“My life has been filled with terrible misfortunes, most of which have never happened.”
What a great quote by Mark Twain. It humorously summarizes something that is so true, so important, and so often ignored.
Our minds are constantly bombarded with negative thoughts, visions of horrible things that may happen to us, and terrifying reasons not to do the things we want to do.
And yet in the end, these horrible things rarely happen. The thoughts cause pain by twisting yourself into thinking that things are not “kol beseder” (everything is ok, or s’all good, in Hebrew).
The worst part is that these thoughts disturb us for so long and we never do anything about them!
Well, that’s about to change.
Luckily, we have a very powerful technique available to us called “reframing”. Reframing involves identifying our unhelpful thoughts and replacing them with more positive or adaptive ones.
When Is Reframing Useful?
You are free to reframe literally any thought you ever have into something more positive.
Of course, if you tried to do that, you’d never have a chance to relax and enjoy life! It’s much better to focus primarily on reframing your negative thoughts.
But if you listen to your thoughts for long enough, you’ll probably notice that there are so many negative ones that it’s still a challenge to reframe them all.
To simplify, I’ve found that there are three main types of negative thoughts that it is most helpful to reframe.
- Limiting beliefs. A limiting belief is a thought that prevents you from accepting your full potential. These are the “I’m not good enough” thoughts. The consequences of accepting your limiting beliefs rather than challenging them are severe; you end up not achieving what you want. When you counter a limiting belief by reframing thoughts based on them, you weaken the belief and reduce the chance of it getting in the way of your goals.
- When you wish that something acceptable were better. Have you ever had a really fun night staying in your apartment, but felt like you missed out the next day when you heard about something cool your friends had done? We tend to beat ourselves up in these kinds of situations, even though we had a good time! Rather than let your mind be filled with negative thoughts, take advantage of this easy reframing situation and enjoy the moment even more.
- Specific problem areas. This can often be related to limiting beliefs, but doesn’t have to be. Perhaps you are working on a specific area of your life, such as wanting to lose weight. You want to go to the gym, but it’s raining out and you don’t want to get wet. In this situation, you can use reframing as a way to motivate yourself to go.
When you get down to it, reframing is more a piece of “software” that should be installed in your mind. While you might not reframe everything, you should at least be able to whenever a good situation for it arises.
Principles Of Reframing And How To Do It
There are a few principles to keep in mind when considering the reframing technique.
It is critical that you know and accept these principles before you start actively trying to add reframing to your personal development toolkit. A reframe is far more effective when you understand what’s going on behind the thought.
The first basic principle is that events or situations do not have inherent meaning; rather, you assign them a meaning based on how you interpret the event.
This can be difficult to accept, but you must. Even when something seemingly horrible happens to you, it is only horrible because of the way you look at it.
This is not to make light of tragedy. It’s perfectly ok to be sad when something seemingly bad occurs. That being said, even a “bad” event can be given a “good” meaning.
The second principle is that every thought has a hidden “frame” behind it. The frame is your underlying beliefs and assumptions that are implied by your thought.
For example, when you think “I’ll never get that promotion I want because I’m not a brown-nosed ass-kisser at work”, part of the frame is that only suck-ups get promoted.
The final principle is that there is a positive intention behind every negative thought.
That inner voice of yours that expresses negativity is only doing so because it wants to help you in some way. That doesn’t make the thoughts right or acceptable of course, but it does mean that your inner voice is not an enemy to be resisted.
By finding the positive intentions behind your thoughts, you can work with your mind to find a positive reframe. That is far more effective than chastising yourself for having negative thoughts in the first place!
So, without further ado, let’s get into the actual technique of reframing. At it’s simplest, reframing involves just two steps: observing a negative thought, and then replacing it with a positive one.
Observing Your Negative Thoughts
If you’ve never tried to pick up on your negative thoughts before, implementing the techniques in this section will probably shock you.
Negative thoughts pop up in your mind about a gazillion times per day, often follow the same few patterns, and usually sneak by unquestioned.
It’s time to put a stop to this.
