What Is Cognitive Reframing And Why Do Therapists Use It?
By Nadia Khan
Updated January 02, 2019
Reviewer Robin Brock
Cognitive reframing is a word most people don't use every day. It refers to something we all do at one time or another. Sometimes, we helpfully reframe things, but other times, we decide to look at things in a more negative light. Psychologists have put this mental process to work as a part of cognitive behavioral therapy. So, what is cognitive reframing, exactly?
What Is Cognitive Reframing?
When life presents us with a situation, we usually decide what meaning the situation has for us almost immediately. That meaning is the 'frame' we give it. We don't have to continue viewing it in that frame, though. Instead, we can give it a different meaning by changing the way we think and feel about it.
Definition Of Cognitive Reframing
Cognitive reframing is a process we go through to create a cognitive shift. When we're confronted with a situation, it may look grim and impossible to deal with. However, after we examine our thinking to look for cognitive distortions, we can come to a more positive yet realistic view.
Positive And Negative Cognitive Reframing
Cognitive reframing is something we do naturally. Here's an example of negative cognitive reframing:
Someone gives you an electronic device. They tell you they bought it especially for you because they knew you wanted one. The tablet seems to work well, and you feel happy and grateful to have such a good friend. Then, you start thinking about how wealthy your friend is and how you're struggling to make ends meet. Suddenly you change the way you think of the gift. Instead of a generous gift and a sign of friendship, you begin to think of the gift as charity. This makes you angry, and you begin avoiding your friend. You have just reframed a good experience to look at it in a negative light.
Positive cognitive reframing is the reverse process:
Say for example you see your wife in a men's clothing store. You always buy your clothes, so you're suspicious right away. Why is she here? She looks up at you and then hurries away. You feel ignored and disrespected because you've assigned her actions meaning that she's trying to hide something from you. You don't want to think bad things about your wife. So, you decide to give her the benefit of the doubt. You ask yourself if you were jumping to a negative conclusion. Then, you remember that your anniversary is coming up later in the week. She's probably buying you a gift! You think. Now, you begin to feel happy with her. You leave the store to get her a gift. Now, you've reframed what at first seemed a negative situation into a more positive and realistic one.
Cognitive Reframing Vs. Cognitive Restructuring
Cognitive reframing is something we do naturally and often unconsciously. Cognitive restructuring is the same process, but it's done systematically and deliberately. When a psychologist guides you through this process, it's called cognitive restructuring.
What Are Cognitive Distortions?
Cognitive distortions are ways of thinking that are unhelpful or irrational. If you're naturally doing cognitive reframing on your own, you may or may not realize where your thinking has gone wrong. However, in cognitive behavioral therapy, your therapist helps you learn about cognitive distortions and identify specific distortions in your thinking.
Common Cognitive Distortions
The list of cognitive distortions we practice as humans are extremely long. It sometimes seems that we would rather do anything but look at our world through a foggy lens. You can correct any of these distortions, though. Here are some of the most common cognitive distortions and how a counselor might help you reframe them.
All-or-nothing thinking is just what it sounds like. We do it when we think someone, something or some situation can only be all good or all bad, all true or all untrue, or in any other way all of one kind. Few things or people can be realistically seen in this way. Anything with any complexity at all is almost sure to have different attributes, some you like and some you dislike. A counselor might ask you to consider if there's anything you notice about the thing, person, or situation that is partly different than what you've indicated.
In Scientific American, Piercarlo Valdesolo defines magical thinking this way:
"'Magical thinking' (as it has been called) is defined as the belief that an object, action or circumstance not logically related to a course of events can influence its outcome."
Valdesolo goes on to talk about the fact that stepping on a crack has nothing whatsoever to do with breaking your mother's back. The article focuses on an experiment that shows how doing something we consider lucky can help us perform better.
However, we often engage in magical thinking about subjects that have nothing to do with our performance. This cognitive distortion can cause us to make critical errors in our behavior. Consider the person who thinks a specific lottery outlet is lucky. In fact, they're so sure they're going to win if they buy a ticket at that location that they pour hundreds of dollars into the venture. Meanwhile, hundreds of other people are buying their lottery tickets there. Realistically, some will win, and more will lose, no matter where they buy their tickets. This is magical thinking
A counselor can help you find any instances of this magical thinking as you discuss your situation. Then, they can guide you in considering if luck or other superstitious beliefs can help you or hurt you. They can help you do some cognitive reframing so that you can look at the situation more realistically.
Here are some over-generalizations you might have thought or said:
- It happened once so that it will happen again.
