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20 Stealthy Mental Filters That Are Sabotaging You (as seen in “Success Magazine,” October 2017)

There is no upside to negative thinking. It does not prep you for life events, ward off malicious mojo or prevent worrisome outcomes. It does the opposite. It also causes face furrows, addictions, mental disorders, insomnia and heart disease. Most of us unknowingly use automatic thought distortions (aka, mental filters) to subvert ourselves. When we stop, we become models of happiness, positive energy and efficiency.

A mental filter is one type of cognitive distortion. It is a biased way of thinking about ourselves or the world around us. The core issue lies within the troubling emotional states and behaviors yielded by these irrational thoughts and beliefs that include unpleasant mental states and behaviors like anxiety, depression and conflicts.

There are dozens of common mental filters we use within our daily lives. Here are 20 that will directly inhibit or prevent your daily joy and successes.

  1. Negative predicting involves foretelling the future in a negative light. There are typically just as many reasons something can go right. Assuming you will nervously botch an upcoming presentation is just a thought steeped in pessimism. Channel that nervous energy into poise and a standing O.
  2. Unrelenting standards is the mindset that extremely high standards are required to avoid calamity. There are often no measurable benefits of doing a task beyond a basic acceptable level, and many such tasks exceed opportunity costs. The question is not, “‘Does anal retentive’ have a hyphen?” The question is, “Does it matter?”
  3. Black and white thinking allows no middle ground or shades of gray. It’s a “nothing succeeds like excess” sort of mindset. Such polarized thinking fails to recognize that there are usually other reasonable options. If you insist on all or nothing, you will likely end up with nothing.
  4. Musterbation involves having steadfast rules about how you and others should or must behave. The emotional consequence when expectations are not met is anger, frustration, resentments and guilt. The road to hell is paved with “shoulds” and “oughts.”
  5. Self-serving bias. For many, being right is more important than the facts or feelings of others. However, this thinking pattern has deep consequences such as alienation from others, and a difficulty in forming and sustaining healthy relationships. Do you want to be peaceful, or do you want to be lonely and right?
  6. Basing future decisions on sunk costs. Whether a tanking stock, a bad relationship or a failing business, cutting losses is tough. Sunk costs occur due to emotional attachments that lead to irrational investing despite mounting losses. Sort of like casino gambling.
  7. Fallacy of fairness distortion assumes that things have to be measured based on fairness and equality, when in reality things often don’t work that way. Life isn’t fair for everyone, so doesn’t that make life fair?
  8. Underestimating coping ability to handle negative events is a mindset of many who have not previously been held to the fire. What doesn’t kill you gives you coping mechanisms and a dark sense of humor.
  9. Entitlement is a filter that causes the belief that the same rules that apply to others should not apply to you. You can’t spell “entitlement” without “i” and “me.” But imagine a world where a sense of service and gratitude replaced entitlement and expectation.
  10. Repeating the same behavior hoping for different results is Einstein’s definition of insanity. For example, expecting that if you keep nagging your direct reports that they will meet deadlines, when it hasn’t happened yet.
  11. Personalizing is a thought distortion and belief that things others do or say is some kind of direct, personal reaction to you. This type of thinking can also cause you to blame yourself for things outside your control. You can’t please everyone. You’re not pizza.
  12. Blaming is the opposite of personalizing, but a lot more satisfying. Blaming is a mental filter where you hold other people responsible for your adversities.
  13. In-group bias is a tendency to trust and respect people who are like you more than those from different backgrounds and experiences. For an enriching paradigm shift, consider tapping into the brain trust of those outside your circle of influence. Smart and inclusive looks good on anyone.
  14. Overthinking is a mindset that worry and rumination will lead to solutions. Overthinking can actually impair our problem-solving ability and is a direct route to unhappiness. If you question the answers too many times, you will never answer the questions.
  15. Multitasking doesn’t extend beyond peeing in the shower. When you are multitasking, you are actually task (and attention) shifting. We are born to monotask. Multitasking is doing twice as much as you should half as well as you could.
  16. Failure to chill. According to a report by job site Glassdoor, only 23 percent of workers surveyed said they used all of their paid time off in the last 12 months. Taking the time to revitalize reduces anxiety and depression while increasing productivity. You need more than just restroom breaks.
  17. Cheating on your goals in lieu of making it up later. Spending workdays on your fantasy football draft with plans to make it up later in the week is self-sabotage. Often, your planned positive behaviors never happen. Goals come in two flavors: one day or day one. You decide.
  18. Doubling-down on a failed strategy hoping it will eventually yield positive results. Long ago, Kenny Rogers taught us, “You got to know when to hold ’em, and when to fold ’em.” There is a fine line between genius and insanity. Don’t erase that line.
  19. Catastrophizing is being extremely well educated about all the things that could go wrong while always expecting the worst. A person who is catastrophizing might lose a sale and instantly think he or she will be fired and live in a van eating ramen and regret.
  20. “I can’t change my way of thinking.” Rather than convincing yourself that changing mentalities is too hard, aim for small reductions in your negative automatic thoughts, at 10 percent, for example. You will immediately obtain benefits while working toward the goal. You can still see the glass as half-full. Just not half-full of poison.

How to Change Thinking Patterns and Cognitive Distortions

Thought patterns and mental filters change through a process called cognitive restructuring or reframing. By adjusting your automatic thoughts each day, you can influence your emotions and behaviors.

  • Identify your automatic negative thoughts (cognitive distortions).

Create a list of your troublesome thoughts. An examination of your cognitive distortions allows you to recognize which distortions you favor.

  • What—if any—evidence is there to support them?

Try to identify the basis for your distorted thoughts, and then challenge them. What evidence do you truly have to support these beliefs? There are likely far more instances where you had success and things went well.

  • Peer review.

Seek the opinions of others about whether your thoughts and outlooks are accurate. If you truly believe that your colleagues have it in for you, refer to a few trusted peers for objectivity.

  • Find the shades of gray.

Rather than thinking about your situation in a black or white polarity, assess things on a scale of 0 to 100. Things not materialized can be seen as partial successes rather than failures. Those partial victories are the savory gradations.

Don’t believe everything you think.

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