Mental filtering: when we focus on negative details

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Do you tend to focus on negative details? Mental filtering is a cognitive distortion that leads us to magnify the negative details of a situation, while filtering out the positives. Also known as selective abstraction, this bias for dwelling on your shortcomings could lead you to focus on one piece of negative feedback, while disregarding or disbelieving the ten other positive comments received. 

The problem with mental filtering

The psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck frequently referred to mental filtering during his work in cognitive therapy in the 1960s, when he found a link between focusing on negative details and both depression and anxiety, and recent research has backed up Beck’s findings.

Dr Carl Weems and colleagues at the University of New Orleans described mental filtering as “focusing only on the negative aspects of an event, such as I ruined the whole recital because of that one mistake.”

This blinkered thinking was found to be strongly associated with anxiety and depression. Mental filtering also shares a close relationship with self-esteem. The more distorted our reasoning becomes, the less confidence we have in ourselves. 

The following are common examples of negative filtering:

  • Upon submitting a project for approval, the overwhelmingly positive feedback is quickly overshadowed by one piece of constructive criticism. This can lead you to believe that you are doing a poor job, even though this is not what you were told.
  • A colleague fails to greet you when you walk past each other in the street. Rather than consider that they simply may not have seen you, you assume that they dislike you, or that you have done something to offend them.
  • A friend does not wish you a happy birthday. You reason that they no longer value your friendship, rather than considering that their card may be delayed in the post. This can leave you feeling unnecessarily angry or upset.

As you can see, mental filtering can have a detrimental impact on your self-confidence and personal growth. If the one piece of advice your boss gave you after a presentation led you to feel that you were no good at public speaking, then you may internalise that any future attempts will be a disaster. This vicious cycle can lead to intensification of anxiety and worsening of your mood. Furthermore, it will do little to improve how you feel about your next attempt at public speaking.

Aaron T. Beck conducted interviews with patients who were moderately to severely depressed. He found that many of these patients had a distortion of reality and “a bias against themselves.” This led to “negative expectancies as to the probable success of anything they undertake, and a massive amount of self-criticism.”

Some people use this self-criticism and negative self-talk to avoid disappointment when things do not go as well as they might like. However, this negative mindset can further compound low mood, and expecting failure may also stunt your personal growth.

How to manage mental filtering

To manage this cognitive distortion, you must consciously start to manage negative thought patterns so you can begin to see your efforts and achievements in a more positive light.

First, recognise when mental filtering occurs. A key step to managing a cognitive distortion is to acknowledge its presence. Reflect on how you respond to life events, professional feedback, and social situations. If your glass tends to be half-empty, explore your feelings further by journaling, creating a log of voice notes, or using a habit tracker.

Then, conduct a cost-benefit analysis. In psychology, a cost-benefit analysis is a technique used as part of cognitive behavioural therapy. It can be used to support you in challenging the patterns of thinking that have led you to focus on the negative elements of a situation.

On a piece of paper, create two columns for costs and benefits. Think about whether mental filtering benefits you, as well as what it costs you. Write each point down in a column and assign it a value of importance from 1 to 10. It is likely that filtering costs you far more than it benefits you. The next step in the analysis is to think about alternative thought or behaviour patterns you could employ to see situations more positively.

Finally, ask for objective opinions. Asking your friends or colleagues for an objective opinion on your performance or achievements is a good way to gauge your ability or progress. If you have become entrenched in negative self-talk, listen carefully to what others objectively report.

Write down all of the positive opinions your friend or colleague shares, and focus on each one individually. Start forming positive habits and mindsets, and allow yourself to believe in your own ability, rather than focusing on the negatives.

Remember that if you are prone to mental filtering and negative self-talk, you are more likely to focus on the negatives and ignore any positives of a situation. Challenging unhelpful thought patterns and becoming more objective can help to avoid the automatic descent into unwarranted negativity.

Journaling and keeping an open mind when receiving feedback can help you recognise the positives. By avoiding mental filtering, you will be better equipped to mitigate the anxiety and low mood associated with any difficult challenges you may encounter in life.

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