If, before I quit drinking, someone would have told me one of my many problems was how I unconsciously sought negative feedback to support my already negative outlook, I would have laughed and told them to go away. There would have been no way for me to conceptualize myself as a negative person. I was a fun, funny, and downright positive person. I was there for people. People reached out to me when they needed help. Little did I know then, and I later found out, I was not very fun or funny, and I was definitely not a positive person. The people who reached out to me were people who were in the same emotional state as me, or worse, and I made them feel better about themselves. I not only found negativity in most things, but I also went out of my way to find and see the negative in myself. It was part of my being. If it had only been the negativity around me I saw, it may not have been so damaging. But no, it was the negative within me too, and that is what kept me down for most of my adult life.
There is simply no limit to the damage we can cause to ourselves
and others through mental filtering
Filtering, as a cognitive distortion is incredibly common and is the number one culprit for the formation of our negative core beliefs. It is the foundation on which we build the walls that prevent us from seeing the positivity in others, in the world, and in ourselves. Filtering was my number one go-to and most used cognitive distortion. Before I get too much into how filtering has affected me, my life, and the lives of others, let's take a closer look at what filtering is as a cognitive distortion:
Filtering: A person engaging in filter (or “mental filtering) takes the negative details and
magnifies those details while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation. For instance, a
person may pick out a single, unpleasant detail and dwell on it exclusively so that their
vision of reality becomes darkened or distorted. When a cognitive filter is applied, the
person sees only the negative and ignores anything positive. (Psychcentral.com)
One of the many problems with filtering is the number of ways we can use it to distort our thoughts. We can see the negative in ourselves, in our friends, in our family, in our job, in our relationships, in our world. There is simply no limit to the damage we can cause to ourselves and others through mental filtering. What is even more interesting is how we can even acknowledge the positives that do occur around us, but we discard them as flukes, one-time-occurrences, and outliers. We can pretty much justify away any positive happening by simply saying it was just a coincidence. It goes back to our inherent tendencies toward negativity. But, do we have to follow our inherent tendencies? No, we certainly do not.
None of us actually believe we are pieces of shit, even though
we may say such things about ourselves
I used mental filtering to distort my thinking in regard to my self-worth, most often. I do not know when it started, I wonder if we ever really do, but I know I have felt unworthy for the better part of my life. Worth is an interesting quality. You cannot see it like you see talent, strength, or humor. It is an underlying belief only seen or felt by the holder. If you feel worthy, you know it. If you do not feel worthy, you do not necessarily know it. None of us actually believe we are pieces of shit, even though we may say such things about ourselves. Instead, we feel a little lost, alone, insecure, inadequate, and even unloved. The feeling is not overwhelming, it simply lies there beneath the surface, and its only job is to prevent even the slightest amount of joy, pride, courage, strength, or power to infiltrate the beliefs we have built about our worth. The core belief formed over time is, "I am unworthy."
Our mental filtering takes into account this core belief and instead of trying to disprove it, we go far out of our way to prove it to be true. It is easy to believe I am unworthy. I go through life expecting and deserving any and all bad things that occur. Over time, I get used to it and failure is no longer a surprise to me. I slowly become numb and disengaged, and then I settle into a sub-par life never really knowing other choices were available to me too. It is much harder to accept the reality that I am, in fact, worthy. In order to accept my worth, I have to let go of all the negativity I see and instead choose to see the positive. Since we inherently see negativity first, we have to work harder to see the positive. This is uncomfortable to those of us who have spent our lives seeking out negativity.
Fortunately, like everything else, practice makes perfect, and never has this been more true than in the practice of focusing on positivity. We have to develop a practice, repetition, and lifestyle of finding the positive in our lives. It does not come naturally, so not only do we have to practice finding it, but we also have to practice noticing when we are, once again, focusing on the negative. It takes time, but so too did our uncanny ability to find negativity in everything. Be patient and give yourself a break. Whenever you feel yourself sliding back toward the negative, simply remind yourself and try to shift back to the positive. Here is something I started doing to retrain my brain to focus on positivity.
I do not say things like, "I hope I become an author." Instead, I say this,
"I am a New York Times best-selling author."
Whenever I find myself with a moment of downtime, I recite my goals, intentions, hopes, and dreams over and over and over. Here is the key, though. I recite these things as though they have already happened. I do not say things like, "I hope I become an author." Instead, I say this, "I am a New York Times best-selling author." I do not say, "I want to be successful." Instead, I say, "I am a successful writer working from home, full time." I do not say, "I want to make more money." Instead, I say, "I make a million dollars a year." The reality of each specific desire is not as important as my belief it is possible. By stating my desires as truths, I am retraining my brain to believe they are not only possible but plausible. I am convincing myself, over time and repetition, I am worthy of everything I want. It is the same thing I did to develop my negative core belief.
The key to changing our core beliefs lies in our ability to change our perceptions. As long as we allow ourselves to filter and then focus our attention on negative experiences, we will continue to believe the negative beliefs we have formed about ourselves. Another thing I do to shift my perspective, and therefore beliefs, from the negative to the positive is to go out of my way to find the positives. For example: In the past, I may have focused on a belief such as, "I am not a good person." I would focus on any behavior or things I did that supported my belief. What I did not do, was focus on all the positive things I did in contrast to my negative belief. I did not recognize when I was a good father, a good partner, or a good friend. I did not focus on how my work positively affects the students with whom I work. I did not believe people saw me as a kind and patient person. I never heard the positive things people said to and about me. All of those things directly contradicted the belief I was trying to support so I disregarded them as anomalies. It is hard, at first, to give yourself permission to see and hear all the positive things happening around us every day, but I promise you, they are there. We just have to be open to them.
The only thing getting in the way of living well is our believing we live badly
The best advice I can offer about the cognitive distortion of filtering is to understand and believe if you can filter one way, you can also filter the other. Make a game out of it. How many positive things can I find today about my self-worth? Begin in the morning. I woke up on time for work, therefore I am responsible. I ate a good breakfast and worked out, therefore I am healthy. I helped a friend with a problem, therefore I am a good friend. It doesn't matter how big or small positive actions are, they are still evidence supporting our good nature. The only thing getting in the way of living well is our believing we live badly. When we change our perception we also change our experience.