Cognitive reframing – it’s not about what happens to you, but how you frame it

Cognitive reframing – it’s not about what happens to you, but how you frame it

All situations that happen to you in life have no inherent meaning. You are the one who signs a meaning, seeing a situation through a certain frame.

With cognitive reframing, you can change the way you look at something and consequently change how you experience it.

That kind of an approach enables you to implement the ancient wisdom that you can’t always control what happens to you, but you can certainly control how you react to different situations – no matter how tough your position might be.

And that’s the ultimate power you always possess.

If you want to change something, be it how you feel, how you do things or what you believe, the change always begins with you switching your thoughts and reframing how you see reality. Your thoughts about the situation that happened to you are always more important than the situation itself.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) offers two very practical and easily applicable exercises when it comes to managing thoughts and interpreting events:

  • Emotional accounting – transforming specific negative thoughts into positive ones
  • Cognitive reframing – transforming specific negative events into more positive ones

Both exercises work in pretty much the same way. Some event happens to you. You perceive an event as a negative one based on your toxic core beliefs. That causes automatic negative thoughts and negative feelings, which leads to inaction and depression.

With emotional accounting, you strive to transform automatic negative thoughts into more positive ones, while with cognitive reframing, you try to find a more constructive interpretation of what is happening to you.

That gives you an opportunity to neutralize negative feelings and be more action‑oriented.

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Cognitive reframing

The three key goals you want to achieve with cognitive reframing

Negative frames or stories that you tell yourself about different life situations are always based on irrational core beliefs that lead to self-defeating thoughts, emotions and actions. It’s like having a dark cloud above your head and seeing reality much darker than it is.

This is the so‑called cognitive triad, where you repeatedly emphasize:

  1. The negative view of yourself
  2. The negative view of the world
  3. The negative view of the future

The main point of cognitive reframing is to find a more positive interpretation, view or experience of unexpected adverse events, concepts or even ideas that you dislike. With cognitive reframing, you challenge yourself to illuminate positive sides of challenging situations, avoid seeing only the negative, and identify a brighter narrative of what is happening to you.

There are three main goals you want to achieve by performing cognitive reframing:

  1. Describing your situation as accurately as possible: Your negative mind loves to see reality darker than it is, especially when something negative happens to you. With cognitive reframing, you want to make sure you see reality as accurately as possible, including all the negatives and positives, but without big cognitive distortions.
  2. Illuminating personal power: Just like your mind loves to see the reality darker than it is, it also loves to portray you as way less powerful than you really are. With cognitive reframing, you want to accurately understand your ability to cope with the event.
  3. Brainstorming alternative views: You want to find better alternative views of what is happening to you. You want to seek a redemptive narrative. The redemptive narrative (frame) tells the story of a life where tough events also bring something good (with time).

If you manage to achieve all three goals with cognitive reframing, your ability to cope with the situation instantly improves and the negative effects, like severe anger, depression or hopelessness, are dramatically decreased.

Consequently, you can think, feel and act more rationally. What more could you ask for.

Cognitive therapy - ABC Model

Where do the default frames come from?

Before we go to practical examples of how to do cognitive reframing, let me try to explain where frames come from as simply as possible. You’re experiencing life and everything that happens to you based on your subjective interpretation of reality. Let’s call it subjective reality.

Your subjective reality is anchored in your core beliefs, values, past life experiences, expectations and many other factors.

It’s your own lens of how you perceive life experiences as well as how you react to them – what’s good and what’s bad, what you like and what you don’t, what to focus on in a particular situation, which actions to take in a particular situation, what should happen, what you expect etc.

Consequently, no two people experience or react to  the same event in completely the same way. We all experience life through our own subjective lens.

Let me give you two practical examples of how the subjective reality works:

  • Several movies were shot based on the life of Steve Jobs. But every movie emphasizes different Jobs’ characteristics, situations and challenges. The movie is based on what the screenwriter, producer and director found important in Job’s story, based on their own knowledge, values, beliefs etc. Every film was created based on the subjective lens of Steve Jobs life. That’s why the films are so different. Similarly, some people see Steve as a hero, others as an impudent and egocentric maniac.
  • Another example is when two people see a homeless dog on the street. One gets scared and carefully watches the dog’s every move, while the other runs straight to the dog and starts to pat him and show him love. Obviously in their subjective reality, one person sees the homeless dog as a danger and the other as an animal that needs even more love than others.

Different territories on your subjective map of reality are called schemas. Schemas are mental structures providing a framework for representing some aspect of the world. They help you organize the vast majority of information in a manageable way.

You use schemas to organize your current knowledge but they also provide a framework for further understanding – predicting what will or should happen in the future. They influence your attention and absorption of knowledge. They also represent your core beliefs.

