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Mental Filtering: What It Is, Why It Happens, and How to Stop

Imagine you’re trying to lose some weight, and despite having shaken off an impressive number of pounds, you’ve had a cheat day that left you feeling bloated. For the next few days, you are spiraling, berating, and beating yourself up for failing. 

If this sounds familiar, you might have a tendency towards mental filtering. We’ll dive into what that is, how to recognize when you’re doing it, and (most importantly), how to stop. 

What Is Mental Filtering?

Mental filtering is a cognitive distortion that sees you view things through a negative lens because of something negative that you’re fixated on. Even if numerous positive things happen to you, you’re overwhelmed and focused only on the negatives, affecting every aspect of your life. 

To understand what mental filtering is, it’s helpful to know what the term ‘cognitive distortion’ means. Experts define this term as a faulty or inaccurate way of thinking or believing, which implies that your default thought pattern isn’t an accurate reflection of reality. 

Mental filtering is a type of cognitive distortion.

While most of us are guilty of indulging inaccurate thoughts, mental filtering can be more serious if not attended to because it affects your entire outlook on life, mindset, and relationships. 

So what is it, exactly?

Two human profiles face each other. One has colorful wads of paper in the brain, the other only black - representing the cognitive distortion mental filtering
What is mental filtering?

Like a filter lets only some things pass through while retaining others, mental filtering tends to latch on to negative things while letting positive aspects go unnoticed. Simply put, it’s when one or two bad things take up all your thoughts, overshadowing the positive things and making you upset. 

The slight negative becomes the lens through which you see the world, and since it’s a bad thing that you’ve focused on, everything becomes tainted and negative, too. 

It’s easy to fall into negative or biased thought patterns where everything is negative, despite your reality being quite different.

I used to do it all the time. There was a time you could tell me four glowing, positive things about something I’d done, but at the slightest whiff of feedback, I became hyper focused on what wasn’t perfect. 

It was very black-and-white for me. Either I’d done everything right, or it was an abject failure. 

Why Do People Do It?

Experts suggest that mental filtering arises when we hold negative expectations about the future. 

People who are pessimistic, for example, will not easily find positive things in the landscape of their lives and will naturally gravitate to seeing everything through the negative lens.

But mental filtering is also part of many mental health conditions, with anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder, eating disorders, and various panic disorders. People who struggle with these issues are more likely to filter their thoughts this way.

In many ways, mental filtering also becomes a default that people slip into when they’re under stress or feeling particularly insecure. 

For many, it’s easier to believe the bad things than the good. 

Sadly, mental filtering can become habitual, and your general outlook on life can become stained by the bad stuff you deal with, even if they are in the minority.

What Causes Mental Filtering?

The causes of mental filtering, like so many other things, are not easy to pin down, but many experts feel that how we are raised has a lot to do with our ability to see the bigger picture. 

Children exposed to parents who only nitpick on the problem areas or point out mistakes are much more likely to view life through a negatively biased lens. This was my particular route. 

Growing up, I constantly wrestled with feelings of “not good enough.” If I got a B+ in a subject that was challenging for me, it was a failure because it should’ve been an A. Placing third in a track meet was just okay. I ran faster in previous races, so why didn’t I do better?

If you constantly felt picked apart during your developmental years, it’s likely you’ll internalize that level of scrutiny and reflect it back onto yourself as an adult. 

A woman struggling with mental filtering lies back on her bed with hands over her mouth in stress
mental filtering examples and causes

Mental Filtering Examples

If you’re still unsure what precisely mental filtering looks like in real life, here are some examples that may make it easier to understand:

Mental Filtering Example 1:

You’re accustomed to receiving top grades in school, but despite being a straight-A student, you’ve received one C or B- on your report. Instead of focusing on your good marks, you are consumed by the thought that you’ve failed, you’re not as bright as you thought you were, and you will never make anything of yourself.

Mental Filtering Example 2:

You come home after work to find your partner has made dinner and put the kids to bed, but there’s an unwashed pot in the kitchen sink. Instead of being able to enjoy the dinner and time with your spouse, you’re upset that they’ve left you dishes to wash.

Mental Filtering Example 3:

You’re having a wonderful time on a first date with someone you’re interested in, and they seem to be enjoying it too. They compliment you, enjoy your company and ask if you can meet again. 

But when you get home, you realize there is a pimple on your chin or a weird stain on your shirt. 

Normal human stuff, right? 

But instead of feeling happy about how positive the date was, you’re mortified about your blemish and feel like they won’t be interested any longer.

It’s worth noting that mental filtering applies to how you feel about yourself and how you act toward others. 

