cup of coffee (mental filtering the cup half full)

Overcoming the Mental Filter (A Cognitive Distortion)

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Thank you for stopping by for my ongoing positive self-talk seriesSelf-love starts with positive self-talk, and all of that starts with you.  Shifting the way you think requires recognizing the power of your thoughts and challenging cognitive distortions.  You can learn to love yourself by changing what you think about yourself and how you talk with yourself.   

We all struggle from time to time with cognitive distortions.  You know the healthiest person will struggle with a little cognitive distortion here and a little exaggeration there.  Doing this here and there won’t impact your mental state in the short term.  However, when you start to do it constantly, and it becomes your everyday thinking style, your mental health will suffer. 

What does a mental filter look like?

This looks like the cup-half-full scenarios that we so often face.  You only see the negatives in a person or situation.  Mental filtering fixates on these particulars while denying or unable to acknowledge contradictory evidence.       

This type of thinking is common in people that struggle with anxiety, panic disorders and depression. 

Here are some examples of what mental filtering looks like.   

Fixating on one negative piece of feedback when the majority of feedback is positive.

A friend or family member who normally responds to you does not respond in the way you expect, and you decide that the relationship has been a waste of time.   

Fixating on the next day being Monday and this ruins your Sunday. 

How the mental filter can be harmful. 

This form of filtering brings more attention to your dissatisfaction and can intensify the situation. In addition, it can distort the situation leading to higher levels of anxiety, panic, and depression by sifting out the positives that can help combat these.  As anxiety, panic and depression are increased, so do self-defeating thoughts that perpetuate this vicious cycle. 

How to know if you are using mental filtering in your life. 

You might be if…

You use absolutes in your life.  A common absolute that is used on mental filtering is “everything.”   

“Everything that could go wrong did.”

There are a lot more absolutes out there.  Take a moment and think about some of the words that use.  Are any of them absolutes? 

How to get out and overcome mental filtering. 

  • I.C.E. – and I’m not talking about “in case of emergency.” 

I’m talking about…

Identify the thought. 

Call it what it is – a cognitive distortion or mental filtering. 

Explore a new thought to replace it with. 

  • Separate the good from the bad – Strive to find what went well that you have filtered out and focus on that with as much energy as you do the bad. Focusing exclusively on just the bad is classic mental filtering. Dr. David D. Burns in Feeling Great [affiliate] talks about this and ways to combat this cognitive distortion.  

  • Challenge yourself – was everything bad or were there some good things?    

Let me know your thoughts and what strategies have worked for you for overcoming mental filtering. 

If you are interested in a more comprehensive view of mental filtering, check out my much longer article below.    

A more comprehensive view of Mental Filtering

Shifting the way that you think requires the ability to recognize the power of your thoughts.  Recognizing how they can guide our actions and interactions with the world around us.  To better understand how thoughts may influence you, it also helps to recognize how thoughts influence emotions.  And how emotions can influence how you feel about yourself in your world. 

In a lot of ways, this is about undoing a lot of negative behaviors and programming that you have learned. 

Below you will find common ways in which people will engage in using a mental filter.  While this is not an exhaustive example of how this cognitive distortion can be seen, it can help people identify and make sense of how they think. In addition, making a mental shift offers you the opportunity to choose to do something about it.   

Mental Filter

Fixating on a single event and dwelling on it exclusively while denying or unable to acknowledge contradictory evidence.  For instance, a person may pick out a single unpleasant detail and dwell on it exclusively until their view of the situation becomes darkened and distorted.  Such as one low grade on a paper in a class where the individual is passing with a high A and believing “I am a lousy student.”  Or someone walking out and not returning during a presentation that you are giving.  A person using a mental filter might conclude that it must have been a boring presentation even though others gave positive feedback.           

Cognitive – the way in which you think or perceive.

Distortion – inaccurate, misleading or irrational. 

Examples of this type of a cognitive distortion may look like:

  • Fixating on one negative piece of feedback when the majority of feedback is positive.
  • A friend or family member who normally responds to you does not respond in the way you expect, and you decide that the relationship has been a waste of time.    
  • Fixating on the next day being Monday and this ruins your Sunday. 

The dangers of seeing through a mental filter

Do you find yourself fixating on thoughts or things that have happened or will be happening?  Do you find yourself feeling more anxious or depressed when you do this?  That is one thing about mental filtering; it can lead to higher levels of anxiety or depression.  This is because you are so focused on only the negative aspects of a situation that you cannot acknowledge the positive aspects.  This form of filtering brings more attention to your dissatisfaction and can intensify the situation.  

  • You are setting yourself up for more anxiety or depression.

Meaning that if you are fixating on the negatives, you will only see the negatives.  That’s anxiety-provoking and depressing to view yourself and the world through this type of lens. 

  • You are focused on self-defeating thoughts.

You cannot see things in a more balanced way and may find yourself thinking in ways that encourage negative thoughts. 

  • A vicious cycle of anxiety/depression, self-defeating thoughts and uncomfortable emotions. 

At its core it is self-sabotage.  It keeps you stuck and in a cycle of discomfort but for what reason? 

Where can this lead you?

  1. Anxiety
  2. Panic Disorders
  3. Depression

Just to name a few.

Steps to get you out of the discomfort of mental filtering.

First, it is understanding what the mental filter is providing for you.  Does your mental filter help you to feel justified in your emotions?  Does your mental filter reaffirm your self-defeating thoughts because perhaps you feel deep down that they are or may be true?  Are you struggling with depression/anxiety, and the use of mental filtering feels familiar?

Emotions are powerful.  If you are working a job that makes you unhappy, it makes sense that you would fixate on Monday. Likewise, if you are struggling with anxiety/depression, it makes sense to fixate on whatever triggers the emotions that you associate with your anxiety/depression.

Thoughts have a powerful impact on how we think about ourselves and our place in our world.  If you are struggling with a negative internal dialogue or self-defeating thoughts, it makes sense that you would fixate on the negatives that ‘support’ this.  It would also make sense to fixate on the events that reaffirm these thoughts and, as a result, reaffirm the emotion(s) you are feeling.    

Thoughts and feelings inform actions.  If you are engaging in mental filtering and fixating on the next day, being Monday, what actions are you likely engaging in?  Are you spending your last day off moping around and not wanting to do fun things because you are fixated on the negatives? 

Steps to get you out of the trap of mental filtering.

It can be difficult to stop using mental filters until you understand how you engage in this cognitive distortion. 

Learn how to identify your thought patterns.

To learn how to recognize a mental filter, it is helpful to check in with yourself. For example, if you find yourself moping around, ask yourself why.  Or, if you find yourself feeling anxious or depressed, ask yourself what is going on and what you are thinking about.  Take notice if you are fixating on something that has happened or is reasonable to assume will happen.

Identify what emotion(s) are coming up for you. 

Are you noticing an increase in anxiety or depression when you fixate on a negative event?  By fixating on this event, is this giving you ‘permission’ to be whatever emotion you feel? 

Explore how you use mental filtering.

Do you use mental filtering in some situations but not others?  If you notice yourself doing this – get curious and explore why you might do this. For example, do you only do this on Sundays?  Do you only do this when you are interacting with certain people?  Do you only do this when you are only doing certain things? Again, it may be interesting to discover why you selectively use mental filtering. 

What is a more accurate interpretation? 

If you were to present this filter to others, would they formulate a similar conclusion?  Or would they raise an eyebrow and give you that look of “do you seriously believe this?” Thus, you may find it helpful, especially in the beginning, to write down your filtered thought and the other interpretations that you come up with.  This can be really helpful as you learn how to challenge your mental filter.     

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