, so you tell them they’re selfish. A friend is caught in a lie, so you call them a liar. Your co-worker hasn’t finished their project, so you call them lazy. Now we may not outwardly vocalize this to them, but at the bare minimum it is probably influencing how we then treat them. When we label, we often overlook the evidence that would produce empathy. In many instances, we don’t know why someone is behaving this way. Maybe there’s a backstory for why your friend might be having one-night stands; something that is related to her past. Questions swirl in their head about their self-worth, as they contemplate what their sex lives “should” look like. Perhaps your spouse had a long day, running around doing numerous different tasks at work that you have no idea about and now you’re springing dinner on them, when they cooked the past few nights anyways.  And then there’s your co-worker, who is simultaneously grieving a death in the family and navigating the other three other projects that your colleagues sprung on them. But as we mentioned above, labeling doesn’t just happen externally, but also internally. If we don’t feel like cooking, if we are sleeping around and if we missed a project deadline, this might lead us to also slap ourselves with the labels of selfish, slut or lazy. When we label, at the core we are making identity statements about who we really are. Because I am engaging with this particular behavior, does that mean it defines me? The more we engage with that behavior, the more we become convinced that is who we are. Deeper and more ingrained labeling. This is consistent with what James Clear says in his NY-Times bestseller Atomic Habits, that identity is central to our behavior. So who are we then, really? As we mentioned in the opening paragraphs, humans were made in the image of God.  This means that we are born with an “imprint” of God, with the purpose to become a mirror of him to the outside world. We are designed to reflect his loving, compassionate and graceful nature to the people around us.  This was meant to be our default nature, but as we mentioned above, sin has distorted it. So this makes us a mixed bag, inclined to commit selfish acts. Paul sums this up perfectly in Romans 7:15, saying “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Sound familiar? But Jesus freely extends his hand toward us, offering to lift us up higher. He covers us and because he is enough, we become enough. This is critical to the narrative we carry about ourselves, because knowing this and living into it will allow you to look at your own behavior as simply that… a behavior. It’s something that you may have a habit of doing, but with Jesus, it’s not who you are. Your default nature is now to be generous, because God is generous and you are a reflection of him. This is essential towards breaking the pattern of labeling and eliminating the existence of this cognitive distortion in our lives. We need to get a healthy sense of identity, while also being able to make sense of the world around us and our call to give people grace. Every human being is born as an image bearer of God, there is not one who isn’t deserving of dignity and respect. So our role then is not to label and call people out, but rather call them up into who they truly are. You may have lied, but you’re not a liar. You may not want to cook tonight, but you’ve been such a generous person to me. In other instances, we see labeling actually become an extreme version of overgeneralization, which means. Definition: fixating on a singular event and making a conclusion based on that singular piece of evidence.  This type of thinking is particularly prevalent in those who struggle with a panic disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). You might end up concluding that because you experienced negative feelings or panic in one particular setting, you’ll always have that experience once you return to that setting. Or perhaps because you finally had that first fight with your boyfriend or girlfriend, you conclude that you’re always going to fight now.  Given the racial unrest that has swept over the United States over the past two years, you might be surprised to learn that prejudice is actually a form of overgeneralization. Let’s just say you had someone rob you that happened to be black, now you are nervous around black people in general and assume all black people are like that. Or perhaps because you’ve had one negative experience with a law enforcement officer, you conclude all police officers are dirty cops. Overgeneralization is so problematic in part because it’s almost always inaccurate. It is a cognitive distortion that creates dividing lines between people groups and it causes those with panic or anxiety to become more insular. It will create unnecessary tension and worry in a romantic relationship, based on projecting future outcomes on one singular event. And even if the thing you are overgeneralizing about has happened multiple times, it’s still usually inaccurate at the end of the day. Let’s say you got robbed twice by a black person, to conclude this will always happen is to dismiss the hundreds of times you’ve interacted with black people and this hasn’t happened.   To quit this nasty habit, we need to learn how to step outside of ourselves and examine the evidence that is in front of us. Is there a pattern of arguments that have unfolded with your significant other over recent months? Or was it just one or two fights? Like with the other cognitive distortions, it will take time to develop a rhythm of thinking this new way, but over time we find it leads to much healthier relationships and a healthier perspective.

