Healthy Weight, Healthy Mind: The Problem with Filter Focus

We are pleased to bring you this regular column by Dr. David Creel, a licensed psychologist, certified clinical exercise physiologist and registered dietitian. He is also credentialed as a certified diabetes educator and the author of A Size That Fits: Lose Weight and Keep it off, One Thought at a Time (NorLightsPress, 2017).

Do you have a weight loss question for Dr. Creel? Email him at [email protected]. He may answer your question in a future column.

A friend of mine used to say, “Filter-focus!” when she saw a good-looking guy who grabbed her attention. She would fan herself as she repeated the phrase filter-focus, filter-focus. Her objective was to filter out thoughts about him so she could focus on what she was doing.

At any given moment we’re bombarded by information from at least four of our five senses. As children we’re easily distracted and don’t always filter and focus well. For instance, kids may dart into traffic when they see something interesting. But as we learn and our brains mature, we become better at filtering out a tremendous amount of data by prioritizing. This mostly happens “behind the scenes” without our awareness. This filtering activity often affects our attitudes and behavior.

Depending on our personality and experiences, we can learn to filter out information — or we can prioritize it in ways that cause unnecessary and harmful stress.

Some people filter out accomplishments and focus only on their deficiencies, especially those related to weight. An example would be ignoring the two pounds you lost, while focusing on a package of cookies you ate this morning. This viewpoint leads down a road of frustration and hopelessness, paved with the perceived tragedy of many failures. Don’t get me wrong, we do need to understand and evaluate our mishaps, but only if we also enjoy our positive attributes and success.

Filter-focus fallacy can expand to include our overall moods and life perspective. Choosing to mainly focus on the positive aspects of life changes your outlook on every situation, the people you encounter, and yourself. If you’re accustomed to negativity, the idea of changing to a positive focus may seem “soft” and unrealistic. “The world is a hard place,” these people say. “Better get used to it.”

Yes, bad things happen all around us — but what about the good stuff? If you let your mind process life according to the nightly news, you won’t feel uplifted or positive toward your own life and the people around you. School shootings, murder, scandals, politicians verbally attacking each other, traffic congestion, and impending bad weather, slightly tempered with a sprinkle of a feel-good story or humor — that’s the news, every day. If we want to experience joy, we should avoid seeing our lives from a nightly-news perspective. Furthermore, if we want to stay committed                  to healthy living, we cannot filter out our achievements and focus only on failures.

When I review a food journal with someone who has filter-focus problems, the conversation often goes something like this:

“Thanks for letting me take a look at this. You did a nice job of consistently tracking your food. Tell me a little bit about what went well and what you’re still struggling with.”

“Well, I’m still snacking too much at night and I know I need to eat breakfast every day, but I don’t. This week has been terrible for exercise because I’ve been working more and I’m just so tired when I get home.”

“Ok, but you did eat breakfast four times this week, which is an improvement, and I notice you’re taking your lunch a bit more instead of going out to eat.”

“Yeah, but I’m still eating out too much. I want to get out of the office and when my co-workers suggest it, I go. I just don’t seem to have much willpower when it comes to lunch, especially on the days when I skip breakfast.”

“I understand you still want to make improvements, but over the past several weeks you’ve been moving in that direction. What do you think you did well that led to you losing weight?”

“Well I’m just kicking myself right now because I wanted to lose five pounds in two weeks and I only lost three. I need to dedicate myself much more to exercise and sticking closer to the plan.”

Despite promptings, this patient could not give herself credit for her accomplishments. If you’ve ever been involved with someone who filtered out your accomplishments and focused on your imperfections, you understand the consequences. No matter what you do it isn’t good enough, and if you succeed at something they remind you of previous failures with statements like these:

“I wish you’d done that a long time ago, I don’t know why it took you so long to figure it out.”

“I see you made the honor roll, but why did you get a ‘B’ in that class. Were you goofing off?”

“Your sales figures topped everyone else’s this month, but you should aim higher than that.”

“If you people really cared about this project you’d be working more overtime.”

Do comments like this motivate you to do your best? Do they spur you on? I doubt it. Instead you feel beaten down. The joy of accomplishment is easily squashed, and after a while you think, “Why bother? Nothing I do will be good enough.”

When we talk to ourselves in the same way, the same feelings emerge. The other harmful aspect of filter-focus is that constructive criticism is no longer effective. When you or someone else finds fault with everything you do, one criticism becomes just like all of the others. On the other hand, when you’re able to focus on what you’ve done well you’re more likely to appreciate a valid critique.