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What Is Negative Filtering and How Does It Work?


Do you go through life feeling like you see things through a grey filter? Do things always seem bad, even the good? That’s the way I’ve felt almost all my life if I’m going to be completely honest. It’s usually how we see everything when we’re highly anxious or if we’re depressed.

Negative filtering is usually the culprit for this type of thinking and seeing. Negative filtering is a cognitive distortion or ‘thinking errors’ described in CBT treatment. Many refer to it as a ‘thinking error’ because it’s the brain’s way of interpreting things as negative even when they could be good.

So what exactly is negative filtering?

What Is Negative Filtering?

Essentially, cognitive filtering, or more accurately negative filtering, is a cognitive distortion that causes us to filter out all of the good from a situation and leave us with only a view of the bad. Everybody does this from time to time in their lives but in the context of anxiety and depression, sufferers of these conditions do it almost all of the time.

Whilst this may not seem like a big deal to some, if you use a negative filter (unwillingly or not) over time, you can make yourself depressed if you are not already. Our brain has ultimately decided that we should only be looking for the bad and the dangers from situations and basically causes us to ignore any good.

If you’ve read my story you’ll see how I was using a negative cognitive filter for years. Maybe you’re the same. It’s easy to get into a spiral of negative filtering after a series of bad event occur too. We become primed to think that we need to look for danger. Negative filtering can be a real burden. It can cause us to miss out on experiences, make us become recluses and damage our relationships.

Let’s look at a few examples in everyday life and you can see if you can relate to any.

Examples Of Negative Filtering

  • You like someone romantically but because you’ve been hurt in every previous relationship, you are cold and wary of this person, looking only for their flaws. In reality, this person could be loyal and loving and only have your best interests at heart.
  • You are invited out for dinner with friends but you think there will be too many people you’re not fond of, you won’t like to food and it’s hard to get home. In reality, you could have a great evening out.
  • You find a job that you think you would like to apply for. You’re worried about new people, if you’ll make a fool of yourself in the interview and if you are good enough. In reality, you could be the person they are looking for.
  • You want to start going to the gym but you don’t want people to look at you when you exercise, you don’t want to travel their after work and you don’t want to hurt yourself. In reality, you would get healthier, you might find it’s a new passion of yours, and you may get encouragement from friends.

You can see how negative filtering can cause you to miss out on opportunities everyday of your life. Negative filtering isn’t just about the big things that happen in our lives but it’s about the small things that we face each and every day.

CBT Filters

Negative filtering is a bad cycle to get into. I feel like it’s important to put things into perspective here though. As there is negative filtering, there is also positive filtering. For example, we all know people who see the good in everything or are very caring and joyful. Whether we find these people annoyingly happy or not, they are the other extreme end of the filtering spectrum.

This filtering is positive and is where our minds see the positive in every situation and experience whilst filtering out the bad. Whilst CBT won’t make you a ‘positive thinker’ overnight, it can level you back out and allow you to see that there are two sides to each situation.

Having a negative filter through daily life can be corrected though and as I said above, can level you back out. CBT therapy techniques are used all the time to retrain the way we think and can have great results.

CBT is used by therapists to force us to challenge our negative thoughts. This is done over a long period of time to reinforce the practice of ‘challenging our thoughts’.

Negative Filtering CBT Exercises

There are numerous exercises to challenge negative filtering. Some of the most effect that I’ve used myself are

1.Positive naming

Positive naming is the practice of giving a situation a ‘positive name’. This disrupts our thoughts about the possible negatives involved with it. For example – ‘big scary test’ could be renamed to ‘a great chance to prove what I’ve learned’

2. Modifying Assumptions

Especially when we’re anxious, we assume the worst in most situations (negative filtering) and these assumptions cause us to halt and rethink everything that we do. When we challenge our assumptions, we can start to imagine other more positive outcomes.

When we make assumptions, we often allow them to be unrealistic. They are often not based on anything either and are rigid. We can start to overcome assumptions by listing more realistic outcomes instead.

CBT Worksheets For Negative Filtering

I developed my own CBT worksheets that all me to challenge my own thoughts, name situations positively, eliminate worry, and find evidence if something is ‘bad’. By researching CBT techniques, I pulled out some of the best bits and modified them into a printable worksheet consisting of 4 different worksheets.

You can download them here for just $2. By printable, I mean you can print them off over and over again with no further investment!

I’ve always found that I have to use a structured format to really get my thoughts down.


The truth is, we all use ‘negative filtering’ from time to time. It’s only critical that you start to be mindful of it when you become anxious or depressed. By simply understanding that you’re doing it day in and day out, you can start to challenge the way you think and begin to open your mind to new ways of seeing and also thinking.

Here’s to your success – Sean

Previously published on


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Photo credit: Sean Clarke


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