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BACP Senior Accredited Counsellor

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CBT, Mental Filtering and the Olympics

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Cognitive Behavioural Therapy usually known as CBT encourages us to look at our thoughts and to challenge those ideas we are holding which are unhelpful to us. Reference is sometimes made to clients and thinking errors. I am aware that I occasionally feel a little uneasy at introducing the notion of thinking errors. There is a slight hint of the judgemental in suggesting that our thoughts are somehow wrong or inappropriate. 

That sense of unease probably goes some way to explaining why I prefer to work as a counsellor who will use CBT techniques rather look to become just a CBT therapist per se.  Different approaches can be useful at different times even for the same client. There is something in the rigidity of a strict CBT application which runs against my view of client freedom.

My preference is that each client should be able to work in the room in the way which best fits with their personal approach rather than have to conform to any strict structure insisted on by the counsellor. Nevertheless there are occasions when for clients a specific line of personal thinking may be unhelpful. That can be particularly true if the thoughts form a negative tape which is continually replayed in the client’s mind and has an adverse impact on the client.   

As part of my work with clients I will sometimes provide a note which summarizes some of these thinking errors.   One of these ways of thinking, something called mental filtering came to mind when I listened to a recent debate on the Olympics.  The discussion was triggered by the advent of the new football season and a comparison of the ethos of football compared to the Olympic spirit.

Mental filtering occurs when we inadvertently (or perhaps deliberately?) filter out a myriad of positive or affirmative thoughts to leave ourselves with a distorted conclusion.  An obvious example could be when we have a great holiday but have one bad experience during that vacation, perhaps a bad flight or some poor weather.  If we continually focus on that one bad experience we filter out many of the positive aspects of the holiday and that lessens the benefits we gain from the break.

That process of mental filtering was very much in play during the radio debate.  Those who questioned the value of the Olympics featured on the drug tests, the costs and the car lanes and filtered out the feel good factor which seemed to permeate much of the country during the two weeks.  Equally those who were critical of the football fraternity just concentrated on the excesses of the Premier League.  The speakers filtered out the enjoyment factor for many who play the game at very different levels and also ignored the role that football plays as an emotional release valve.

It was a good discussion and the use of mental filtering is probably an acceptable technique in a studio discussion.  It makes for lively and combative radio. It can however be a very unhelpful practice when applied to our own thinking.  If we may have concerns over confidence issues, mental filtering can be a very effective saboteur.  It can certainly undermine the good and exaggerate the bad. Mental filtering can impact badly on supportive thinking and leave us with a distorted and rather downbeat view of our abilities and achievements.

So how can we combat it?  The first response is to check if mental filtering is there in our thinking.  We can do that by ourselves or in discussion with someone, a friend, relative or perhaps a counsellor.  If it is present then we need to make sure that we are drawing out and really noting the good things that have happened – and one way of doing that can simply to do some listings. 

Like many so called thinking errors, adverse mental filtering can be effectively addressed and challenged.  The important first step is just to recognise that this particular saboteur is at work and why.  Once it is identified it can be dealt with if that is what we wish to happen. 

That ‘if’ is however an important work.  Certainly mental filtering may have been a positive technique for highly focussed athletes at the Olympics who wanted to shut out any thoughts of failure.  I also suspect that as a producer in a radio studio balanced thinking may not necessarily be a tactic I would want the protagonists to readily employ. The debate might not be as contentious and that could make for dull listening.  Perhaps on some occasions even negative mental filtering can have a positive role to play!



Geoff Boutle

added on 19th August 2012

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