You do what’s right. If you don’t do what’s right, you’re wrong. Plain and simple.
It sounds like a noble and upright philosophy, doesn’t it? What could possibly be wrong with that? It’s ethical, it’s truthful, it’s, well, right. Good people do good things, bad people do bad things. It’s neat, it’s tidy, and it makes life so much easier to navigate.
Except it doesn’t. Especially if you apply it to yourself.
I only recently stumbled across the term “cognitive distortion.” In short, a cognitive distortion is the term given to the way our minds can convince us certain things aren’t really true. They’re mostly used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions. We lead ourselves to believe cognitive distortions help us make sense of things, when in reality they usually only serve to make thinking even more difficult for us.
I use the words “us,” “we,” and “our” here to refer to those who have developed cognitive distortions as a result of depression or some other mental illness. Of course, the trick with a cognitive distortion is being able to recognize it, which, ironically, lies at the heart of how such faulty thinking begins in the first place. Whatever distortion is in place just becomes natural over time, so the impetus to correct it starts to disappear. It’s just sort of there.
So I’ve been a guy who believed in justice, in people living out what they say. One of my favorite sayings of all time has been, “If I go out to lunch with you and you’re nice to me but rude to the waiter, you’re a rude person.” The middle ground is where ethics get violated, where virtues get compromised, where hypocrites breed. There can be no gray area; life is black and white.
This particular cognitive distortion, I’ve come to find out, is known as polarized thinking. It’s a tricky one, because it seems so well-meaning on the surface. In reality, though, it’s a sure-fire recipe for perfectionism. If I expect this high of a standard in others, I should expect it in myself as well. If I think John Doe is a bad guy because he says cuss words, I’d better not be saying them either. Doesn’t matter if John Doe does a hundred other good things every day; I’ve honed in on a negative entrenched within the positives. Likewise, my positive traits never outweigh my negatives. One dark blot corrupts the entire picture.
I’ve always believed in absolutes. I believed I could separate the bad bosses from the good ones by whether or not they hosed their employees. Notice I didn’t use the word consistently, though. I could separate the hypocrites from the real Christians by how badly they sinned. Notice I didn’t take repentance into consideration. This was how I was going to live with integrity and virtue.
The only problem was I left myself no room to fail. I either failed or I succeeded; there was no middle ground. I took scriptures from the Bible that talked about how if even a small part of the law was broken the whole thing was, and I magnified them one-hundred-fold. I either did everything right or I failed utterly. I judged my performances so harshly that eventually the negative connotations began to seep into my soul.
I’m not just doing things wrong. I am wrong.
I’ve been challenged lately to break this pattern of thinking, but it’s so ingrained in me. I’m petrified someone is going to see the “real” me, the one who not only isn’t perfect but is actually pretty despicable a lot of the time. I keep hearing that the things I find so unappealing about myself are pretty common in most guys, but I don’t believe it. They couldn’t be as bad as me, could they?
It’s been a long day, and I plan on writing more about this in the future. I’d like to close with a little revelation I had just this week about the level of righteousness God expects of us.
In Matthew 5:20, Jesus says that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This verse has terrified me for years, because I’m not even close to that level. For some reason this week, though, I saw this verse in a different light. Jesus was constantly critical of the scribes and pharisees for attempting to display a level of righteousness they hadn’t truly attained. The only way to achieve true righteousness would be through Christ, and that could only happen by admitting sin and weakness, not by touting strength.
I’m imperfect. I don’t always get it right, but I don’t always get it wrong either. I’m gray, and I have a feeling you probably are, too.