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Understanding Your Thoughts & Emotions – Part 2

May 24, 2022

The Filtering Phenomenon

When unfavourable things happen back-to-back or repeatedly it’s easy to get discouraged and begin to look at the world through a pessimistic lens or filter. Filtering is a cognitive distortion, or unhealthy way of thinking, that skews how a person views the world and causes everything to be perceived from a negative bias. Life experiences go through a sieve that withholds the good and only what is negative comes out and is brought to one’s attention. Common everyday examples include:

Getting angry with your child when he or she generally gets good grades, but slips up and gets a poor grade.

Becoming upset with a friend, who is generally reliable and kind, when they make a mistake.

When a person has a history of trauma, an internalized filter can be even more painful than it is for the average person. Traumatic events leave bigger impressions on the mind and body and cut into the soul in a deeper way.

Cognitive Biases

Over time, the filtered thoughts develop into more intricate frameworks, which impact how the overall environment is experienced. A filter blocks positive stimuli and allows only the negative to come through. This filter, along with each person’s individual temperament, experiences and circumstances lead to the development of biases. Biases are patterns of thinking that form over a period of time and impact how the world is seen.

Some of these biases include:

Failure is inevitable regardless of hard work or effort—therefore, there is no point in trying.

Humans are selfish, and you should never let your guard down because people will hurt you.

Humans are unreliable and you can’t depend on family and friends for anything.

When more than one person hurts you it’s because there is something wrong with you and not them.

Once a filter and biases are in place it can be difficult to break free from those thought patterns. These cognitive and emotional biases are like coloured glasses and can affect how we see everything unfolding in our lives, ultimately influencing our decision-making. Before we delve into how biases affect our decision-making, let’s discuss why or how people form filters and biases in the first place.

Contributors to the Development of Filters & Biases

Learned Pessimism

Disappointment is uncomfortable, and sometimes very painful. When a person is let down often, whether through events or people in their life, the healthy thing to do is to adjust expectations, try something new, or view the situation differently. Another option is to stop expecting good things to happen altogether—this prevents future disappointment since one is not hopeful that good things will happen in the first place. The logic is: If I don’t expect good things to happen to me, then I won’t be disappointed when I don’t succeed or good things don’t come my way. This unhealthy and maladaptive way of looking at the world is initially developed to protect oneself; however, long-term it does much more harm than good. Over time, this way of thinking builds deep-rooted pessimism and a very reactive (instead of proactive) way of addressing concerns.

Childhood Invalidation

Parents, teachers, and caregivers play major roles in how we view and interact with the world. When we have role models who are pessimistic or have unhealthy ways of looking at things, we are susceptible to internalizing the same ways of thinking. Let’s take a very common example of striving for good grades. Imagine a child who worked hard the whole term to get good grades. This child did their homework, tried their best in class, and looked forward to their report card coming home to show their parents. This child turned out to be successful in making the honour roll with all A`s and one B. They are excited and happy with the results of their hard work, but when they show the report card to their parent, the first thing the parent says is, “Why do you have that B?” This unexpected reaction instantly deflates the child’s pride in their hard work over the course of weeks, in just seconds. This reaction not only teaches a child to focus on negatives and shortcomings, but that their efforts, feelings, and thoughts are not valid or valuable. When a child thinks or feels something only to have an adult say their experience is wrong (not just about school but any life experience) it creates self-doubt, anxiety and a lack of security.

Beginning to Change a Filter or Bias

Once you have identified a negative filter and unhealthy biases, it’s important to look at what learned responses you have developed as a result of your cognitions. If you are seeing a pattern in life problems or interpersonal conflict, meaning the same problem keeps coming up in different ways, it’s important to not just reflect on the biases contributing to your thoughts, but your learned behaviour as well.

Why do certain people end up being in the same situation over and over again? Why do some women keep finding themselves in abusive relationships? Why do some men keep losing their jobs over and over? Why are some families in one financial hardship after another? Most of the time these situations do not happen coincidentally, but due to a negative filter and learned maladaptive patterns of behaviour.

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