Filtering – Cognitive Distortion 1

In part one of this Common Cognitive Distortions series, we are exploring the Negative Filtering Cognitive Distortion. 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 filtering, we take the negative details and magnify them 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.

Here’s a little story to illustrate how easy it is to fall into negative filtering.

Nancy was working at the office, just like any regular day when Dan stopped by for a chat. Dan was a little wound up because he’d just gotten the quarterly report, and the numbers were lower than expected.

Dan wanted to blow off some steam and Nancy was just the person he was looking for. Unfortunately, Nancy had been extra busy this week, taking on more than she could handle. Whenever she heard someone complain about their workload, Nancy jumped in and offered to help.  She thought she was showing love and kindness by always pitching in when needed. The problem was that Nancy wouldn’t be able to meet her own deadlines this week, as she was too overloaded with the extra work.

Not knowing any of what was going on behind the scenes, Dan stopped by for a chat and was surprised to feel a negative tone from Nancy. Normally, Nancy was someone Dan could confide in, but today she seemed especially rushed and brushed him off.

Dan took Nancy’s negative mood (FILTERED) to mean that she was mad at him. In her mind, Nancy was happy to talk with Dan, however, she just didn’t have the time today. Dan was a trusted co-worker, and any other day would have reviewed the report with him.

Nancy quickly told Dan she didn’t have time and that she might be available tomorrow. Dan interpreted her brush off, filtered, to mean she didn’t want to make time and that he shouldn’t bother her.

The next day, Nancy wonders why Dan hasn’t come by, meanwhile, Dan is still frustrated by the report and has no one with whom to discuss the situation.


To avoid negative filtering, the best practice is to look objectively at any situation.

Take the actual evidence and try not to put extra negativity around the circumstances. Dan could tell himself that Nancy doesn’t like him anymore. He could also tell himself that’s she’s distracted and really does want to talk tomorrow. There are multiple ways to react to this situation, and not all of them are negative.

If you normally get good grades and happen to fail a random test, it doesn’t mean you’re stupid or a bad student. It means something went wrong. Maybe your preparation wasn’t as rigorous as normal, or maybe the teacher’s questions were unclear. Take the evidence to make better decisions next time. Don’t take the evidence as a sign that you’re less than and shouldn’t try anymore.

Believe that everyone is doing their best, with the information they have at the moment.

Maybe you would have made different decisions, but people aren’t out to get you, by and large. There are exceptions, of course. But try to take the positive whenever possible. You will have better interactions with other people. By believing the best, you’ll prevent conflicts in situations by not blaming others for bad behavior.

The truth is, everyone is so focused on their own problems, in their own world, that the majority of people don’t even register what’s going on with you.

Little slights and small interpersonal conflicts can be resolved if we decide to believe that people aren’t out to get us. Sure, someone was rude or inconsiderate, but it’s not a commentary of their opinion of you. They were rushed or stressed and made a poor choice. Try to look at other people with rose-colored glasses and hold yourself to the high standards you want from others.

Let me know in the comments how negative filtering impacts your life.

To check out the art in this post, click here.

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