Mental Filtering: Why you may only notice the Negative-Cognitive Distortion #4



Garrisson- That is not how you spell garrison, I’m going to remember this word forever, because it’s the word that I missed on the 7th grade spelling bee. I took second place in that prestigious event, but only because I added an extra “S” to Garrison. Do you do that? Do you hyperfocus on the one thing that went wrong? The one little mistake you made or that one mean comment on social media? Instead of the hundreds of things going right?


This is called mental filtering, and it’s a cognitive distortion that can make you anxious or depressed.


Mental filtering is the cognitive distortion where we only see one aspect of a situation, usually the negative side of it when it comes to depression or anxiety. You focus on the negative and disregard or filter out all the positive. You pick out a single negative detail and hyperfocus on this instead of everything else going on.


Mental Filtering Sounds like:

“No one is going to like me”

“I can never do anything right”

“The world is a terrible place and it’s getting worse every day”

Or if you have a good day at work, but then the restaurant messes up you takeout- your whole day is ruined

You obsess about the one question you got wrong on a test


I can still remember a review at work probably 10 years ago where I got a piece of feedback that I needed to manage my stress levels better. I'm sure my boss had a half dozen nice things to say, but I don’t remember any of them. That’s mental filtering.

The news is a great example of mental filtering, Mostly pays attention to the scary stories (murder hornets).

Mental Filtering can help you fall out of love with your spouse when you only notice the bad that they do.


With mental Filtering we Disregard, Minimize, Brush aside, anything that doesn’t fit our narrative.


But because of the sneaky nature of cognitive distortions, we aren’t going to notice that we are doing it. That’s because our perception creates our reality. On my video about the cognitive distortion “Catastrophizing” I get a lot of comments like - “But catastrophizing is true when life is always terrible” “But everything really is awful. I’m not imagining it” . Excuse me. That is a cognitive distortion. Your thoughts are lying to you. Do you have hot running water? Refrigeration? Electric lights? Are you watching this video on the internet? The ability to read? Then you have more luxury than kings and peasants for the last 99.9% of people in the history of the earth. That’s not to say that life isn’t difficult. I’m sure that for many of you, incredibly painful things have happened and are happening. But “everything isn’t awful”. Acknowledging and being honest with your thoughts and emotions is not the same as only sitting with the crappy ones. Seeing things clearly requires us to see both sides, the painful, crappy, difficult things, and also the positives.

The Global Pandemic and Social distancing are really difficult, and if you’re watching this, you have access to the internet-which is pretty miraculous if you look at the big picture-history of the world.

One of the reasons that I love to read archaeology is because it broadens my perspective.


If you can’t see anything positive, then your thoughts are lying to you.

Mental filtering makes us more anxious, but anxiety makes us mental filter more- because anxiety attunes our brain to threats, making it so that we’re more likely to notice the bad.

Mental filtering makes us more depressed, when we only notice the bad, life is depressing. But when we feel crappy, when we feel depressed, we’re more likely to mental filter.


The Function of Mental filtering

We can take intentional action to change how we think. But first we have to realize why we are hanging on to the lies, what the distorted reality is doing for us. Mental Filtering serves a dysfunctional function.


I personally think that mental filtering serves a short term survival function. It motivates us to take action but it’s not a sustainable source of motivation because fear steals a little each time, leaving us feeling depressed, anxious or worn down.


When something is actually dangerous, like an abusive spouse, it can be helpful to forget any sweet moments with him or her to give you the courage to leave. This is functional anxiety. Anxiety is supposed to help motivate us to leave dangerous situations.


But when we have disordered anxiety, the world feels dangerous when it’s actually safe. Our anxious or depressed view is exaggerated and this makes us sick. So when I only notice the bad things on my performance review, suddenly my boss feels threatening and dangerous, when he’s really just trying to help me improve.


