We know we should change filters frequently to keep things working well. But when it comes to our mental filters, we hold onto them as if they were precious family heirlooms. Instead of tossing our mental filters when they start gumming up the works, we pretend they are working perfectly fine. Perhaps it has never occurred to us they ought to be replaced.
In the simplest case, we use our mental filters to watch what we say or to take things with a grain of salt. Mental filters also structure our view of reality, and they do a convincing job. We are sure we know what is going on, and we expect everyone would feel the same in our shoes. We filter out the bad and let in the good. But sometimes our filters do not work well. They tune out the good as if it were the bad, and we never know the difference.
This is because these mental filters were factory-installed in childhood. Our original filters were formed to help us adjust to our families of origin. We noticed how the big people felt about things, and this got inside us in a deep way. We soaked it up because all children must learn how to act from the people around them.
This is the way that family dysfunction is passed down the line without anyone being aware of it. We learn how to work, how to have fun, and how to have relationships. No one has to spell it out; we react to each other’s moves as if practicing a wordless dance. After a while, our deep perception of the world matches that of our families. Of course, we have our own personalities and adult thoughts, but the deeply unconscious assumptions we follow are strictly hand-me-downs.
That is why we often lose the feeling of being in control once we get involved in a deeper relationship. It is also why we feel intense anxiety when faced with a challenge that our family did not prepare us for. We tend to use the old coping mechanisms that were necessary in our original families, often to the detriment of our current relationships and potential success. Our mental filters pop up and make us perceive the current situation as if it were from our past. If the emotional tone is similar enough, we start reacting as if we are trapped back in childhood.
One of the clearest books on this topic is Reinventing Your Life by Jeffrey Young. He called his approach schema therapy, meaning that we need to examine the schemas, or mental filters, that give form to our expectations about the world, other people, and ourselves. His point is that while we usually see something in the outside world as causing our problems, the person who is projecting these patterns is none other than oneself. This is because we respond to other people in ways guaranteed to maintain the behavior we do not like. As children, we learned to conform to other people, and now we may not realize we are still doing it.
For instance, let’s say you grew up with a narcissistic parent. As a child, you might logically assume that the world is made up of people you must please in order to avoid an unpleasant scene. You may learn to subjugate yourself to others and be overly concerned with their feelings. The trouble is that you will do this even with people who are not narcissistic, working way too hard to be self-effacing even when it is not necessary. Ultimately you will blame and resent the other person because you are convinced this is the inescapable price of being in a relationship. You will not question the feeling that the other person’s needs should come first and that you should put yourself last.
Or you may have had experiences with emotional deprivation, making your filter catch the slightest signs that you are being overlooked. No matter how much your current family or friends value you, you may feel that they do not really care—not enough, anyway. If you had a critical, perfectionistic parent, no amount of reassurance will make you relax and feel you have done well enough. You exhaust yourself with unrelentingly high standards that you never quite meet.
Every time you use old mental filters, you replay old experiences. If you grew up believing that it is not okay to ask for what you want, you cue other people that it is not necessary to think of you or your feelings. With our old filters operating, we see a world in which unhappiness is the price of having a relationship. Those filters keep you from creating relationships in which you count, too.
The first step in changing your filters is to figure out what they are. Taking the quizzes in Young’s book can give you a more objective perspective on why you keep getting what you do not want. Journaling your feelings and looking for repeated themes of loneliness, anger, or powerlessness is a good way to find out which filters are active in you. Seeking out self-help groups or psychotherapy can also help when the filters are hard to see and an outside viewpoint is needed.
This fall, when you are changing those dusty filters in your home, let them be a visual reminder of your own mental filters. Maybe it is we who are blocking out the good stuff that would naturally flow into our lives, simply because we do not know how to react when we get it. Not everybody is going to treat us as our families did, yet we let this small handful of people continue to dictate our experience of the world.
We would never look at our old air filter and say, “It is impossible to change it.” We would take it out, install a new one, and throw the old one away. Go looking for your filters. It may be time to replace them.
Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in practice in Va. Beach. For information, call 757-490-7811.