Schemas, the main source of your frames, are extremely stable, enduring and hard to change.

Subjective reality. schemas, frames

When schemas are triggered, they generate automatic thoughts, strong effects and behavioral tendencies. Consequently, they can cause us all quite a lot of problems. Stereotypes, prejudices and cognitive biases are all based on negative schemas.

Schema therapy knows 18 maladaptive schemas that can rarely be changed without therapy and cause all kinds of psychological problems, including cognitive distortions. Examples of early maladaptive schemas are shame, sense of incompetence, entitlement, self-sacrifice, pessimism, and so on.

Many schemas are packed in “should” statements and your expectations towards yourself and others. When your expectations and “should” statements escalate into unrealistic proportions, they immediately become toxic. Play a little bit by answering the following questions (ask yourself why 5-times after initially answering the question):

  • How should the world function?
  • How should you behave in a particular situation?
  • What should happen in a particular situation?
  • How other people should behave towards you?
  • What kind of promotion should you get?
  • How many hours per day should you work?
  • What kind of food should you eat? etc.

If we take a step further, we could say that schemas are based on a set of frames. You can apply one schema to many different situations, and that’s called a frame. Your thoughts and feelings about the homeless dog are based on a schema you possess. Meeting a dog in a shelter or on the street are two different frames.

A frame is like stopping for a moment, taking a snapshot of something that is currently happening to you, and letting your mind analyze the situation in detail through your main schemas and overall subjective reality.

While schemas are really hard to change, switching to a new frame can be a little bit easier. That’s where cognitive reframing comes into play.

You take a very specific situation from your life and you try to develop a more positive view on it – with that, you influence your thinking pattern and feelings about that particular situation, but you also slightly update your schemas and overall subjective reality in a more positive way.

ABCDE – The formula for easily doing cognitive reframing on your own

It’s helpful if a professional therapist leads you through cognitive reframing, but you can also easily do it on your own. Cognitive reframing is based on the ABC model constructed by Albert Ellis, one of the fathers of cognitive therapy.

CBT - ABC Model

The first step is to write down three things:

  • Accurate description of the event: The event that bothers you and leads to automatic dysfunctional thinking is called an activating event. As the first step, try to describe what happened as accurately as possible.
  • Belief: Describe how you see the situation as accurately as possible. Try to identify your main beliefs around the event that happened. Help yourself with the following three questions:
    • What caused the situation to happen?
    • What does the event say about you?
    • What do you think should happen?
  • Consequence: The consequence of what happened interpreted through your beliefs results in a certain way of thinking, feeling and acting. As a consequence, there are three more questions to answer:
    1. What kind of automating negative thoughts go through your mind? Write them down and identify the cognitive distortion.
    2. How do you feel about the event? Identify all the negative emotions (on a scale from 0 – 100%).
    3. What’s your automatic action? Describe your actual response to the situation.

This should give you a really good overview of how you see the event, what are your underlying beliefs and how you feel, think and behave as an automatic response to the event.

Now it’s time to do cognitive reframing. To achieve that we will add D – Dispute and E – Effective change to our model (ABC-DE).

  • Dispute: Dispute is about challenging your thoughts and beliefs in order to see reality more accurately. It’s about finding a better frame that enables you to neutralize the situational emotions and act more rationally. There is a set of questions you should answer in the dispute process:
    1. If the same thing happened to your best friend or someone you love, what would be your interpretation of the event then?
    2. How would [enter the name of your role model] interpret this situation?
    3. What are other potential explanations besides blaming yourself?
    4. What was under your control and you could have done better, and what was completely out of your control?
    5. What are all the counterarguments to your underlying beliefs? Your past accomplishments, the things you do have, the praise you got, everything that proves the event is an exception.
    6. What’s the worst thing that could realistically happen and how bad would that be?
    7. What difference will this one-time event make in a month, a year or a decade?
    8. Are you sure that you are completely powerless in the situation? List all the moves you can make to get yourself in a better position.
    9. Is thinking this way helping the situation or making it worse?
    10. What is the most positive interpretation of the event you can think of?
  • Effect: Write down the final effect. The final effect should be a more accurate view of the situation with a better narrative, disarmed negative thoughts and feelings, and an action plan for performing better in the given situation.
    1. Write down your new thoughts about the event
    2. Write down your new feelings about the event
    3. Write down the action plan you will put in motion

You can download the free template below to professionally perform cognitive reframing whenever needed:

The point of cognitive reframing is to find a new better frame (angle, filter or story) of how you look at a specific event. A frame that can be supported by constructive underlying beliefs, one that doesn’t cause negative feelings and thoughts enables you to keep all the necessary personal power in your own hands for acting and responding properly and rationally.

