Selective Perspective

Robert F. Mullen, PhD
Director/ReChanneling

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Cognitive Distortions #3 and #4: Filtering and Polarized Thinking

Our negative core and intermediate beliefs form in response to childhood disturbance and the onset of our emotional dysfunction. Core beliefs are more rigid in those of us living with social anxiety because we tend to store information consistent with negative beliefs. Our intermediate beliefs establish our attitudes, rules, and assumptions. These beliefs govern our perceptions and, ostensibly, remain as our belief system throughout life. Even if irrational or inaccurate, our beliefs define how we see ourselves in the world. When we decline to question these beliefs, we act upon them as though they are real and reasonable, ignoring evidence that contradicts them. This produces a cognitive bias – a subconscious error in thinking that causes us to misinterpret information and make irrational decisions. 

To compound this, humans have an inherent negativity bias. We are genetically predisposed to respond more strongly to adversity, which aggravates our SAD symptoms. We anticipate the worst-case scenario. We expect criticism, ridicule, and rejection. We worry about embarrassing or humiliating ourselves. We project unpleasant outcomes that become self-fulfilling prophecies. It is not surprising that we readily turn to Filtering and Polarized Thinking to justify these irrational thought patterns. 

Filtering. When we engage in Filtering, we selectively choose our perspective. Our tunnel vision gravitates toward the negative aspects of a situation and excludes the positive. This applies to our memories as well. We dwell on the unfortunate aspects of what happened rather than the whole picture. 

A person who consistently filters out negative information is someone with an excessively cheerful or optimistic personality. Conversely, a person who emphasizes gloom and doom is unhappy or defeatist. Those of us living with SAD tend to mirror the latter. We filter out positive aspects of our life, choosing to dwell on situations and memories that support our negative self-image. This creates an emotional imbalance due to the exclusion of healthy thoughts and behaviors. We view ourselves, the world, and our future through an unforgiving lens.

Negative filtering is one of the most common cognitive distortions in anxiety because it sustains our toxic core and intermediate beliefs. Our pessimistic outlook exacerbates our feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. We accentuate the negative. A dozen people in our office celebrate our promotion; one ignores us. We obsess over the lone individual and disregard the goodwill of the rest. By dwelling on the unpleasantness, we reinforce our feelings of undesirability and alienation. 

To effectively challenge our tendency to filter information, we need to identify the situation(s) that provokes our anxiety and the corresponding ANTs (automatic negative thoughts). From there, we analyze the unsoundness of our reaction and devise a rational response. Initially, the conversion process is exacting, but with time and practice, it becomes reflexive and spontaneous. Cognitive behaviorists call it ARTs – automatic rational thoughts. 

The term maladaptive behavior was coined by Aaron Beck, the pioneer of cognitive-behavioral therapy. It is prevalent in social anxiety disorder. Maladaptive means we tend to adapt wrongly (negatively) to situations. We must remain mindful that our symptoms encourage a negative perspective and adjust accordingly.

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Polarized Thinking. One of the symptoms of SAD is our compulsion to overanalyze our performance in a situation, tormented by our mistakes, our inept interaction, or our poor conversation skills. We preoccupy ourselves – often for days on end – with everything we think we did wrong, obsessing over what we should have done better. We tell ourselves unless a thing is done to perfection, it is not worth doing at all.

Perfectionism is not just the desire to do well; it is the need to be infallible. If we can’t be perfect, there is little point in bothering. Perfectionism exacerbates our social anxiety. We worry about appearing vacuous or inadequate, fearing exposure of our imperfections. 

In Polarized Thinking, we see things as absolute – black or white. There is no middle ground, no compromise. We are either brilliant or abject failures. Our friends are for us or against us. We do not allow room for balanced perspectives or outcomes. We refuse to give people the benefit of the doubt. Worse than our anxiety about criticism is our self-judgment. If we are not flawless and masterful, we must be broken and inept. There is no room for mistakes or mediocrity, “I failed my last exam; I fail at everything I try. I’m a loser.”

Perfection is a futile pursuit because it is impossible to attain. In the last chapter, we talked about the criteria for healthy and effective neural information – that it be rational, possible, and reasonable. Perfectionism fulfills none of these.

Like Filtering, Polarized Thinking is selective. To remedy our dichotomous perspective, we identify the anxiety-provoking situation and examine our corresponding fears and automatic negative thoughts (ANTs). From there, we analyze their inaccuracy and initiate rational responses

It is important to consider the holism and multiple perspectives of life’s events and replace the myopia of Filtering and the rigidity of Polarized Thinking with the kaleidoscope of viewpoints, interpretations, and possibilities.

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WHY IS YOUR SUPPORT SO IMPORTANT?  ReChanneling develops and implements programs to (1) moderate symptoms of emotional dysfunction and (2) pursue personal goals and objectives – harnessing our intrinsic aptitude for extraordinary living. Our paradigmatic approach targets the personality through empathy, collaboration, and program integration utilizing scientific and clinically practical methods including proactive neuroplasticity, cognitive-behavioral modification, positive psychology, and techniques designed to reinvigorate self-esteem. All donations support scholarships for groups, workshops, and practicums.  

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