Mental Filtering Example 4:

Your employee is generally excellent, ahead of schedule, turning in high-quality work that you rarely have to second guess. They’ve made a mistake recently, apologized and fixed it. But you can’t turn your mind away from their error.

That’s the insidious part about mental filtering. You grow up thinking that nothing is good enough and end up treating other people with the same impossible standards. This is how the cycle continues. 

For more on mental filtering, check out this video:

Signs You’re Using Mental Filtering In Your Life

If you’re reading this and murmuring ‘That’s so me’ under your breath, you may find the following signs helpful to decide if you’re using mental filtering in your life:

  • You tend to notice, focus, and nit-pick on the things that are ‘wrong’ in every situation
  • You feel continually stressed and anxious, waiting for something to go wrong
  • You believe you aren’t good enough and can’t do things right
  • You tend to downplay all your accomplishments and good traits
  • You tend to think in absolutes: if one thing is wrong, everything else is also bad
  • You tend to weigh the negatives out of balance with the positives – even if there are more positives, one bad thing trumps them all.

What’s Wrong With Mental Filtering?

I mean, after all, it’s good to have high standards, right? Builds character? Pushes you to be your best?

Not when taken to the extreme. 

Having a consistent negative thought pattern means you struggle to see your worth. It can lead to depression and low self-esteem, which are both dangerous mental health conditions. If you focus on the bad things, you won’t believe in your inherent value. Self-destructive behavior is a common consequence of having no regard for yourself.

Those who struggle to see the positives in daily life also struggle to maintain healthy relationships. It’s very difficult to be in relationships with people who are always negative and don’t see the bigger picture. 

Consider the effect of thinking like that on friendships, familial relationships, work relationships, and romantic partnerships. It harms so many aspects of your life.

How Do You Overcome Mental Filtering?

This may sound like a simple ‘snap out of it’ thing, but part of dealing with mental filtering involves proactively catching yourself doing it, and then reacting accordingly.

An excellent first step is to journal and get to know your thought patterns, what triggers them, and what you’re missing in the moment.

Recognizing negative thought patterns is honestly one of the most powerful and effective things you can do. Once you can see in black and white that you’re not attending to any of the positives, you can challenge your thinking. 

For example, maybe you catch yourself thinking, “Nothing I do is good enough for my boss. I worked my ass off on that project and all he had to comment on was whether the formatting seemed ‘on brand’.”

Is that true?

Replay the conversation honestly.

Actually, your boss started the conversation with how much he liked your insights. He told you that he thinks the client will be really happy with it. Then, he asked if you could adjust some of the formatting to fit the brand style better. 

That’s not a terrible outcome. It’s just a small piece of feedback and it isn’t even personal. 

This is called refuting the negative thought. 

Another excellent self-help tip in this regard is to label your thinking as either a “feeling” or a “fact” and then to remind yourself that feelings aren’t facts and thus can’t be trusted to give you an accurate representation of your situation. 

Getting an external opinion can also be helpful in this regard.

Of course, therapy and support groups are the best way to address cognitive distortion, and professional input into rewiring your brain can be the quickest way to break the cycle.

Mental Filtering And Alcohol Abuse

Because mental filtering labels you as sub-par or worthless by your own (incorrect) reckoning, it often leads to self-destructive behavior or attempts at dealing with the inadequacies you perceive.

For many people, alcohol and substance abuse can become an escape – a means of dealing with the crushing weight of your self-judgment.

When you can’t think straight or focus mentally, drinking is a welcome reprieve from all the noise. This can lead to a dangerous habit of drinking to handle emotional stress which can lead to dependency and worse problems. 

This is where I ended up finding myself – running to happy hour almost daily just to get out of the mental headspace I’d put myself in throughout the day. And the more I drank, the worse those negative thought patterns became. 

I became emotionally volatile, moody, and unable to react to everyday life in a healthy way. It’s yet another way that unchecked thought patterns like mental filtering can become a self-reinforcing problem. 

FAQs On Mental Filtering

What Is The Opposite of Mental Filtering?

Overgeneralization is the opposite of mental filtering. Where mental filtering focuses exclusively on a tiny event, overgeneralization takes the one small event and applies it to everything about their life. 

What Is The Difference Between a Mental Filter and Disqualifying the Positive?

Although closely related, disqualifying the positive seeks reasons why positive things don’t count or tries to discount them. In mental filtering, the positives are rarely acknowledged because the negative event far outweighs it in importance.

What Are The Effects of Mental Filtering?

The effects of mental filtering are far-reaching, starting with low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety and leading to self-harm and feeling hopeless. It puts incredible strain on relationships and can affect your job negatively if you’re unable to see the bigger picture. It can also lead to various mental health disorders if not treated.

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