Here are a couple of ways to help you observe your negative thoughts.
- Keep a thought journal. Even if you get nothing else from this article, you will be amazed at what you find out about yourself from keeping a thought journal. Keep a small notepad in your pocket or bag so it is available at all times. I’ve found that trying to take notes on my phone is too slow, but you are free to try it. Anytime you have a negative thought, write it down in your journal. This immediately stops your negative thought in it’s tracks. It also allows you to analyze your negative thoughts and notice the most common problem areas or limiting beliefs you should work on.
- The Rubber Band Technique. This method may feel a little silly at first, but I guarantee it is one of the fastest ways to change a behavior. Wear a rubber band around your wrist. It should be tight enough that it stays on and can make a nice snap when pulled, but loose enough that it is comfortable and won’t break. Any time you have a negative thought, give the rubber band a snap. Like writing it down, this stops a negative thought in its tracks immediately, but it also conditions you to have fewer negative thoughts in the future.
For a double-whammy, use both the rubber band technique and a thought journal.
I have no scientific basis for this time frame, but doing both will likely have you performing incredibly successful reframes within just a few days.
It can be tempting to ignore this first step, but do so at your own peril. Observing your own thoughts is fundamental to being able to reframe them successfully.
Replacing Negative Thoughts With Positive Ones
This is the flashy part of reframing…you know, the part that all the major news channels and celebrities are talking about.
Ok, so it may not be THAT flashy, but it’s still what most people think about when they consider reframing.
Before moving on, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of the previous section. If you haven’t been observing your negative thoughts, you simply will not be as successful at replacing them.
Anyways, here are some valuable tactics to help you replace your negative thoughts with positive ones.
- Use milder wording. This one is really easy, and you should start doing it immediately. Words do matter, and if your thought is worded with a more mild negative, you won’t feel as bad. For example, if you were to think “I really hate that guy”, you would feel worse than if you thought “I’m not a fan of that guy”. So go with the second one.
- Ask yourself: “What is the best way for me to accomplish this?” When you are facing a challenge or fear, you can ask yourself this question to help you focus on the solution rather than the problem. The phrase “best way” implies that there are multiple ways around the problem and focuses on the positive.
- Ask yourself: “What can I learn from this?” Now, instead of having a problem, you have a way to improve yourself. Every challenge is also an opportunity to learn, so take advantage of it.
- Challenge your assumptions. Try to figure out what the frame behind your thought is. Chances are you have a limiting belief that is encouraging you to think negatively about your situation. This limiting belief is based on assumptions you have made that probably are not true. Find reasons why they aren’t true, and you chip away at the beliefs causing the negative thoughts. This is the most powerful long term reframing technique, and it is far more effective if you’ve been keeping a thought journal.
These techniques are like rules of thumb that you should have available for when negative thoughts rear their ugly head. They will help you come up with “band-aid” reframes in a pinch.
Easy Reframes For Common Situations
“We’re not retreating…we’re just advancing in a different direction!”
If you really want to succeed with this, you should figure out what your most common negative thoughts are and have a specific reframe available whenever you have that thought.
Consistently applied, you will find yourself instinctively thinking positively in situations that you had previously had horrible thoughts of.
Many of the negative thought patterns you probably experience involve a cognitive distortion, or your mind putting “spin” on the events that happen to you.
See if you can recognize any of these cognitive distortions within yourself as you go through this section.
“People Never Listen To Me.”
This is an example of all-or-nothing reasoning.
Another example would be “I always get things wrong.”
The key characteristic of this cognitive distortion is a word like “always” or “never”. When reframing all-or-nothing reasoning, it can be helpful to think of counter-examples.
Reframe: “While it’s unfortunate that this person doesn’t appreciate my idea as much as they should, many other people do. In fact, just yesterday I had a number of people agree with my proposal about ___.”
“Something Bad Is About To Happen.”
One of the most common cognitive distortions is fortune telling, or predicting the future in a negative way.
These types of thoughts can cause serious anxiety, and need to be controlled. It can be helpful to remind ourselves that we don’t know everything and certainly don’t have the power to predict the future.