PERSONALIZATION

It’s all about me.  If we could sum up the cognitive distortion of personalization in a short phase, this would do it justice.  Definition: Personalization leads us to take everything personally. Even if all the evidence suggests otherwise, we thrust ourselves into the center of attention and conclude that other people's actions (or non-actions) must be about us. Let’s say you meet up with a group of 10 friends at the park, but most of them you didn’t get to catch up with, because they were off having side conversations. You might think.. were they avoiding me? How could they invite me to this and be so rude? Maybe they don’t care about me and are not interested in my life. Personalization will have you walking into staff meetings, thinking that everyone is fixated on you or thinking something negatively about you. Maybe everyone thought that comment was stupid. They'll probably talk abut me behind my back after this meeting.  We will take offense when someone is rude to us on the grocery store line or when our kid is acting out and misbehaving. Maybe it’s because they think I’m a bad parent. Personalization overlooks the evidence that suggests otherwise. Maybe your friends got into some deep conversations at the park and it was completely unintentional that they didn’t talk to you. Maybe they were so wrapped up in what they were doing, that it didn’t cross their mind. Maybe your co-workers are actually fixated on their own performance and learning about the general direction of the company at the staff meeting, not dwelling on the “dumb” comment that you think you made.  Maybe the person in the grocery store line just heard unfortunate news about a family member shortly before that interaction or that your kid is struggling with being bullied at school.

Personalization almost always puts way too much importance on ourselves and assumes that we are the center of the universe for the people around us. It gives us a false sense of control and responsibility.

Even when it comes to grief and/or dealing with uncomfortable situations, we always overemphasize the role we play, which leads to cycles of guilt.  Our child is struggling in school, so we assume that it’s our fault and we’re a bad parent. An employee is underperforming, so you assume it’s due to our bad leadership. Our spouse has been unhappy as of late, so you assume that it’s your fault. Of course, as we mentioned above, we are all a mixed bag. So there will inevitably be some instances of conflict where you had a role to play and in those instances, we need to give ourselves grace and thoughtfully listen to what the other person has to say. But in the instances in which we engage with personalization, not only are circumstances often out of our control, but the people we are fixated on never verbalized that we were the problem. We may think our friends are disinterested with our lives, but they never verbalized that to us. In fact, they’ve been texting us frequently during this past week. We also have to consider that we have little-to-no control over the social dynamics in a group hangout.  And thus, to stop personalizing is to reevaluate our relationship to ourselves. Why do we think it’s always about us? What led us into developing this type of thinking? What is the actual evidence at play that suggests what we are thinking is true? In the end, the famous C.S. Lewis puts it best: “humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.” The world doesn’t revolve around us, but in increasing our sense of self-importance, we also increase our anxieties. We may not think of personalization as a sense of pride, but in essence, it is. Jesus himself issues a stark warning here saying, “...those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

FALLACIES

The final set of cognitive distortions include fallacies that significantly influence the way we see other people, the world and our control over reality. As we unpack these 1-by-1, we discover patterns of pride and entitlement.  Three of the cognitive distortions that influence relationship dynamics are:
  1. “I’m always right”
  2. the other person is always to blame
  3. if they’d only change, things would be different.
 Married couples are familiar with these fallacies, as we develop blinders to our own deficiencies and assume the other person is to blame for all of our problems. Instead of living in reality by taking shared responsibility for your collective struggles, you put it all on them. This becomes complicated when hurt is involved and everything feels heightened, but this is also a reminder of what we discussed when covering emotional reasoning. Just because you feel they are to blame for everything doesn’t mean that’s actually true. We both are mixed bags. We both are in need of grace. And we both contribute to the problem.While marriage is often the most intimate type of relationship that these three cognitive distortions influence, we also find that they come out in more subtle ways with friends, family and co-workers. For example, you never want to listen to other people’s ideas at work because you’re convinced you always have the best ideas and you’re always right. Maybe we don’t outwardly vocalize this, but it still impacts our behavior as these thoughts swirl around in our heads. Or maybe you’re constantly getting in arguments at family outings, yet you come away insisting that they are to blame and if they’d only change, we could co-exist in harmonic fashion. Which goes to say, repentance for pride and asking for forgiveness may be in order here, depending on the situation. At the root of these distortions is an inflated sense of self, which also bleeds over into how we view the world around us.  We adopt what is called the “fallacy of fairness”, that everything in life should be fair and equal. Related to fairness, we are also then coaxed into the “heaven’s reward fallacy” that we are entitled to a reward for all of our hard work and effort. Which goes to say, that in a perfect world both of these things would be great. But quite clearly, we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a broken world that at times can feel cruel. So setting these expectations that everything is always going to be fair and that you will always be rewarded is grounds for massive disappointment. You may start a business and feel you did all the right things, only to have it fail. Meanwhile, your friend’s business succeeds. Some of us grew up in poverty, not having the same advantages and opportunities as those who didn’t. You had a desire to get married a long time ago, only to watch all of your friends walk down the aisle, while you continue to wait.  Of course we wish it wasn’t this way, but when we become intent on not accepting reality, it breeds resentment, bitterness and anger. On an existential level, this speaks into the final set of cognitive distortions which are “control fallacies”.

