Cognitive reframing is extremely effective, if you know how and when to use it.
Used properly – and consistently – it will help you eliminate negative thoughts, challenge limiting beliefs, and become a happier person.
Thoughts shape beliefs, beliefs shape emotions, and emotions shape behaviour. If you want to change something you think, feel, or do, start by using reframing to shape your thoughts.
Let’s get to it…
First Off… What IS Cognitive Reframing?
Cognitive reframing – also known as cognitive restructuring – is a psychological technique that allows you to actively reprogram your brain. In short, if you change your beliefs, you create a real, physical change in your brain.
Your brain is like a muscle with many different parts, and just like a muscle, the parts you use often get bigger and stronger. There was a study done on cab drivers in London, comparing their brain scans with brain scans of average people.
They found the brain area responsible for mapping and memorizing routes (the hippocampus) is more developed in cab drivers. And not just more developed, but physically bigger.
When you think negative thoughts, you strengthen negative parts of your mind. A negative thought becomes a negative belief, a negative belief becomes a negative emotion, a negative emotion becomes negative behaviour.
No matter what you want to change – something you do, something you feel, or something you believe, the change begins with your thoughts.
Let’s run through a mental exercise to see exactly how cognitive reframing works in real life. After the example, I’ll break the process down into steps so you’ll be able to apply them right away.
Say you’re telling your friend a story. You notice him looking around, and attribute it to disinterest. Seconds later, he checks his phone. Now you KNOW you’re boring, and feel embarrassed. You question yourself, and for the rest of the day you feel shitty and insecure.
In this situation, the conclusion seems bullet proof. But it isn’t so – the idea that your perception matches reality is called “naive realism”. The truth is, it’s all a matter of perception.
“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you perceive what happens to you.”
Cognitive Reframing in 5 Easy Steps
1) Learn About Basic Cognitive Errors
You don’t perceive reality accurately. Between what happens, you perceiving it, and you drawing conclusions about it, there’s a lot of room for mistakes. Here’s a list of common mental errors.
2) Develop Mental Awareness
Once you know what to be aware of, it’s time to start practising. A trained mind is like an exclusive club – before anyone gets in, they go through security.
That’s exactly what I’m asking you to do now. If you’re harbouring negative thoughts, it’s because your security is weak. You let in some lame ass people and they’re ruining your club.
3) Challenge Your Conclusions
This is the most important step of cognitive reframing. Once you understand the types of mental errors and develop an awareness of them, it’s time to start challenging your ideas.
In our example, challenging the ideas means looking at alternatives. Does your friend usually look around while you talk? Is it just you, or does he do it to other people? Is he usually attentive? Could he be expecting an important phone call or text? Could there be something going on he might not want to talk about?
Usually, this process happens at the subconscious level. Your brain would’ve quickly ran through these options, and based on your past experiences, brought the most likely scenario to your conscious awareness.
“My life has been filled with terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.”
4) Replace Faulty Beliefs
Faulty beliefs are the fuel of negative patterns. Find and replace the faulty beliefs, and you’ll free yourself from negative patterns in your life. The most extreme attempt at this was in the 1600’s, when some French guy named Descartes ran off into solitude in an attempt to examine and replace every single faulty belief he held.
A much less lonely option is to deal with negative beliefs as they come up. Each time you reframe a negative thought, you prevent one more brick being added to the wall.
If you really want to go next level and dive into your mind, think about WHY those negative beliefs came to mind in the first place.
5) Practical Tips
All of this is useless if you don’t use it. Here are some ways you can actively practice cognitive reframing right away, in your day to day life.
The Elastic Band Technique:
Wear a rubber band around your wrist, and whenever you have a negative thought, snap it lightly. It’s not to hurt yourself, just a gentle physical sensation to raise awareness.
Watch Your Words:
The language you use creates your reality. Do you really HATE your job? Is the food really disgusting, or just not that good? Are you really a useless idiot, or did you just make a mistake?
Look For Positives:
On a day to day basis, whether you feel positive or negative is mostly a matter of perception. For every negative thought, there’s a positive counter, and vice versa. The state of your mind will reflect where you place your focus, so be mindful of your choices.
Dirty dishes – an annoying chore, or a sign that you’re eating well? Stuck in traffic – an infuriating combination of bad driving and bureaucratic incompetence, or time to relax and listen to a new podcast?
Have a negative pattern you’re trying to break? Struggling with an insecurity? Feeling anxious because of troubling thoughts? Get in touch and learn how I can help!
