Balancing Your Thoughts

Alex Robboy, CAS, MSW, LCSW
Individual, Couples & Family Therapy
IMAGO Certified Marriage Counselor
AASECT Certified Sex Therapist Supervisor
Founder & Director of the Center for Growth Inc.

Posted by: Alex Robboy
CAS, MSW, LCSW Individual, Couples & Family Therapy IMAGO Certified Marriage Counselor AASECT Certified Sex Therapist Supervisor Founder & Director of the Center for Growth Inc.
267-324-9564

How to Change Your Negative Mental Filter

Do you find that you are often focusing on the negative thoughts or events around you? Do you ignore or discount positive experiences in your life? Do you have difficulty balancing negative thoughts with positive ones? This tip will help you to understand why balancing your thoughts can be difficult, and provide an exercise that can help you begin to find more symmetry in your negative and positive thinking.

Cognitive-behavioral therapists believe that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors all continuously influence one another. As an example, let’s say you’re feeling tired or down, and you don’t want to get out of bed one day. You might think, “I’m so lazy.” That thought might lead you to act (or not act!) in accordance with “being lazy” and ignore other things on your to-do list. As a result, you might feel even more down about yourself. (To be clear, having a “lazy” day every now and then is A-okay, and we could all be a little nicer to ourselves about that.) When you believe negative thoughts about yourself, you start to engage in self-fulfilling prophecies - if you tell yourself that you’re lazy, you’ll feel unmotivated to get things done, providing more evidence for that initial belief that you’re a lazy person. It can be a vicious cycle of negativity. However, you have the power to interfere in this cycle and change your thinking over time.

Ideally, we would all be able to see events from a balanced perspective and not assume negative things about ourselves and others, which can lead to feelings of sadness, low self-esteem, and hopelessness. However, sometimes cognitive distortions make that task of balancing difficult. Cognitive distortions are errors in thinking that happen to almost all of us from time to time. They are almost like putting a filter over a photo that changes the color slightly or shifts the focus, but on our thoughts. One cognitive distortion is called a negative mental filter. When this filter is being applied, you are focusing on negative events and listening to your negative thoughts, but discounting the positive ones. This does not mean that positive thoughts aren’t happening, but that you are much less willing or able to focus on them at the time. When you are applying a negative mental filter to your thoughts in this way, it is less about actions (both yours and others’) and their interpretations, and more about thoughts that come up. It is important to be able to attune to all of the types of thoughts you have, negative and positive, instead of only paying attention to those that seem negative, as you can then see a more balanced perspective.

If you think you may have a negative mental filter, try this exercise that helps with balancing your thoughts.

Take a sheet of paper and divide it in half so that you have one column on the left and one column on the right. Label the left side “negative” and the right side “positive.” On the left side of the paper, list the negative thoughts you are noticing. Give those thoughts as much space as you want. If you are having many negative thoughts, you may choose to focus this exercise on just one aspect of your life, e.g. negative thoughts around work. Take a minute to reflect on your group of thoughts as a whole and write down the feelings that come up for you. Here’s an example of what your paper could look like at this stage:

Negative

My boss probably doesn’t believe in me.
My coworkers do not like me.
I am not good enough at my job.

Feelings: sad, ashamed, ineffective

Now, challenge yourself to think of some good moments that have been happening lately. Chances are that you have had some positive thoughts and feelings, but that your negative mental filter is causing you to forget them and instead focus on just the negative things. If you truly cannot think of anything, take a break from the exercise. Keep an eye out for positive things for the rest of the day, even if it’s something as small as feeling the breeze outside, getting a text from a friend, or greeting your pet when you get home. Revisit your paper at the end of the day and write down at least as many positive things as you have negative to start balancing your thoughts. Reflect on those positive thoughts and take note of how you feel when you think about them. Your paper may look something like this:

Negative                                                        

My boss probably doesn’t believe in me.         
My coworkers do not like me.                         
I am not good enough at my job.                    

Feelings: sad, ashamed, ineffective                

Positive

I enjoyed the nice weather on my commute.
I found that article really interesting.
I felt confident about my work on the project.

Feelings: content, accomplished, engaged

Fold your paper in half and just look at the positives for a while.

Now unfold the paper and look at both sides together. How do you feel? You may still feel like the negative side outweighs the positive; that’s okay. Some days are like that. But now you have evidence that your day was not only negative. Exercising the muscle of really taking note of the positive thoughts you are having and giving them equal space to the negative ones will eventually help you to see the positive things without as much effort. You will begin to change your negative mental filter and start balancing your thoughts between negative and positive.

If you are not much of a writer, you can get creative in adapting this exercise. You might want to use different objects to represent each of your thoughts. Try using something you have easily accessible like pennies, paperclips, or stones. When you sit down to do this exercise, assign a negative thought to your object of choice. Once you have assigned however many negative thoughts you are having to objects, start searching for the positive thoughts and assigning those to your objects. Make sure you are coming up with at least as many positive thoughts as negative ones.

One further application of this sort of exercise is more on-the-fly. Whenever you notice yourself having a negative thought, challenge yourself to immediately identify two positive thoughts you have had that day. With practice, you may even begin to tip the scales in favor of noticing positive thoughts more easily than negative ones.

If you would like a therapist’s help with balancing your thoughts, contact the Center for Growth at https://www.therapyinphiladelphia.com/contact.