Selective Abstraction: Maximizing the Negative and Minimizing the Positive

· December 16, 2016

Selective abstraction is a cognitive distortion that makes you feel like the negative outweighs the positive in life. It’s not something you do on purpose, it simply becomes an automatic way of processing reality. It’s very likely that you’ve adopted this way of thinking through “educational inheritance” and never stopped to think about it.

When you live in an environment where the negative aspects of people and situations are highlighted, you get used to thinking that this type of analysis is the correct way to think. This perspective will gradually become fixed in your brainand because of this you won’t be able to detect the cracks in your reasoning.

You may have even incorporated some justifications for thinking this way. Maybe you think that if you only focus on the negative, you run less risk of feeling disappointed or frustrated when you don’t achieve a goal or find mistakes or emptiness and flaws in other people. Or maybe you think that seeing the negative is a more analytical and critical attitude, because the good things don’t need to change, instead it’s the bad things that should be improved.

Selective abstraction in daily life

People who maintain this cognitive distortion become angry often. It’s normal for them to have en entire catalog of things they can’t stand or things that make them angry. They don’t put up with lateness, they tolerate lying much less, and conformity and trends make them explode. Meanwhile, they feel indignant and even attacked by other people’s mistakes.

woman and bird

Selective abstraction is not only directed at the external world. It’s also, and especially, applied to oneself. This results in people who we say “put together a movie in their heads.” In other words, they’re people who tend to imagine the outcome of all situations as terrible, or at least negative for them.

Here’s an example: a boyfriend is a bit late to a date with his girlfriend. She starts to freak out and think that maybe this is his way of telling her that he’s not so interested in her anymore.


She ends up thinking that he is an inconsiderate and selfish man who doesn’t love her, as he’s told her in her imagination many times. When he arrives, she throws all these accusations at him, without realizing that he was late because of a car accident, something that wasn’t his fault or intention.

Another example, this time applied to work, is that of someone who has carefully prepared a presentation, and as they expected, it was successful. However, one of the attendees makes a minor criticism of their presentation. The presenter completely loses the feeling of triumph, and the only thing that gets stored in their memory is this criticism, which they’ll relive over and over again in the following days.

They leave thinking that the others also had criticisms, but only one expressed it out loud. They come to think that all their effort was in vain, because the presentation didn’t live up to their expectations, which were conditional on fulfilling other people’s expectations.

Fighting against selective abstraction

Living in the mode of selective abstraction will inevitably drive you to anger and frustration. It doesn’t enrich your life in any way, nor is it a thought process that you should cultivate. On the contrary, it is advisable to eradicate this automatic thinking so that you can live a more complete life. But how can you do it?

woman with flowers in hair

Like all mechanical behavior, the first thing to do is become aware that you’re doing it. Ask yourself the following question: How much value do I give to the negative aspects of people or situations? Do I think in some way that negativity deserves more attention than positive things?

Once you recognize the existence of selective abstraction in your thinking, the next thing to do is carry out a process of self-observation to detect whether it happens with everything, or whether it’s activated only in certain circumstances. This attitude of self-vigilance will allow you to realize how to undo the distortion. Most likely you’ll discover that the mechanism is fired in certain circumstances that make you feel insecure.

When this moment comes say to yourself: “Hey, you’re seeing only the bad things,” you’re ready to make the next step. Why not try to see the good, the positive?

Try to turn it into a permanent exercise, almost another automatic way of thinking. For every negative evaluation you make of someone or something, immediately try to counter with a positive one. “I found this defect, so now I must find a virtue.” That way, you’ll be on the way to overcoming the terrible weight of selective abstraction.

woman in snow

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