Mental Filtering

by Monica Ross

I guess this will be part one officially in the coverage of CBT concepts. There are ten unhelpful thinking styles in total. With this post I’ll hit just one of them. The first unhelpful thinking style that I often cover with clients is called mental filtering. This one comes up in so many different ways in life and what I find when I cover it is that sometimes the message comes across as a simplistic one—think positive. But oh is it so much more than that.

This first unhelpful thinking style is called mental filtering because our thoughts sometimes work like a mental filter. In this case, we filter out the negative and tend to focus on it. For example let’s say that you go out to dinner with a spouse and the conversation all the way there is great.

The restaurant is one of your favorites. The ambiance that evening is fantastic. As a matter of fact you two have had a chance to spend the whole day together and it just overall has been such a great day. But then something happens to cause the both of you frustration.

Let’s say the waiter is rude. Maybe they don’t take the time and care in serving you. Maybe they go so far as to drop a comment that hits both of you the wrong way. All of a sudden the day is taking a different turn. When it comes time to leave the tip let’s say one partner decides no way, not for this waiter.

The other partner says, well this waiter is young, this place is crowded, they were overwhelmed, the night is busy, maybe they were on edge, etc.  True the service was bad, but let’s cut them some slack. Then the arguing starts. As a matter of fact the couple argues over just this one issue all the way home.  This tip example is given in one of the handouts I use.

The argument becomes very heated and starts with the tip leaving and somehow ends up being about how the partner who refused to leave the tip is too hard on the couple’s son who doesn’t want to go to college. Can you see where I’m going with this or have you experienced it? It starts with one specific thing and then seemingly balloons into something else.

What this first module teaches us is that often in life and certainly when we look at the course of a day, much more good than bad happens. I laid out all of the positive things that happened to the couple that day, but when the irritation arises and for some reason, the focus of the day gravitates towards the blow out argument in the car.

If in the moment, the couple could zoom back and work on letting the argument go. If the couple could literally stop and say, “Hey, you know what? You wanted to leave a tip and I didn’t, no big deal. It’s over. Let’s move on. Overall we had such a good day today together.” Then something shifts.

We have the power to make the decision about what we focus on in every moment of every day. Do we filter out and focus on the negative or do we filter out and focus on the positive? It’s a choice in life.

This happens too when we reflect on our history, on our past. If I looked at my past and thought about the time that I failed that course, or the time that my parents used inappropriate punishment on me, or the time I got into that car wreck, or whatever the thing is. If I put my focus there, carry it with me as it were and made it readily accessible to tap into at any time, then it could cause me to feel very depressed.

If I instead reflect on my past and think, while there was the car wreck there was also the time my family went on a camping trip, or the time that my teacher or boss pulled me aside and told me I did an amazing job, the time that I fell in love, the time that I had my first child, whatever that positive thing may be. Notice the shift in thinking that happens.

This taps into what I said in a previous post. It’s the crux of CBT—that our thoughts influence our feelings, which in turn influence our actions. This first module tells us that if we put our thoughts on positive things we will experience the benefits of that shift in thinking.

But as I said, the message is more than “think positive.” To me telling a depressed person to simply think positive is like telling someone in the heights of anxiety to just “calm down.” It tends not to work.

There is a reason why we go to these dark places in our thinking and a command to think differently isn’t going to change that. It takes practice. It takes implementing strategies like pausing in the heat of an argument and walking away if possible to reflect on what just took place. It takes talking to oneself in a different way.

We all have an internal dialogue with ourselves that takes place on a daily basis and in a variety of situations. What is that dialogue about? What do we sound like in our heads as we make sense of life and talk ourselves through events? CBT calls these thoughts automatic thoughts. They are the ones that time and again are easily accessible and most readily available to us.

To borrow from corporate speak they are our “lowest hanging fruit” thoughts. These thoughts may venture into the territory of actual beliefs we have about ourselves, about others, and about our world. If they are core and central to our being beliefs and if they have a negative bent, they often are the beliefs we want to tackle in therapy. Because often these are the thoughts that are causing us the most distress.

There are a lot of different strategies we can use to prevent the mental filter from happening in the first place. But what I’ll emphasize here like I emphasize over and over again is that we are not powerless to our thoughts. We choose what to believe. We choose what to think.

The goal of therapy often is simply to develop awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Once we are aware of how it all comes together, the topic becomes now what do we do about them? Every person, every situation, every story of every client that may walk in is different.

Some of these negative core beliefs are common ones in that there are a whole host of people that tend to have the same issue of thinking the same way. The beauty in that as a clinician is that these strategies and techniques for tackling common core negative beliefs can be used across specific people and specific situations. Some of us have shared thoughts causing distress, shared feelings, shared behaviors, maybe even based on shared experiences---so too, there are shared strategies and shared ways out of all the discomfort.