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Mental Filtering | A Cognitive Distortion

Mental filtering is thinking in a distorted way over any considerable amount of time, which can lead to anxiety, depression, and even drug addiction.

People struggling with addiction usually are dealing with some sort of mental illness. Whether it’s bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, or major depressive disorder (to name a few), those of us suffering from co-occurring disorders have a lot to overcome if we are to stay sober.

Cognitive distortions like mental filtering are distorted ways of thinking. These ways of thinking affect our perception. Cognitive distortions are the lens through which we view our entire reality.

These faulty beliefs can lead to detrimental actions which eventually turn into behaviors that are ingrained in a person’s being. More often than not, drug addicts have thought loops and self-dialogues in their minds that are extremely negative.

In this article, you’ll read about the cognitive distortion mental filtering and how it pertains to an addict. So let’s dive in!

What is Mental Filtering?

Mental filtering is a cognitive distortion where we disregard and discard all the positive aspects of any given situation and focus on the negative aspects only.

Here’s a scenario.

Let’s say you’re a teacher giving a lecture for one of your classes.

You notice that two students step out to use the restroom and are gone for the majority of your lecture. When you finish your lecture, the majority of your students tell you how awesome and informative your lecture was.

But what about those 2 students who left? 

Perhaps you already have low self-esteem and are plagued with constant self-doubt. You go on with your day but continue to obsess about the 2 students who left, thinking that if you were a cooler teacher with a better approach they would have stayed.

This would be an example of mental filtering.

The type of thinking in this example can become a thought pattern that is reinforced over and over again. Cognitive distortions can negatively affect your behavior, your relationships, and pretty much every area of your life. 

If you have a water filter, what does it do? It keeps the impurities from going through it so that you can enjoy cleaner water to drink. A filter only allows certain things to pass through it. Well, in the case of mental filtering, the good is sifted out so only the bad remains.

Let’s look at another example. 

An Example of Mental Filtering

You are at a party, and a woman you are interested in comes up and starts a conversation with you. Things are going well, and you both are laughing. You both exchange numbers, and you go your separate ways that evening.

You get home, and you’re getting ready for bed. As you look in your bathroom mirror, you notice some sort of food stain on your shirt.

You had some snacks at the party and a burger on the way home from the party. You tell yourself that you got the stain after the party, but your mind won’t let you leave it at that.

You become absolutely sure that the food stain was on your shirt as you were talking to this attractive woman at the party. 

You obsess and obsess and obsess.

“What if she saw the food stain? Does she think I’m a clumsy loser? Did she give me a fake phone number? Did she even really save my number in her phone? I know I blew it!”

Wow. That’s some crazy thinking right there and is an example of mental filtering.

You don’t allow yourself to think about the good feelings and emotions you had while talking to this woman. You disregard them all together as if they have no worth whatsoever.

Forget feeling confident, attractive, and funny — you only focus on self-doubt, insecurities, and overwhelming fear. This is mental filtering at its finest.

What Cognitive Distortions Are Generally

The term cognitive distortion refers to faulty ways of thinking that are exaggerated and irrational. Cognitive distortions “distort” your perception, which determines what you believe about yourself and everything around you.

You may think this is far-fetched, but our thinking actually affects physical reality. Quantum mechanics tell us that thoughts have a vibrational frequency.

Sometimes these vibrations are negative. Have you ever said, “This place has a bad vibe to it.”? Well, that’s what we’re talking about.

Mental Filtering and the Addict

Almost all addicts have a master’s degree in self-sabotage.

They have such low self-esteem that they subconsciously believe that they don’t deserve anything good.

Feelings of shame, guilt, and remorse cause extreme turmoil, both mentally and emotionally. This can be true for an addict in active addiction or in recovery.

The law of attraction is real. As self sabotagers, addicts actually want the world around them to reinforce and affirm what they believe about themselves deep down.

It may be a hard pill to swallow, but people who have low self-esteem actually invite suffering into their life. They invite negative events into their life, or at the very least, they make any event or situation into something negative.

Their sense of self comes from negative things always happening to them. Their identity depends upon it. 

Let me give you an example from my own experience.

How I Suffered From Mental Filtering

This one time I got sober, I immediately jumped back into performing music (I’m a professional jazz pianist).

Things were getting good quickly, and I was called by someone to play a gig. This wasn’t just anyone — this person has several Grammys.

I thought he called me for 2 performances, but I started to think about it — I was beginning to think there was something lost in translation (damn text messages!).

I called him, and he didn’t answer. I texted him asking whether I was on both of the gigs or just one. No response.

