Have you ever had two friends give you completely different versions of the same event? Maybe you missed a party, and when you asked Friend A about it over coffee, they rambled on about la horreur: It was super loud, too crowded to sit anywhere, and took forever to get a drink. But when you meet up with Friend B, they go on about all the interesting people they met, the great music, and an amazing zero-proof cocktail menu.
Were they even at the same party? Is this a game of telephone gone awry? It’s one example of how what we focus on colors our view of the world. Every detail both friends shared could be true, but what stood out to each shaped how they felt about the experience.
Certainly, it would be disingenuous to ignore all of life’s plights and convince yourself everything is sunshine and unicorns all the time. (Not healthy.) But if you find yourself having a constant glass-totally-empty POV, it could be due to mental filtering.
Also called negative filtering, mental filtering is a tendency to focus only on the negative, neglecting to see any good. And if it’s your default way of thinking, it can be, as one scientific study put it, a “hallmark feature” of depression.
But with some therapist-guided tips, you can change the way you think—without distorting reality and becoming a delulu Pollyanna in the process. Come on, give it a chance—don’t mental-filter us now!
Negative Energy, Explained
Mental filtering is a type of cognitive distortion—in other words, an inaccurate way of thinking—explains Stephanie Wray, LMCH, ATR-BC, a trauma-informed expressive arts therapist. “There are all kinds of cognitive distortions, and they’re not necessarily considered a mental illness in terms of something you can be diagnosed with.”
Ok, but what if things really weren’t good? Why is that inaccurate thinking? Because mental filtering is an incomplete picture of what really exists, says Wray: The positive aspects of a situation go unnoticed, and a big ‘ol spotlight shines down on the negative.
If you’re wondering whether it’s you, hi, you’re the problem it’s you, consider this: Do you often use words like “always, “never,” or “every time”? “This is a sign of focusing only on the extreme aspects and filtering out nuance and exceptions,” says therapist Mary Beth Somich, LCMHC.
Mental filtering can apply not only to how we see the world, but also how we see ourselves, Somich adds. Exhibit A: thinking thoughts like, “I can never do anything right.”
We can mentally filter the way we see other people, too. “I have clients who will pick out all the things that are wrong with their partner, and it’s sometimes because they want to end the relationship but don’t know how to do it,” says Sara Kuburic, Dr. scient. pth. (doctor of psychotherapy), a psychotherapist and the author of It’s On Me (the book has a chapter related to this topic). “Most people are not all bad. When I see this happening, I ask them, ‘Why do you want to see the worst in this person?’ and it helps get to the root issue.”
School of Thought
For the record, mental filtering isn’t always bad. “Sometimes, it feels good to have a little pity party,” says Dr. Kuburic, the pro behind Instagram’s popular @millennial.therapist feed. “[Mental filtering] can be an excuse to be grumpy, and it’s okay to feel grumpy sometimes. You have a right to your feelings.”
Often, she explains, there can be societal pressure to put on a happy face even when you feel more like frowning—or ugly-crying. Sometimes, life really does suck, and it’s okay to sit in those feelings.
In fact, going too far in the other direction—filtering out the negative and only seeing the positive—is a form of inaccurate thinking as well. (Visual representation? TikTok’s Bold Glamour filter, we say.) Called positive illusion, it’s when you have unrealistic optimism about the future or an inflated view of your abilities. This can have detrimental consequences, such as improbable goal setting or poor future planning, which you might do when you aren’t expecting anything bad to happen.
Still, all our therapists say that filtering out the good is way more common than vice versa. And while it’s okay once in a while, a perpetual state of mental filtering can be pretty destructive. “Mental filtering has the potential to increase feelings of anxiety or depression because it perpetuates a sense of hopelessness,” Somich says.
Why do some of us have negatively saturated internal filters? For one, people who are experiencing depression or anxiety are more likely prone to negative filtering. When the nervous system is dysregulated and already in fight, flight, or freeze mode, we resort to the simplest form of thought, absent of nuance, explains Somich. “Therefore, it is common for those who are anxious or depressed to fall victim to cognitive distortions like mental filtering,” she says.