Oftentimes we make predictions that don’t come true, so why should we assume that we’ll be right this time?
Reframe: “I’m not sure what the future will bring, but chances are high that it will be good.”
“Anyone Could Do What I Do.”
This is an example of discounting the positive, or minimizing the significance of your accomplishments or something else positive in your life.
We can’t have that! The best way to reframe this is to focus on your strengths.
Reframe: “I’m very good at what I do. My skillzzzz are impressive, and lots of people are probably envious.”
“Since _____ Went Wrong, Everything Will Go Wrong.”
Over-generalization is another common cognitive distortion that can wreak havoc on our minds.
Here, we take a negative situation as implying that all sorts of other unrelated negative things will happen because of it.
To counter an over-generalization, you just need to put the event in perspective by recognizing it as an isolated incident.
Reframe: ”Although ____ went wrong, I can handle the challenge that it presents. And besides, it’s just one failure amidst many probable successes!”
“______ Is All My Fault!”
Sometimes we like to pin the blame for something squarely on ourselves.
While you should take responsibility for yourself and your actions, you don’t need to accept blame for things that are not your fault. Chances are there were some factors beyond your control.
Reframe: “I contributed to the problem here, and I accept full responsibility for the part that is my fault. Never the less, there were factors beyond my control, so I can’t blame myself for everything that went wrong.”
“If Only I Had ___, Then I Could ____.”
If you find yourself having thoughts of this nature often, you have limiting beliefs that need to be handled.
Make sure you start keeping a thought journal so you can get to the bottom of it.
Your limiting belief is putting conditions on your success. Road blocks are continuously put up to keep you away from your goal, keeping it just out of reach and decreasing your motivation.
A couple examples of this type of thought would be “Once I drop ten pounds I’ll be able to get all the ladies”, “I can’t quit my [awful, boring, life-sucking] job and pursue my passion until I have more money saved up”, or “without permission from my parents I can’t get that tattoo I always wanted.”
Reframe: ”Nothing is stopping me from achieving my goals.”
“I Can’t Handle This.”
This thought pops up usually as a response to a larger than average stressor.
You take the fact that you are experiencing something challenging, and you magnify it to the point of impossibility.
I recommend that when you have this type of thought, you pause for a moment before your reframe and do something to help reduce the stress. Take five slow, deep breaths, and then give ‘em one of these…
Reframe: ”I’ve faced many challenges before, and I’ve conquered all of them. Not only that, but they rarely turn out to be anything significant in the grand scheme of things.”
“I’ve Been Rejected! I’m Worthless!”
The feeling of rejection can be very painful, but it need not be.
Who gets to decide what counts as rejection and what doesn’t, anyways?
When I was rejected for several jobs that I had applied for nearly a year ago, I was upset.
But were it not for those “rejections”, I wouldn’t be living it up in a foreign country right now! I couldn’t be happier to have been rejected.
Reframe: ”Missing this opportunity may turn out to be a fantastic thing for me” or “I can’t take it personally; she probably was in a bad mood” or “It’s better that I tried and failed than to have not tried at all”.
So there you have it: everything you need to know about the awesome technique of reframing your thoughts. We’ve covered a lot, so a quick summary might be useful.
- Reframing involves changing your perspective on a given situation to give it a more positive or beneficial meaning to you.
- Reframing can be used to help remove limiting beliefs, to help appreciate positive moments that you might otherwise miss, or for any other negative thought you would like to change.
- Our assumptions help us provide meaning to events that don’t have any inherent meaning. Even when our inner voice has something negative to say, there is a positive intention behind it.
- The first step in reframing is to observe your negative thoughts. Keep a thought journal and use the rubber band technique to help you better understand your own internal dialogue.
- The second step is to replace the negative thoughts with a more positive one. It helps here to challenge the implied assumptions behind your thoughts.
- There are a lot of common negative thought patterns, and you can arm yourself against them in advance.
Ok, your turn. Can you think of other ways to use reframing to make your inner dialogue more positive?