Negative filtering is where you pick out a negative detail in any situation and dwell on it excessively, thus perceiving that the whole situation is negative.

For example, a depressed Admin assistant overhears some work colleagues making fun of her best friend. She becomes furious as her thought dominates: "That's what people are basically like — cruel and insensitive!"

Negative filteringBut she overlooks the fact that in the previous months, few, if any of the people at the office have been cruel or insensitive to her.

On another occasion, having taken a training course to improve her computer skills, she feels certain that she's missed at least seventeen of the hundred questions she had to answer. She thinks excessively about those seventeen questions, and concludes that she must have failed and, consequently, won't get the promotion she's been working towards. As it turns out, she got 83%, a very high grade indeed.

David Burns makes the point that when you're depressed, it's like wearing a pair of glasses with special lenses that filter out anything positive. "All that you allow to enter your conscious mind is negative. Because you are not aware of this 'filtering process' you conclude that everything is negative" — selective abstraction.

Techniques for 'un-distortion'

Robert Leahy has suggested a number of techniques to challenge Negative Filtering:

  1. List all of your negative filter statements

  2. What are the costs and benefits of filtering everything through negatives?
  3. Are you not looking at all of the information? Is there some information that you are ignoring? Why?
  4. Exactly what would happen, or what would it mean to you, if you did count this positive information?
  5. Would everyone see things this negatively? Why not?
  6. What is your underlying assumption? Complete this sentence: "These things don't count because…"
  7. What if we made your view that these things don't count a universal one for everyone? What would be the consequence?
  8. If you really loved someone or cared about him or her, would you count these positives? Why? What would be a reason not to count them here?
  9. Keep track of your positives (or other person's positives) every day for a week. What does this record tell you?
  10. Every time you or someone else does something positive, praise yourself or the person. Will this praise increase or decrease the positive behaviour?