- That person will act like all the other people of their kind.
- I blew that interview, so I'll blow the next one.
- The last time I went out in the cold, I got sick, so I can't go out in the cold, or I'll get sick again.
- That person didn't ask me on a second date. No one ever will. No one will ever love me.
The list could go on and on. The main thing to remember about overgeneralization is that it's rarely accurate. A counselor can help you see where you're using this cognitive distortion and use any of a variety of techniques to help you form a more accurate view.
Magnifying and minimizing are two opposite distortions. When we magnify things, we make them bigger than they are. When we minimize, we see things as insignificant that may be important. Correcting these distortions can be difficult on your own because you don't want to flip to the opposite distortion. What you need is to find the true impact of something rather than immediately labeling it as large and important or small and insignificant.
In emotional reasoning, you base your conclusions on the way you feel rather than on valid evidence.
For example, think about what it would be like to give birth for the first time. Most women would feel somewhat apprehensive. Suppose you were on your way to the hospital and nearly got into a wreck. Now, you're feeling even more on edge.
Based on your anxious emotions, you start thinking that something is going to go wrong with the birth. You might think you wouldn't be afraid if something bad weren't about to happen. This is the emotional reasoning. It's probably too late to correct this distortion before you give birth, but your counselor can help you identify that instance of emotional thinking and learn how to avoid it in the future.
Personalizing is making something that's abstract or not about you into something that's directed at you. You can also personalize when you get into an argument. If you run out of evidence to support your view, you might start attacking the person making the statement you disagree with. You can benefit from keeping what's general and keeping personalities out of the argument. Your counselor might challenge the thoughts that led you to personalize, helping you see the real issues at play.
Negative and positive predictions can keep us from doing what we need to do. If we're typically pessimistic, we may assume that things are going to go badly for us most of the time. If we're usually optimistic, we assume the opposite. However, no one knows the future completely. Even what we can reasonably expect in the future may not turn out the way we thought it would.
Some negative or positive predictions are based on facts. But, too often, we get into a habit of making the same type of prediction often - either negative or positive - not based on facts but on that habit. You may not even realize you've made a prediction, but it might be implicit in another thought. A counselor can help you identify it, think it through, and decide whether it's realistic or not.
Catastrophizing is a specific type of overgeneralization. When something happens that we don't like, we catastrophize it if we believe it's worse than it is. We may also make negative predictions about the impact this small thing is going to have in our lives. Catastrophizing can lead you to feel overwhelmed by something that doesn't even matter in the larger situation. When you're catastrophizing, you can become very upset and even hopeless. It's crucial to get a handle on the true significance or lack of significance that event holds for you.
Negatively/Positively Biased Recall
Somehow, it seems easier for humans to remember past events in a positive light than to see them realistically. Sometimes, though, we take the opposite viewpoint and remember things in a negative light, especially if our experience is different at present. It's helpful to be able to look at the past in the most realistic way possible, especially if you are using past experiences as a basis for a current decision. A therapist can help you examine and evaluate the specific thoughts behind your prediction and help you form a more realistic view.
Why Psychologists Use Cognitive Reframing
Why would psychologists spend their time and ours working with a process we can do ourselves? The truth is that, although we do cognitive reframing quite naturally, we don't always do it in helpful ways. By deliberately restructuring our thinking, a psychologist can put this natural process to better purposes than most of us do without realizing it.
Cognitive restructuring focuses on creating positive outcomes. When we do cognitive reframing, we often have quite different agendas. We may use it to rationalize our feelings and behaviors, bolster our egos, overprotect ourselves, or as an excuse for not trying to improve our situation. A psychologist can use cognitive restructuring to help you choose the thoughts that will benefit you most.
Helps You Be More Realistic
It's great to be positive, but being overoptimistic can lead us to risky behavior, financial ruin, or other negative outcomes. When a psychologist helps you reframe your circumstances more realistically, you gain a better understanding of the true situation and what you need to consider as you decide how to cope with it.
Gives You A New Life Skill
One of the most wonderful benefits of cognitive restructuring is that you can learn to do it on your own. As your psychologist takes you through the process of consciously reframing your thoughts, you learn a new skill that can help you now and throughout the rest of your life.
If you'd like to learn more about cognitive structure or you're ready to start changing the way you think, consider talking to a counselor at BetterHelp.com. You can choose one of the hundreds of counselors who work through Better Help, offering cognitive behavioral counseling and other types of therapy. As you examine and change your thoughts, you can learn to find positive meaning in every situation.