Common Cognitive Distortions: Negative Filtering

Negative Filtering is a common cognitive distortion, and most of us do it from time to time. Simply, it is filtering out all of the positive information about a specific situation, and only allowing in the negative information. In other words, negative filtering is focusing on negative things and discounting positive things. For instance, negative filtering is occurring if you’re usually on-time with deadlines, but are late once, and have thoughts about being incompetent. Or, if you generally make A’s and B’s in a class, but make a lower grade on one assignment, having thoughts about being stupid or a poor student is evidence of negative filtering.

Negative filtering often accompanies unrealistically high expectations. Unrealistic expectations involve anticipating always doing something well, or doing something perfectly. Perfection is the standard against which all effort is judged. If you reach it, it’s merely doing what is expected. But if you fall short occasionally, it is easy to ignore all of your past successes and focus entirely on the few instances that were not as successful.

Negative filtering can be harmful, as only focusing on negative things can result in depressed mood, poor self-esteem, and unhealthy pessimism. Many people get caught in a cycle of negative filtering that results in poor mood, resulting in more negative filtering, etc. Negative filtering is one of the primary cognitive distortions we see with people who have depression. As such, identifying negative filtering is one of the primary treatment targets in cognitive behavioral therapy for depression.

The key thing to do when you suspect you may be engaging in negative filtering is to examine the actual evidence. Look around to find instances in which things are not all bad, and more importantly, things to be grateful for. Ask yourself if other people you know would come to the same conclusion given the circumstances, and if not, what is it that they would be focusing on that you’re not? Is the evidence really all bad, or are there varying degrees? Try making the opposite case, for instance that you will be able to pass the class, or that you’re not incompetent. Is there more evidence for that argument? By probing and systematically looking at the way we think about things, we can come to more rational, less mood-dependent conclusions.

Being vigilant to negative filtering can help us learn to take on more effective, less pessimistic perspectives, and consequently feel better about our situation. The next time you suspect you may be engaging in filtering, try taking on an alternate perspective by more closely examining your thoughts. 


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