Many of us go about our daily lives with either an inflated or deflated sense of control. We either wipe our hands and chalk everything up to fate or we think that we can control our entire reality, dismissing the fact that much of life is out of our control.

We can’t control global pandemics. We have limited control over whether we get sick. We don’t get to choose when a loved one dies. Suffering is not a matter of if, but when.  But this doesn’t mean that we are relegated to inaction either. We can take precautions to prevent disease. We can fill our bodies with the proper nutrients it needs. We can prepare for a test or a job interview, but we can’t control the end result. In more ways than one, the way of Jesus provides for us a beautiful pathway for how to deal with these three forms of fallacies. On a relational level, he models for us what it means to be humble in our posture towards others. Instead of blaming and asking the other person to change, we humble ourselves by taking personal responsibility for our own actions and we become a model of the change that we want to see. We are the ones in need of forgiveness. Instead of always thinking we are right, we invite the ideas and opinions of other people, fostering a culture of empowerment with those around us.  In these instances, we actually possess a tremendous amount of control over our own behavior. If we had eyes to see this, then we would discover the instrumental role we play in healing relational wounds and building stronger relationships.  And as it relates to the world around us, instead of seeking “heaven’s reward”, why don’t we follow Jesus in bringing heaven down to Earth? If we were disadvantaged growing up, why don’t we work to create solutions for the underprivileged youth today? Why don’t we use our experience of starting our own business to help others who have similar dreams? This doesn’t have to be complicated, all it requires is looking for little opportunities. Finally, when it comes to control there is freedom in embracing the fact that we are not God. No matter how much brain power we spend trying to work things out in our heads, there are simply aspects of life that we have little control over. Letting go is freeing.  Paul puts it this way in Philippians 4:11-13: “for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

DISCLAIMERS

As we reach the end of this blog, we must acknowledge that this is a broad overview of the 12 cognitive distortions. And from a general sense, while this is how they typically manifest, we need a personalized understanding to adopt this for ourselves. It requires not only self-awareness, but also recognizing your predispositions. For example, all-or-nothing thinking is a huge facet of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It may be harder for the OCD sufferer to overcome this particular thinking pattern due to their predisposition.  Others struggle with major depression disorder and thus, emotional reasoning and catastrophizing might be particularly difficult distortions to overcome. The person who is dealing with PTSD from past experiences might find that when they go beneath the surface of their emotions that their trauma significantly influences their relationship to these cognitive distortions. We are all not the same and thus, we need to account for our individuality. But if there is a common denominator between all of us, it’s that this process of unlearning cognitive distortions and renewing our minds will take work. Many of us wish that weren’t the case, because we don’t want to deal with the discomfort of training our brain to operate a different way. Perhaps this is due in-part to our dopamine-rich culture, which has made it easier than ever to avoid uncomfortable feelings. But in the end, we must realize that our freedom is interwoven with the work we put in.  We’ve been living in a distorted existence that has been impacting our mental health and the way we relate to other people. Yet in the same way these cognitive distortions have so deeply ingrained in us, we can unlearn them and forge a new pathway.

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