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Negative Filtering

An Axis Course On Don't Believe Everything You Think

The cognitive distortion of “negative filtering” involves focusing only on the negative aspects of different situations, and rarely (if ever) noticing the positive aspects. One example might be if someone performed in a play, and afterward, everyone told them how good their performance was except for one person, who jokingly said, “You could have done better.” Negative filtering would mean focusing almost exclusively on this one comment and using it as evidence that they embarrassed themselves onstage.

Some people are more naturally melancholy or pessimistic, while others are more naturally upbeat and optimistic. From a moral point of view, one temperament isn’t necessarily better than the other, but sometimes the more negative point of view can have negative mental health effects for those who hold it. The pessimist may say that they’re more prepared for bad things when they do happen (almost every pessimist likes to say that they’re “a realist”), but there is a cost to anticipating negativity at every turn.

How dark life seems also depends to some extent on how long of a view we’re taking on it. Today, this week, or this month might be terrible—but at the end of the story of Christianity, as Revelation 21:5 puts it, “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.” Life may indeed be brutal at times, but in the end, happiness wins out, joy wins out, and love wins out.

Just because we more naturally notice the negative aspects of life doesn’t mean that there aren’t also positive aspects. 

When our minds naturally drift in the direction of the negative, it takes work to train them to also notice the positive. As we said in our section on overgeneralizing, writing down things we’re grateful for, and positive things that happen, can have a positive impact on our mental health, and over time can help break us out of the distortion of negative filtering.