Now, the most important thing is that your reframing is still based on truth. You absolutely shouldn’t start lying to yourself or suppress feelings or use the tool in any other negative way. It’s not about daydreaming and denying the seriousness of a situation. It’s about responding more wisely and rationally.

Practical examples

Here’s a practice example of cognitive reframing (a shorter version):

  • Antecedent: I just lost a big consulting contract.
  • Automatic belief: I’m worthless and nobody will hire me.
  • Consequence: Anger (90%), Depression (80%).

And now let’s describe the same situation by doing cognitive reframing:

  • Antecedent: I just lost a big consulting contract.
  • Belief after dispute: It was obvious that we weren’t a good fit. That gives me a very good insight into what kind of clients I should look for and how I can improve my marketing materials.
  • Effect: Now I can easily prepare a list of 5 potential clients and contact them. The new feelings present are – Anger (20%), Depression (30%), Inspiration (70%).

And, of course, then a detailed plan follows: The best way to find new better clients for me is to upgrade my marketing materials, prepare a list of 50 potential buyers, rank them according to how well we fit together and get in contact with them. For every client that rejects me, I must gather feedback to even better define my offer and market segment.

With cognitive reframing, your job is to turn:

  • a problem into an opportunity,
  • weakness into strength (by matching or converting),
  • hurtful actions of others into understanding why they’re doing that instead of being a victim or engaging in fights, and so on.

But again, the idea is to turn a problem into an opportunity and ACT. You mustn’t only make yourself feel a little bit better.

Your goal is to try to view a situation differently, but you shouldn’t deny the reality of the situation.

You must fight hard to hold your frame after reframing a situation

When you do cognitive reframing, you will soon see that your mind constantly strives to slip back into your previous toxic thinking. Your mind, even after cognitive reframing, is like a small child (or rather a drunken monkey) constantly testing the limits and trying to wander off and bite you in the ass along the way.

That’s why you need to perform another exercise along with cognitive reframing. It’s called holding your frame.

When you do cognitive reframing and see reality in a more positive way, hold to the new frame strongly. Don’t let it go for even a second. Don’t slack off; hold your frame no matter what. No retreat, no surrender.

If you don’t stubbornly hold to your new positive frame, you will lose it and you will go back to your previous thinking.

So, every time your mind tries to wander off and hurt you by seeing life more negative than it really is, consistently hold your new positive view in your head. You have to be stronger than the “mind monkeys”, and sooner or later your mind will give up on the negative view.

Cognitive reframing - A new frame

Two useful tips for performing cognitive reframing

Cognitive reframing is a very simple and useful exercise, but it does come with a few challenges. Unfortunately, you can’t just force a new frame of thinking on yourself. You have to lead yourself towards the new frame slowly.

That can be achieved in two ways:

  1. Ask yourself the right questions
  2. Neutralize the negative feelings

Start asking yourself the right questions

You must start (if a therapist isn’t leading you through the process) by asking yourself the right questions, identifying new observations, systematically analyzing the accuracy of your thoughts, and finding internal or external misunderstandings.

Optimal thinking and questions like those found below can help you a lot with this matter:

  • What went right? What was positive in the situation?
  • What are the bright spots in this situation?
  • How can I turn this disaster into a win?
  • What is the best way to act in this kind of a situation?
  • What if I believed the opposite? And then try to find the evidence against your thought.
  • What did the person who raised me do well (not only wrong?)

By asking yourself the right questions and then performing cognitive reframing, you want to learn the cognitive errors you make, challenge your conclusions or limiting beliefs, replace toxic beliefs, or find a redemptive narrative for a tragic situation that happened to you.

Cognitive reframing comes in especially handy when something happens that completely throws you out of your emotional center.

Neutralize the negative feelings

Before even starting with the cognitive process, you have to neutralize the negative feelings a little bit. You must loosen up before changing your frame.

The negative mind is really stubborn and in the depths of struggle, it’s hard to see anything positive. Thus, you must first neutralize your severe negative emotions a little bit .

The best ways to neutralize your emotions are:

  • Some kind of a surprise or shock – exercise, shouting into a pillow, cold shower etc.
  • Curiosity over why something happened to you – curiously researching what lead to the situation and why
  • Practical demonstration of improvement – exploring how others solved the same situation or getting a mentor
  • Clear instructions for what to do next – getting madly educated about the situation
  • Humor as the best coping mechanism – finding the funny side of a painful situation

When you are performing cognitive reframing, make sure you don’t fall into potential traps. The most common ones are excessive fantasizing, seeing reality with rose-colored glasses or finding a good excuse for procrastination or malicious behavior.

That’s not what this exercise is for. The main point of cognitive reframing is to find the bright spots, neutralize negative emotions, prepare for action and scale what already works.

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