Though, there’s often the question of which came first. “It’s a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg situation,” Dr. Kuburic says. “Is mental filtering triggering feelings of anxiety or depression, or are you seeing only the negative because you’re already feeling this way?”
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How you grow up also plays a role in whether you feel like you’re always sifting for gold or rocks. What is modeled to kids can shape how they see the world, says Wray. If a parent was quick to filter out all the positives, a child may be more likely to grow up and do the same.
There’s one more group who are more likely to—let’s make it a verb!—mental-filter. “Perfectionists need everything to be perfect, so they are always on the lookout for anything that isn’t,” Dr. Kuburic says. But, she emphasizes, everyone can engage in mental filtering from time to time.
Got Another Think Coming
If everything is always black scribbles and storm clouds, you might be putting yourself in a negative headspace around situations that are more nuanced. But you don’t have to feel so crappy on the reg. The good news is that you can actually transform the way you think.
Of course, it takes time and effort to do this. Up for it? First, you’ve got to notice when you’re doing it. Many people mentally filter subconsciously, so being aware is the step one in retraining your brain, says Wray.
This does not mean not acknowledging hard or unpleasant things happening in your life. We are the last ones to preach toxic positivity. But it is important to recognize that your mind might actually be interpreting certain situations in a more ominous light because that’s your default mode.
Say you’ve started a business and it’s not growing as fast as you want—so you start to spiral, thinking things like “I’m doomed” or “nobody cares.” Meanwhile, you’ve ignored the upward trajectory of sales and mentions in the press. There are often positives worthy of appreciation—even if they are small.
Another mental muscle to build: Resist giving more power to negative experiences than they deserve, says Dr. Kuburic. For example, if you wake up to discover you’re out of coffee, that is, indeed, an inconvenience—but the whole day doesn’t have to go to hell because of it. “Slow down, challenge your thoughts, and choose how to respond,” Dr. Kuburic says. “You have that power.”
Somich’s favorite tool for challenging mental filtering is going through an exercise called ABCDE. Let’s learn this alphabet:
- A: Activating Event. What is the event you are focusing on? (Example: A work presentation that didn’t go as well as you wanted.)
- B: Belief. What is your belief about the event? “Typically the belief is where we can target that negative mental filter,” Somich says. (Example: “I can never do anything right.”)
- C: Emotional Consequence. How did the event, and the belief about that event, make you feel? “This helps with recognizing the direct link between the beliefs and behaviors,” Somich says. (Example: Recognizing that not doing as well as you wanted on the presentation is causing you to doubt your overall abilities.)
- D: Disputing the Belief. Is there evidence that contradicts your belief? If so, list it out. (Example: Noting parts of the presentation that actually went well or thinking back to past presentations or work projects you’re proud of.)
- E: Effective New Belief. “This is typically a positive reframe of the original belief, taking the evidence into account,” Somich says. (Example: “I could have done better on that presentation, but I know it doesn’t define how good I am at my job.”)
Over time, working through this exercise becomes easier and quicker, says Somich.
Last, and it may sound hokey, but our therapists say that having a gratitude practice can help change your mindset so you don’t default to seeing only the negative. One study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that writing a gratitude list every day for two weeks was linked to decreased feelings of depression. At the very least, it’s an excuse to buy yourself a pretty new journal.
This doesn’t mean you have to find gratitude in the ick. Rather, just to not ignore the satisfying stuff. We repeat: The end game is not to become toxically happy or completely ignore life’s not-so-lovely parts. “There is always a healthy and reasonable middle ground,” Somich says. “The goal is to experience and accept a full range of the human experience, with focus on the good and acceptance of the undesirable.”
Challenging mental filtering is a way to get rid of your mind’s perpetual grayscale and let in some lighter hues, ya know? Over time and with effort, you will start seeing more of life’s positives. Now go get more coffee—and don’t forget to pick up some good filters.