Join the discussion 15 Comments
Great article. You didn’t mention NLP or that the map is not the territory. Do you have an NLP background or something different? I like when thoughts from different backgrounds and origins converge to confirm the same hypothesis. It proves correctness. Sort of like checking your math.
Keep up the good work!
Thanks, glad you enjoyed! If you’re interested in my background, I did a full write up on my about page.
I found your article informative. I will probobly reference it in my paper. Do you think cognitive reframing could help solve global issues? Also, for a great book about cognitive thresholds, gridlock, the way we have evolved our thinking and some solutions to help solve society’s issues, The Watchman’s Rattle by Rebecca Costa is a thought-provoking read.
Thanks for the info Rene, I’ll definitely check it out!
Cognitive reframing is a vital technique, and if it leads to a better understanding of opposing perspectives it could certainly impact important negotiations on a global scale.
Another good book about reframing is “what love is” by Byron Katie.
It’s strictly about point 3 but as an exercise of making up different versions of the same belief, to stretch the mind.
Personally I prefer to focus on stress felt in the body and ask myself why is it triggering to me.
Looking for excuses for someone who is behaving not so well might be dangerous, we could interfere with our intuition and cut ourselves from the body. It’s not about the other person so I don’t find asking myself is he checking his phone because he’s waiting for a call useful. I shouldn’t care about that. He is being disrespectful but what can I do about it, I can stop talking, I can tell him how it looks like, I can ask if he is bored, find another friend, leave the room, many options.
Let’s differentiate reactions that are not raised because of false beliefs but are biologically built in. People are social creatures, feeling bad in such a situation is a sign we might loose our bonds, it should be stressful. Looking into the body will tell us this. The problem arises if we hold onto this situation and ruminate forever, can’t let go and draw conclusions about ourselves. It could mean that we want to identify as we concluded and we can ask ourselves why.
Could you help me to learn how to do reframing for a misophonioa issue? I have just certain triggers at night mostly and I believe I know where those came from and when started to happen. Thank you 🙂
Sure! With cognitive reframing I need the original frame first though, once I know that we can take it from there.
How would you apply this to trichotillomania, I understand being aware of it then refraining from doing so, but for me I’m 10 years into it and it isn’t as easy for me to just be aware and to stop doing it. Would greatly appreciate your advice.
What you’re describing is a behavioural issue, in this case cognitive reframing is useful in digging into the beliefs leading to that behaviour.
For example, if you are engaging in hair pulling due to stress, we would examine your thought patterns and how to use reframing to lower your stress levels.
Think of it like this: Thought/Belief -> Emotion -> Behaviour , and cognitive reframing is something that would address the belief part of that equation.
CBT can be useful. Unfortunately, it’s very uni-dimensional, simplistic and superficial. It goes to the extreme to pretend that all of life’s events can simply be re-interpreted so that one can have some semblance of a positive experience, no matter what. That works for some things in life, but not for the more complex and meaningful things. I attended a webinar given by a very famous and well-established CBT-er who actually stated that the suffering of the (still living) victims of 9/11 was just a negative interpretation of events. For those of us who enjoy the richer, deeper, more nuanced experiences of life — with all their genuine joys and sorrows — CBT only scratches the surface. That said, your article describing cog reframing was well-written and informative.
Thanks for your input!
I can appreciate that CBT is not the answer for everything, and it’s worth acknowledging the limitations. That said, it seems you have a negative view of CBT and have reduced it to something more indicative of the way you utilize it than of the methodology itself.
No competent practitioner is going to suggest that suffering should be disowned and labelled as a negative interpretation of events. I don’t know who said that about the victims of 9/11, or in what context, but I’m glad you were skeptical.
I’m currently a college student and live with two roommates. My boyfriend moved in suddenly and now he has moved out for job reasons and I’m having a really hard time adjusting. I cry and I feel like I need him there to be able to do anything. I know doing long distance can help a relationship but I keep thinking of the negative and what if he finds someone what if he’s doing stuff on his phone because if he is I’ll never know and I don’t want to get hurt. I was use to living with my big family and my roommates make me feel excluded and I feel even more lonely that I even consider to stop attending school and move back home. I don’t know how to stop this anxious feelings of needing someone there for me and it’s ruining my everyday life.
I don’t think this is something that can be dealt with using a single cognitive technique like reframing. I recommend going to your college’s counselling office and setting up an appointment, there’s a lot here to unpack. All the best!
I had lived with arrongant,rude and negative or self centred people.Due to their mis behaviour I got a negative frame of mind and insecurity,anxiety as well because they had negative counter for my every positive thought.I also felt same as Victoria described above and went through schizophrenia as well.
Hi can you please leave examples on how to reframe?