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Let’s do a thought experiment.
Imagine you are photojournalist, writing a story about this picture.
What did you notice first? What would your headline be?
Joe is working on the same story for his news outlet. But this is the way he sees things.
All clouds. No rainbow. And certainly no sun.
The way you and I see things says a lot about the mental filters we use.
In part 4 of my updated series on Cognitive Therapy,
We’re talking about negative mental filters.
You and I may use this distortion if we’ve ever had thoughts like:
- “There’s nothing good about my work.”
- “There’s nothing good about my life.”
- “There’s nothing good about myself.”
We often say that optimists wear rose-colored glasses. But negative mental filters are a sure sign of pessimism.
The lenses we use here are cracked and cloudy, like an old pair of goggles dug out of a corner of the basement. So, they cloud up the way Joe views the world. Joe dwells on life’s difficulties and ignores any positives that might make things easier.
He doesn’t mean to do this. Light just seems to fade out of the scene, making the darkness appear even darker.
Joe thinks optimists are color-blind. He doesn’t realize he just has a different type of color blindness. Joe fails to see hope the way others fail to see red or green.
Joe has a clouded view of others.
When Joe is around others, he has already mentally prepared himself to get ignored or rejected. He figures, that way he’ll be ready for it.
But he’s not ready for people to be nice. When it happens, he generally brushes it off with thoughts like, “They’re just trying to be nice because they feel sorry for me.”
Depression darkens our view of close relationships. Research shows that between married or romantic partners, depression increases the likelihood of criticism, hostility, and psychological or physical aggression.
So, it shouldn’t surprise us that depression increases the risk of separation and divorce. The World Health Organization surveyed 46,000 citizens from 19 countries to determine the impact of 18 separate mental disorders on divorce rates.
Nearly half of the impact came from just two: alcohol abuse and depression. Depression was the greatest risk of all 18 and was linked with the highest numbers of divorce.
Joe also has a clouded view of himself.
He doesn’t think much of himself. And this low self-esteem interferes with his relationships.
Poor self-esteem is strongly linked with the most dangerous of depressive symptoms: suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
Cognitive Therapy can help.
It does this by readjusting the lens, allowing the positives of life to shine back through.
In this series, we’re applying four basic principles of cognitive therapy to specific distorted thoughts.
1. Do Your RESEARCH.
The first technique involves doing our research.
And in this case, we try to remove any negative filters we use to examine the world.
Let’s talk about two of most common ones.
One is Confirmation bias, which means Joe only pays attention to information that confirms his negative viewpoint. He ignores any information to the contrary.
Another is Limited search. This means that, once he finds negative information, Joe stops looking for more.
Here’s how these feed into depression and anxiety.
Depression makes us feel the world is a dark and bleak place.
A confirmation bias may sensitize us to any news or media that confirms our worst fears, and de-sensitize us to news that doesn’t.
Limiting our search for information mean that, when we see evil in the world, we may stop looking for any good.
Clinical anxiety makes us inordinately afraid of life.
A confirmation bias sensitizes us to memories of past mistakes and the possibility of more in the future.
Limiting our search for information means that, once we know there is even the possibility of messing up, we may quit on the spot.
To fix this, we need to start looking at all the information. And this makes sense, right?
Just because we’ve fixed our eyes on the clouds doesn’t mean that the sun is not shining above them.
So, we can ask questions like:
“Am I ignoring positive information just because it’s positive?”
“Why am I doing this?”
If the reasons are not obvious, try finishing this sentence: “That doesn’t count because…”
2. Be a REALIST.
The second involves being more realistic.
Try thinking of someone with a generally positive outlook on life.
Then ask, “How would this other person see what I am seeing? Is their view less, or more, realistic than mine?”
Isn’t seeing the whole picture, both good and bad, more realistic than seeing just one or the other?
3. Find the Right RATIO.
Third, we find the right cost-benefit ratio.
Pessimists live in anticipation of the storm clouds of life, whether it comes in experiences or relationships.
They even feel there’s benefit to this: it braces them for looming danger.
But what if the danger never comes? Is the cost of living in constant preparation worth it?
Doesn’t this just create a lot of unnecessary stress and strain?
4. Follow the Golden RULE.
- “There’s nothing good about my family.”
- “There’s nothing good about myself.”
These are harsh judgments, and they almost certainly are not true, either.
Negative mental filters are a stressful kind of blindness, polarizing from view any positives we should see in others or ourselves.
It’s important to understand that healthy thinking is not exactly the same as rose-colored optimism (although, if you’re going to polarize one way or the other, research shows that optimism is healthier than pessimism).
The most complete picture can only emerge after our filters are removed.
We don’t have to deny the faults and mistakes we or others make. But we lift a heavy burden of stress off ourselves by seeking the best in both.
Sometimes we use a double standard, meaning we can see good in others, but not ourselves.
In this case, we need to ask, “If I were thinking about someone else instead of myself, would I be willing to see more positives?” “What would happen if I got rid of this double standard?”
We can also try “positive tracking.” Over the next week or so, make a daily list of the positives you see in others or yourself. It doesn’t matter how small they are. Ask questions like, “What do I like or respect about this person?” “What do I like or respect about myself?”
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.”Become a Patron!
 Breslau, J., Miller, E., Jin, R., Sampson, N. A., Alonso, J., Andrade, L. H., … & Fukao, A. (2011). A multinational study of mental disorders, marriage, and divorce. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 124(6), 474-486.
 Oexle, N., Rüsch, N., Viering, S., Wyss, C., Seifritz, E., Xu, Z., & Kawohl, W. (2017). Self-stigma and suicidality: a longitudinal study. European archives of psychiatry and clinical neuroscience, 267(4), 359-361.
 Kim, E. S., Hagan, K. A., Grodstein, F., DeMeo, D. L., De Vivo, I., & Kubzansky, L. D. (2017). Optimism and cause-specific mortality: a prospective cohort study. American Journal of Epidemiology, 185(1), 21-29.
Dr. Pamela Coburn-Litvak has published research articles on exercise and stress in Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior. After receiving a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she served as both Assistant Professor of Physiology & Pharmacology and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Research Affairs at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. She then joined the Biology department at Andrews University and developed courses in human physiology as well as the neurobiology of mental illness. She also founded Rock @ Science LLC, a company that specializes in health and science education and web development. She co-developed the brain and body physiology segment of the Stress: Beyond Coping seminar with its creator, Dr. William “Skip” MacCarty, DMin.
Dr. Coburn-Litvak currently lives in California with her husband. Their two daughters are mostly grown and attending school elsewhere.
When she’s not studying or teaching about stress, she enjoys stress-relieving activities like puttering around the garden, taking nature walks with her family, knitting, cooking, and reading.