My boss was, actually, trying to help me improve. He was a good hearted man. One of the difficulties of working with thoughts is trying to figure out which ones are helpful, and which ones aren’t. Some bosses actually are quite threatening, and you’re better off changing your employment if you can. Other situations, you’re better off changing how you think, how you see the world. But do this with as clear a head as possible. I mean, notice your thoughts, challenge them, and choose which ones are most helpful for your life purpose. And to do this we have to realize why mental filtering, with all its downsides, actually feels good (in the short term).


Let me give you a couple of examples of when mental filtering feels good (in the short term).

Let’s say you start to notice all the annoying and frustrating things that your boss does. Have you ever just reveled in talking with your coworker about how irritating and stupid your boss is? When we only notice the bad, Mental filtering justifies us in hating our boss, and excusing ourselves for not working hard.


Or mental filtering might only select and highlight our own mistakes and flaws, convincing ourselves that we are bad and incurably broken. Thus justifying ourselves in not trying hard. That can also feel good. To wallow in our own brokenness. “See how terrible of a person I am, well there’s nothing I can do about it”


Most of the time we think of mental filtering as only seeing the bad, but Mental filtering can go both ways. When we tend to only see the bad in the world or ourselves we tend to be anxious, depressed or self-loathing. But mental filtering can go the opposite way too- for example a narcissist may only see the good in herself, putting others down to lift herself up.


Mental filtering makes us depressed or anxious but the big lie is it makes us think that that’s how reality is, instead of it being our perception, and that excuses us in staying there.


Mental filtering creates divides. It makes us see only the best in our political candidate and only the worst in the other candidate. The other side becomes a terrible horrible anti patriotic awful human being. And our own side's flaws are minimized, pushed aside or ignored. This feels good to be on “The right team”, but in the long run makes things worse.

Mental Filtering Feels so good, for a while, but then it can make you depressed and anxious in the long run.


So how can we change?

You can combat mental filtering through conscious practice.

Is the Glass Half Full or Half empty? Well actually it’s neither. It’s half full of water and it’s half full of air. We can choose to combat Mental filtering by slowing down and trying to see both sides of a situation.

This is a skill of attention. Where you put your focus. We counteract mental filtering not by only thinking the positive but by being intentional instead of reactionary or emotional.

  1. So first, notice that you’re doing it. What does it look like when you’re mental filtering?

  2. Try to see what function it serves for you.

  3. Take a deep breath, slow down, try to put yourself in a place that feels safe or calm

  4. Counteract that mental filter by expanding your view. Here’s a few ways you can do that:

  • Bring to mind gratitude daily

  • Let yourself sit with a compliment or a success give yourself credit for the good you do

  • Make a daily habit of seeing the good that you do. Don’t just suppress your wins, many people with depression or anxiety don’t notice the positive things that they do. I use a daily journal template to write down 3 of my wins each day and also write 1-2 things I’d like to improve tomorrow.

  • Look around you and see if you can find someone who seems to see the world clearly. A friend, a therapist, a parent. Consider including their perspective into how you decide to see the world.

  • Choose media sources that don’t use extremes, emotional reasoning, labeling people, or only telling one side of the story.

  • Try countering automatic negative thoughts with positive ones

  • Intentionally look to understand both sides of the story and to see others as multifaceted humans instead of labels and all or nothing. (For example, I recently read book about an affair from perspective of the cheater)

  • Look for ways to take a bigger perspective. Look at how this one thing plays into the big scheme of things. Look at others' lives around the world. When I lived in Russia and Argentina and the West Bank I gained a different perspective on my relative prosperity. Read about history, read about the lives of people with different experiences than yours.

When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. You can change your reality by changing how you see the world. Don’t let mental filtering control you, you can choose which thoughts you’re going to listen to, and which ones you’re going to disregard. I hope you found this video helpful, thanks for watching and take care.



This post is sponsored by BetterHelp, where you can get a professional licensed counselor who can help you learn skills to improve your mental health for around $65 a month. Click here for 10% off your first month.

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