Stepping Back to See The Whole Picture


Just as one cannot always see the forest for the trees, it is helpful to step back to gain a broader perspective when trying  to solve a complex problem. When conversing with a friend, coworker or loved one, have you ever reached a point in the exchange when you realize that the other party has become inflexibly fixated on one negative aspect of a multi-layered situation? That person may be afflicted with a type of cognitive distortion called "filtering."

What is Filtering?

Filtering was first identified in the work of pioneering psychiatrist Dr. Aaron T. Beck and his then protégé Dr. David Burns in the early ‘70s.  It is one of several types of negative thinking they called Cognitive Distortions which are considered irrational thought patterns that can result in certain mental disorders, chiefly depression and anxiety. In his best-selling book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, and its companion text, The Feeling Good Handbook, Dr. Burn’s defined what he called “The Ten Forms of Twisted Thinking,” the third of which was mental filtering. Dr. Burn’s explains filtering thusly, “You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively, so that your vision of reality becomes darkened, like a drop of ink that discolors a beaker of water.”

Filtering and Depression

As cognitive distortions tend to function as an unconscious and involuntary or automatic thinking, filtering can play a major part in continuing the effects of disorders like depression and anxiety by filtering or sifting out positive input while at the same time causing sufferers to fixate on negative information. For example, someone with a healthy thought process would handle well a job performance review that is largely positive with a few constructive criticisms, as it would indicate that the employee’s hard work was appreciated and the company was invested in the employee’s future success. Someone grappling with filtering-enhanced depression would zero in on the criticism while excluding everything else and might end up obsessed with the notion that they will be fired.

Breaking the Cycle

While developing their groundbreaking theories on cognitive behavioral therapy, Drs. Beck and Burn developed a treatment for filtering and other distortions called cognitive restructuring which has four steps:

  • identifying one’s dysfunctional automatic thoughts
  • identifying the type of cognitive distortion that is being manifested in one’s automatic thoughts
  • understanding and accepting the mistaken beliefs inherent in one’s negative thought process through Socratic questioning (a type of questioning which helps one become aware of underlying assumptions that may not be true), as well as thought recording and guided imagery
  • the development of an argument against the irrational automatic thoughts showing where it may not be true or not always true, in effect working as a mental circuit breaker.

Over time, cognitive restructuring will disrupt the involuntary filtering and ideally, help to reduce the effects of depression and anxiety.

The First Step is the Hardest

It should be noted that no self-help book or practice should be regarded as a valid replacement for the kind of care that a qualified mental health professional can provide. If you, or you know someone who is showing signs of being suicidal, seek help immediately. However, if you have someone in your life that regularly struggles with the filtering out of positive input, they might benefit from some self-guided help in this area. Although depression is a difficult issue, the disorder is treatable and a big part of the recovery process is acknowledging how the illness affects one’s daily life. As Dr. Burns wrote in the Feeling Good Handbook, "We can only feel healed and whole if we will allow ourselves to feel broken." Recognizing and admitting there is a problem is the first step.