It didn’t matter that one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever performed with (and I’ve performed with the best) had called me to play a gig. I only focused on (and needed to focus on) the possible bad things about how I’ve been dealing with the situation up to this point.

I thought to myself, “Well, now that I’ve called and texted him too much, he’s going to think I’m super needy. He’s blowing me off. He’s decided he doesn’t want me to play with him anymore because I reached out to him too much. I’ve completely ruined this.”

It Was All a Lie

Now the reality was that a great musician had hired me for something. I had a great chance to perform some awesome music that would no doubt inspire me the rest of my life.

But I couldn’t focus on that — I HAD to focus on the negative because of my feelings of inadequacy, low self-worth, and failure, all thanks to mental filtering.

I was obsessed over this, and finally, I talked to him, realized I was only on 1 of the gigs, and I went about my day. Nothing was wrong! I had made this crazy scenario up in my head. I was creating a negative narrative that I wanted to keep intact no matter the cost.

You can see the intense anxiety that I experienced from the example above. Anxiety can lead to depression, which can then lead to isolation.

One of the things the disease of addiction wants is for you to be by yourself. That’s where the addiction can start to talk to you as your anxiety and depression progresses.

Finally, the anxiety, depression, and negative self-talk get too overwhelming. The spiritual malady (restless, irritable, and discontent) is in full force. Your mind then tells you that you can have only one beer or one shot of heroin. You buy the lie, use, and are off to the races again.

As you can see, this mental filtering stuff can kill! 

Many times, mental filtering occurs when you’re reflecting on a situation. So, let’s take a deep look into that. 

Your Memory and Mental Filtering

An addict’s belief system is something that has been reinforced over time. Mental filtering can affect someone’s memories.

What someone believes about themselves will dictate what their minds remember about past events. People are unable to remember all things perfectly clearly, so their brains disregard things they feel are unimportant.

You may think about your wedding day. It was a beautiful event, and many of your loved ones and members of your family were there.

It was sunny outside (where the wedding took place), and there wasn’t a cloud in sight. There was laughter, joy, and a great band playing during the reception. So many good things were happening.

However, at one point, your best friend announced that there will be a toast. He was visibly very drunk. This was confirmed when he opened his mouth and began to speak.

He proceeds to tell a story about a time the two of you went to Japan on business and were at a different strip club every night. Your wife understands that you were young and just having some fun, and it was left at that.

It truly wasn’t a big deal, but of all the things that happened at your wedding, guess what you focused on?

You focused on the embarrassing toast.

Now every time you think about your wedding, that’s what you mostly remember about it.

Now, it’s super important to learn from past mistakes. Remembering where you went wrong is integral to not making the same mistakes over and over again. This is very important for an addict, especially an addict that continues to relapse.

However, drifting into what the big book of A.A. describes as “morbid reflection” is not constructive. It’s all about balance. You can be grateful for the good things while acknowledging things such as failure with the intent of learning from them.

That’s one way to attack mental filtering.

Make a Frame Change!

There is hope for addicts and anyone who struggles with mental filtering.

The first step is to become aware of the problem.

You must recognize when you start looking through a negative mental filter. When is it happening, and what seems to trigger you when you start to think this way?

Pay attention to your thoughts when you’re stuck in traffic or laying in bed before you fall asleep. This is when reflection usually takes place, so this is where you can catch yourself engaging in mental filtering.

You need to challenge your assumptions about any given situation. Look at the evidence that supports your assumption, and look at the evidence that’s against your assumption. Many times, you’ll find that you are worrying/obsessing over something for nothing.

Reframe a situation by consciously thinking about all the positive things about it. This is something you need to practice.

It’s by practicing that you can get out of the hole that mental filtering has thrown you in. You’ll feel better and will stop worrying so much, which will greatly help with any depression and anxiety you may be struggling with.  

Turn the table on mental filtering!

Mental Filtering Keeping You Down?

Are you or someone you know struggling with cognitive distortions such as mental filtering?

If so, I hope that reading this will have a positive impact on your life and as always, we would love to hear from you!

Leave us a message about mental filtering in the comments!

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Michael Palma

Michael Palma is a drug addict in recovery who is passionate about recovery and recently has taken to writing about his own experience, strength, and hope and hopes to share this with as many people in recovery as he can. He has been a professional jazz pianist for over 20 years. He has performed with Wynton Marsalis, Jimmy Cobb (drummer for Miles Davis), Daniel Platzman (drummer for Imagine Dragons), Robert “Sput” Seawright (drummer for Snoop Dogg and Snarky Puppy), Greg Osby, and Terri Lynn Carrington to name a few.