It’s common for therapists to talk about “reframing” something. But what does that even mean?
The therapist focus on cognitive reframing is something you’ve likely encountered if you’ve been in therapy before. If you haven’t, the concept might sound a bit strange at first, but I assure you it does make a lot of sense.
Therapy, at its core, is often about uncovering issues and problem solving. Of course, no one would want to attend therapy if they didn’t think that it would help them better tackle their problems, whether that means working through a problematic relationship, grieving the loss of a loved one, or finding new ways to manage depression or anxiety symptoms.
Understanding a problem is the crux of the work in therapy spaces. How would you expect to “fix” (or correct) a problem if you’re not entirely sure what the problem is? Sometimes problems can be external (“My boyfriend cheated on me!”) or more internal (“I should be farther along in my life by now!”). Sometimes these problems come as a shock to us and are unavoidable. After all, many (if not all) of us experience concerns about our relationships, or worries about our path in life at some point. The problem could, in part, be a matter of perspective.
Why a Shift in Perspective is Important for Personal Progress
As a therapist, I find that some of the most valuable experiences in therapy come when you experience a shift in perspective. Being able to see a situation from a different point of view can help you feel better and uncover new ways to manage a problem or situation. Simply put, sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees. And often, seeing that broader picture can help us tremendously. This is what reframing is.
Reframing, in the therapeutic sense, is about looking at a situation, thought, or feeling from another angle. Therapists are really good at this because our goal is to be supportive and empathetic to you and your concerns, but also help you work through issues. When we take on your challenges, whatever they may be, and offer another perspective, we are “reframing.”
We are hoping to help you adjust your perspective or thought pattern based on a reaction from you that is largely driven by emotion. The emotions that you feel, or thoughts that you think, are often rooted in old patterns that no longer serve you. By reframing a situation, or taking on a new perspective, you can help adjust those patterns (and break them over time) leaving you feeling healthier and more in control of your own mind.
An Example of Reframing in Practice
Consider an example: Let’s say that you are a 20-something who has finished college and now entering the workforce. You’ve done well in school, but always found yourself competing with your peers. That competition has bred a little bit of anxiety about achievement. You’ve done well for yourself and landed a decent job with fair pay that comes with a lot of responsibility. You feel a great sense of duty to meet quick deadlines, which brings up old anxieties about comparison and achievement.
When you get your first performance review, you get the feedback that you could “manage your time more efficiently” without much other feedback. This sends you in a bit of a tailspin. You now fear that your boss is looking for a reason to get rid of you. You try to do every task very quickly. You make more mistakes because you’re anxious and rush through projects. You’re afraid to lose your job. The anxiety is causing you to perform worse and you’re not sure what to do about it.
What if you reframed that feedback from your boss? What if your boss meant that she doesn’t like that you often stay late after hours and wants you to take better care of yourself on a daily basis? What if she sees your work as being thorough and efficient, but is scared you’re going to burn yourself out and end up hating your career path?
Any of those perspectives may or may not be true, but what we do know is that if you can interrupt the anxiety and fear that your job is in jeopardy, you’re likely going to perform much better — both with the content of your work and the management of your time. Reframing may just be the key to freeing you from an anxious spiral of thoughts that may or may not be true. Even just stopping the momentum of those moments could be career-saving and incredibly positive for your mental health.
Reframing is a Single Tool in the Broad Therapy Kit
As you can see, reframing is one tool that you can use to challenge assumptions and automatic thoughts that come up for you. When we can make regular use of tools that help challenge these assumptions, we put ourselves in a much healthier mindset. And, ultimately, this leads to a great positive shift in your quality of life.
The next time you start to feel anxious, depressed, or overwhelmed try to reframe the situation and look at it from a slightly different angle. If you do, you’ll likely end up in a much better place emotionally. And if you’d like to have help working on this (as it can be hard to do alone) try working with a therapist for extra support and guidance.