In these articles, I explore the wide realm of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and delve into how our thoughts shape our inner worlds, external behaviors, and moods.

Mental Filtering is a concept in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), one of the most time-tested and researched-based methods of therapy. It is also one of my specialties. Let’s take a quick look at one of these ‘cognitive distortions’, that is, a thinking error that can make us anxious or depresses.

Like the filter on your air conditioning or in your car, filters are built to keep unwanted things out while allowing desirable things in. We want clean air to circulate in our house and get sucked into the engine so it runs, but we don’t want the dirt and dust to foul up the air and get into our lungs or damage the engine. 

Mental filtering works the same way but in reverse. Often, we allow too many negative thoughts in and not enough positive thoughts. It is like filtering OUT the air and filtering IN the dirt! This inversion just fouls up and damages our thinking! Here are some examples.

Over the course of a period of time, I might consider myself helpless and unlovable as negative evidence accumulates. People get a look on their face and not laugh very hard when I make a joke; they look at their watch while we’re talking; I cannot seem to get as many dates as one of my other friends; I notice how much weight I’ve gained in the mirror, and so on. 

Notice there I give myself an interpretation of my experiences. I interpret people’s behavior and choices—their looks, glances, words, and decisions—in a negative way. If I’m using a bad negative filter—filtering in the dirt and filtering out the oxygen—then I set up myself to let in only the looks, glances, words, and decisions that make me feel sad, lonely, depressed, anxious, and so on. 

It is therefore no wonder that I feel sad, lonely, depressed, and anxious! I need to change out my reversed filter! Here’s how.

Let’s say someone looks at their watch while I’m talking to them. In order to check my negative interpretation about what’s going on, I might ask if I’m keeping them from something. Very often, people will own up as to why they glanced at their watch. For example, one time I tried this, and my friend reported he was anxious about a deadline he had later that day and was preoccupied, then apologized for looking at the time. It had nothing to do with me at all.

Of course, if if I’m committed to my negative mental filter, I’ll just interpret his report as a lie so that I wouldn’t feel bad. Our thoughts really can wage war on us!

Another example. If instead of looking in the mirror and noticing how much more weight I have yet to lose, I can instead recognize how much bigger I would be if I had not already taken the steps in life to curb weight gain. This is choosing a different point of comparison, a different interpretation—a positive filter. 

Too often we choose a filter that is impossibly tight so that nothing good gets past it!

Instead of picking some idealized goal in the future, or instead of comparing myself to others, I should clarify my mind by choosing a positive filter. Here are two illustrations of doing this.

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First, I should compare myself only with myself and not any other person. There are just too many complicating variables or factors involved in a person. A person is like a micro-universe—vast, complex, unique, unrepeatable. It is not only a totally unscientific comparison, it is very unwise and only leads to sadness. 

Second, instead of some idealized version of ourselves, some idealized goal, we need to lower our sights and select from among more realistic and down-to-earth options. I’ll never be as fit as Jason Bourne or Batman. Sure, getting super physically fit like them is possible logically in a general sense, but probably not realistic for me in particular.

These are just two ways of challenging the negative thoughts that get in with a poor mental filtering. Upgrade your filter today. Get in touch with me and schedule a session using the tools of cognitive-behavioral to swap out your filters involved in anxiety or depression.