Use Cognitive Reframing to Enhance Emotional Wellness

Mental Reframe

Two people experience the same stimuli.

One person is upset. The other is neutral.

Why does each individual have a different emotional experience for the same event? It really depends on how each one framed the situation.

Do we have the ability to choose which frame we use?

Yes.

Can this ability be taught?

We think so!

Everyone can learn to reframe. In fact, the more people that learn to reframe in our lives, the less destructive tension we will experience as a society.

What is Reframing?

Reframing is expanding one’s perception to interpret things in more than one way. It enables us to see possibilities beyond our initial knee-jerk reactions. Reframing enhances our mental capacity for sustained well-being, and like any skill – it gets easier, and becomes automatic with practice.

While feeling better is often the result of reframing, the intent behind it is to grow in our awareness of the possibilities beyond our initial interpretation of an event.

Isn’t Reframing just Rationalizing?

Rationalizing is not reframing. Rationalization is often used to help one feel better about committing an act they know to be wrong (e.g. “At least I didn’t steal all of the pens” or “I could have called him a lot worse”).

The effects of rationalization are temporary and won’t lead to the long-term positive changes that accompany persistent reframing. Rationalizing is not so much a skill, but a reaction to a negative feeling. Reframing is analogous to exercise, while rationalizing is analogous to taking a pill to make you feel as if you exercised.

Why Should I Reframe?

According to psychology blogger and author David McRaney:

Reframing is one of those psychological tools that just plain works. It’s practical, simple, and with practice and repetition it often leads to real change in people with a variety of thinking problems.

That convinced us. Hopefully, it will convince you too.

Learning to reframe requires a Little Change.

Little Change IconMake this Little Change

1. Maintain the awareness that your initial interpretation of an event could be plain wrong, or at least *not entirely accurate*.

2. Consider that even if it is accurate, you are likely seeing it from a very *limited* vantage point.

3. Ponder other possible ways to see the same event in a different light *without disregarding the facts*. These ideas become your possible reframes.

4. Choose the frame that is the most *positive*, yet still *plausible*.

Although reframing allows for plenty of creativity, any additional perspectives we create need to fall within the realm of possibility, remain truthful to the known facts at hand, and be believable.

A Real Life Example

Imagine yourself walking past a group of people on a city sidewalk. They were quietly talking amongst themselves. Shortly after passing them you hear the entire group burst into laughter.

Now imagine feeling an immediate emotional reaction of embarrassment and your thoughts quickly turning to the idea they are laughing at you. Now you are feeling angry and self conscious.

Let’s reframe.

  1. Remind yourself that your initial reaction may not have been the most accurate. You will become more readily aware of this fact over time.

  2. Consider the only observable data is that you heard a group of people laughing. Why they laughed and what they laughed about are unknown.

  3. Ponder what other possibilities could have provoked their laughter: They could have been passing a phone around and laughing at a meme. One of them could have accidentally spilled their drink all over their shirt, and the others laughed at that. One of them could have told a joke.

  4. The most positive, yet plausible explanation may be that someone in the group told a joke that provoked the rest of them to laugh.

It’s true that you may never know the real reason for their laughter. If we only operate on our initial assumptions, we won’t know the real reason anyway – only the worst possible explanation. It’s ambiguous either way.

If we are going to live with ambiguity, wouldn’t it be in our own best interests to operate on the most positive of all plausible assumptions?

If you’ve been a self conscious person your entire life until now, it will be natural for you to interpret a situation like this in the most personal way. This is completely normal and understandable.

Consistently making the Little Change of reframing will help produce new patterns of thought to emerge for future scenarios.

Don’t Bad Things Actually Happen?

Yes, bad things do happen. We’re not claiming that you never have to be concerned. Reframing isn’t about living a life of denial. On the contrary, positive reframes are often closer to the truth than our initial imaginings.

As we continue to practice the Little Change of reframing we may discover that many of our anxieties were the result of exaggerations, wild guesses, faulty assumptions, and our emotional reactions to them.

As the mental chatter and emotional turmoil slowly begins to fade, the truly bad things in life that require action may come to our attention more readily and clearly.

The Outcome of Reframing

Imagine the above real life example after consistent practice with reframing.

Two people walk past a group of people on a city sidewalk. Shortly after passing them, both people hear the entire group burst into laughter.

One person has the thought, “They’re laughing at me!” The other is one ponders, “I wonder what the joke was?”

At the end of the day, how we feel about a situation often depends on how we frame the situation.

When Not to Reframe

To be fair there are many factors that lead to why we frame events the way that we do. We are not discounting anyone’s personal story, but we suggest reframing as a tool to help improve our emotional responses to future distressing events as they occur.

It goes without saying there are traumatic experiences that provoke normal, negative emotions in nearly everyone who experiences them. For example, we are not suggesting that one reframes being a victim of a violent crime as it is happening.

Reframing is suggested here to help establish new patterns of thought that may help us relate to the typical, everyday stressors in a more creative, positive and productive way.

Tell us about some of your reframes in the comments below.

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