CBT: Negative Thoughts, Negative Filters

Updated: Nov 13


What's so Important About Negative Thoughts?


CBT is based on a 'model' or theory that it's not events themselves that upset us, but the meanings we give them. Our thoughts can block us seeing things that don't fit with what we believe is true. In other words, we continue to hold on to the same old thoughts and fail to learn anything new.


For example, a depressed woman may think, 'I can't face going into work today: I can't do it. Nothing will go right. I'll feel awful.' As a result of having these thoughts - and of believing them - she may ring in sick. By behaving like this, she won't have the chance to find out that her prediction was wrong. She might have found some things she could do, and at least some things that were OK. But if she stays at home, brooding about her failure to go in, she may end up thinking: 'I've let everyone down. They will be angry with me. Why can't I do what everyone else does? I'm so weak and useless.' She will probably end up feeling worse, and have even more difficulty going in to work the next day. Thinking, behaving and feeling like this may start a downward spiral. This vicious circle can apply to many different kinds of problems.


What Are Negative Filters?


The role of the therapist in CBT is to teach the person to identify and eliminate negative mental filters.


By understanding these negative distortions, the patient is led to the awareness that “feelings aren’t necessarily based on the truth but based more on interpretation of the situation”


Even though emotions appear true and valid in the moment, many actions that result from it may cause you regret and guilt in the future.


David Burns in his book (Feeling Good Therapy) points out that , “Unpleasant feelings merely indicate that you are thinking something negative and believing it.” This is why, he suggests, “depression is such a powerful form of black magic.”


There are certain patterns of thinking that are identified as distress causing, these negative forms of thinking are called thought distortions. David Burns identifies 12 types of thought distortions:


1. All Or Nothing Thinking

You see things in black and white categories. An average or above average performance is not acceptable. This form of thinking develops mostly from school and media pressure to be perfect and high performing achievers. While this kind of thinking may be helpful when an individual selects a particular goal and goes after it, it can be disastrous when the individual seeks perfection in every area of life. If the performance falls short of perfect, the person sees himself /herself as a total failure.


2. Over Generalization

You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat. The person thinks that a failed job interview or low performance in an exam means the end of the world and that they are no longer capable of achieving anything worthwhile.


3. Negative Mental Filter

You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water. This type of thinking usually destroys relationships with other people. The person tends to have an eye out for the negative aspect in every situation and they can ignore all the positive aspects in their life. This kind of thinking robs their personal energy.


4. Disqualifying the Positive

You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or other. You maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.


5. Jumping to Negative Conclusions

You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion.


6. Mind Reading

You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you and don’t bother to check it out.


7. The Fortune Teller Error

You anticipate that things will turn out badly and feel convinced that your prediction is an already established fact.


8. Magnification (Catastrophizing) or Minimization

You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else’s achievement), or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other fellow’s imperfections). This is also called the “binocular trick.”


9. Emotional Reasoning

You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”


10. Should Statements

You try to motivate yourself with “shoulds and shouldn’ts,” as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. “Musts” and “oughts” are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When you direct should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.


11. Labeling and Mislabeling

This is an extreme form of over-generalization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: “I’m a loser.” When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him, “He’s a damn louse.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly coloured and emotionally loaded.


12. Personalization

You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event for which, in fact, you were not primarily responsible.


These elements were discussed in great detail by Dr. David Burns in his book, Feeling Good Therapy,

Cognitive behaviour therapy adopts most of these principles to help the patient overcome their negativity, depression and anxiety.


There is accumulating evidence for the effectiveness of CBT, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and PET scanning have shown increases in blood flow and metabolic activity in the frontal cortex, limbic

structures, caudate, and thalamus, with a trend toward right-sided predominance which means that it increases the patient's thinking skills and also their intuition.


Patients who learn to eliminate negative filters feel good about themselves and develop a healthy self-esteem, they are able to view life events objectively and make good decisions.


*Artwork by Alejandra Selgado