Tag Archives: Reality Therapy

What? That’s Not What Happened!

Improving Our Perceptions

Perception is reality, or so it seems. I’ve served as a pastor for thousands of people over the past 40 years, yet I continue to be amazed when I hear people recount an experience or recite something they heard someone else say with a slant that reveals more about them than the actual story. Why do we do this? Because all of us see through the filters of our own knowledge and values, and we judge based on our perceptions.

And since our perceptions are distorted to some degree, we all need good churches and friends who can speak deeply, and sometimes confrontationally, into our lives.

I once spoke with a woman who was making damaging decisions for her family. She reminded me of the second half of the Bible verse, “A wise woman builds her home, but a foolish women tears it down with her own hands” (Proverbs 14:1). I gently tried to point out to her the direction her decisions were taking her and the outcome they could produce in her family, but she rejected my comments and refused to see her situation apart from her own perception. She’s now alone, divorced, and estranged from her children.

Through the years, I’ve observed many wise women who’ve learned the skills necessary for building a stable and strong home and family. And through the years, I’ve also observed many women who have unwittingly torn down their own homes and families. In most cases, the foolish ones never know what they did and typically they blame others for their family’s demise. (Others, no doubt, share the blame, but we all must ask what our part is—how do we help to build or heal rather than contribute to the destruction.)

This idea applies to men as well. It applies to all of our lives, families, and relationships.

In the class I am teaching on “Renewing Our Minds, How To Change Our Brains,” we are learning about Paul’s exhortations to think certain ways and how this actually changes our physical brains and, as a result, our behaviors. Along with biblical insight, we are discussing materials from reality and cognitive therapists who emphasize how our behavioral responses reflect our thinking.

Below are a few of the cognitive distortions we’ve discussed in class that impact how we see ourselves, our circumstances, and others that may cause us inadvertently to harm those we care about.

  • Maximize/Minimize: In Matthew 23:24 Jesus warns against “straining at gnats, but swallowing camels.” He is referring to us filtering events. For example, we take the negative details and magnify them while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation; or we maximize what is insignificant while minimizing what is truly significant.
  • Polarized Thinking: In polarized thinking, we see things simplistically. Things are black or white, right or wrong, good or bad. Polarized thinking avoids gray areas and nuances. It’s easier to have this kind of certainty, but it’s seldom accurate.
  • Overgeneralization. All generalizations are false. When we overgeneralize, we often come to a conclusion based on a single incident or a single piece of evidence rather than accepting that everyone and every situation is in a continuum of change. When we overgeneralize, we overuse words like “always” and “never.”
  • Jumping to Conclusions. This cognitive distortion causes us to think we know what others are feeling or their motivations. We think we know, but in fact, we are simply presuming to know.
  • Personalization is a distortion where we believe that everything others do or say directly relates to us.
  • Blaming. We hold other people responsible for our decisions or our happiness. For example, “Stop making me feel bad about myself!” Nobody can “make” us feel any particular way — only we have control over our emotions and responses.
  • Fallacy of Change. We expect that other people will change to suit us if we just pressure or cajole them enough. We need to change people because our hopes for happiness seem to depend entirely on them.

So how do we change our perceptions to make them closer to reality? How do we change them so we can respond to others in a more Christ-like way?

We intentionally grow in Christ, renew our minds, and develop quality friendships.

If we think about it, we can identify our distortions. Others have been pointing them out to us for a long time—either verbally or through their actions. But if we don’t know, we should ask someone we trust.

I have often said that if our enemies are the first ones to tell us the truth, then we don’t have any authentic friends. If we have friends, they can help us see more clearly what our distortions are so we can make changes to improve our lives and relationships. If we don’t have friends, we can start taking steps in our local church and community to make friends that will help us build healthy, stable lives and relationships.

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The Four Questions

I discovered four questions in William Glasser’s Choice Theory several years ago that have helped me identify solutions in my life, and I’ve used them to help others do the same. In public meetings and private counseling sessions, I’ve found these four questions initially get some laughs, but then they challenge all of us to think intentionally about creating more satisfying and productive lives for ourselves. As we grow in Christ and in wisdom, our answers to these four questions can help us develop the lives we want.

1. What do you want? For most Christians, their answers are connected to their faith and calling. But I encourage them to think beyond that, about their desires to be physically safe, secure in their relationships, and accepted and respected by others. It always makes Christians smile when I ask them about the amount of money they want (because, of course, everything is more convenient when they have more money), and how much influence they think they need to be happy. I also ask them whether they have enough control over their lives at home or at work (or maybe on Facebook) to experience the significance they desire. I ask them how much freedom they want in contrast to the amount they have and if their desires for adventure and fun are being met.

Asking people what they want always leads to engaging conversations. People come for counseling because they are unhappy with something in their lives. Giving them permission to identify what they want often causes them to contemplate their answers seriously.

Because we Christians are trained to serve Christ first, others second, and ourselves third, we are sometimes deeply dissatisfied but don’t understand why; after all, we are faithful Christians and that, we believe, should suffice. But if we are unhappy, dissatisfied, or empty inside, we need to talk that through in a non-judgmental setting or we might make some horrible mistakes. This leads to the second question.

2. What are you currently doing to get what you want? Sadly, most of us do things that do not lead us to the life we really want. If we live according to instinct or as a reaction to others, our lives often become the opposite of what we intended. So I ask people to realistically assess their behaviors. And that leads to the third question.

3. So, how’s that working out for you? This question always makes people laugh (or cry) because they did not come for counseling because everything is ok. They came because something is not lining up with the life they envision for themselves.

For most of us, some of our behaviors are helping, and some are not. I tell people that negative things happen naturally, but good things require intentionality. If we need to make changes, it actually does not matter where we are in life currently, what matters is the trajectory we establish to go forward toward what we want.

At this point we discuss how everything in their lives affects everything else in their lives — that their spiritual life will give them ideals, motivations, and power, but then they have to make choices that will impact their thoughts, their emotions, and their behaviors. And these four elements (spirituality, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors) can work together to get them where they want to go if they are intentional.

This concept is always a relief because it communicates that no one is trapped, victimized, or without power over their future. We have God-given abilities to move our lives in the direction we want to go, but we must be intentional. If we are random, we might be the ones creating misery in our own lives. This idea leads to the fourth, very helpful question:

4. What can you do, that you are not currently doing, to get you what you want? At this point, biblical principles come to life in a powerful and meaningful way. We always have choices to make that can move us forward and help us achieve what we truly want. None of us are ever trapped. Regardless of our current situations, we can make choices that will move us in a positive direction.

The inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the directives of Scripture help us set priorities and motivate us to improve our lives. But very often we have difficulty identifying the practical steps necessary to achieve our goals. These four questions can help us create a path that leads to the deep satisfaction and happiness we’re seeking.

These questions give us direction about who and what we should love, and where we need to place boundaries. The answers to these questions establish how we should spend our time, our money, and our energy. The answers to these questions tell us whether we need to receive an additional degree or certification, lose weight, exercise, or memorize the Scripture.

The point is these four questions give us a framework for intentionally achieving what we truly want in our lives. Our spiritual lives give us power and motivation; these four questions help us discover a methodology for getting there.

More next week.

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