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Change your thoughts and change your life - The Art of Cognitive Reframing

Posted Mar 03 2008 4:34pm

We never, ever, see the world as it is. Our awareness – our beliefs, past conditionings, upbringing, the list goes on – these distort everything we see. They creep into every interpretation and misinterpretation.

This is obvious; you must have seen it for yourself. The same person can elicit very different reactions, wildly varying feelings in a crowd of onlookers. One man looks at a beautiful woman; he feels a sense of yearning. Another sees a potential new friend, and yet another shies away – he will never be good enough for her.

How do you see yourself?

One of the most painful misinterpretations lies in self-perception. How do you see yourself? Realistic self concepts are rare, but a negatively distorted perception ruins lives. Weaknesses are magnified, assets and strengths are ignored. We have a tendency to compare; this leads to low self-esteem; a strong feeling of inadequacy and constant unhappiness.

A low self-esteem is the proverbial ball and chain; it drags you down in almost every area of your life – from your romances and your relationships to your work, your ability to achieve your goals.

This is a mixture of techniques that has worked tremendously well – it is based on cognitive psychology, with a touch of Zen.

Self-Concept Inventory

Bring to mind an issue, something that is holding you back or causing you fear and sorrow. Perhaps it is your physical appearance; perhaps it is the way you relate to others. It could be something in the way other people see you, a part of your sexuality. It could even be your performance in your school or work.

Find a journal, and begin writing. Write down the positives and the negatives in as much detail as you can. Be honest, be deep, and don’t censor yourself. Let it all pour out unto the paper.

An example: you might be feeling insecure about your physical appearance. So write down everything about it – your style of dress, your facial features, specific body parts, skin, height and weight.

The next step is to begin to organise it. On a fresh sheet of paper, dig out each description and write them on a new line. Mark each description appropriately: a + sign for the positive, a – for the negative.

Some Examples

Here are a few random personal examples, taken from a wide area of possible topics:

  • [-] Physical: Too tall, potential dates feel intimidated.
  • [+] How I relate to others: Good listener.
  • [-] Work: Very bad with accounting and record-keeping.
  • [-] Personality Traits: Too sensitive, emotionally weak and easily hurt.

Examining our weaknesses

The first thing we have to realise is that there is no such thing as perfection. Everyone has flaws, imagined or real. The problem lies not in having flaws, but in using them to attack ourselves, in giving them more power and attention than they deserve.

Our self-inventory are unlikely to be accurate; examination is vital – seeing facts for what they are is refreshing, empowering. Find a fresh sheet of paper, and begin to revise your weaknesses with these rules, taken from Self-Esteem:

  1. Remove all negative labelling. A friend was condemning himself, calling himself a loser because his business wasn’t making him much money. Such descriptions are painful; cut all such words from your description.
  2. Replace negative labels with accurate language. What are the facts? They are all you need – not the labels, not the insults. For instance, his business made a thousand dollars profit the last year. That is all he needs.
  3. Be as specific as you can. We often take one situation and generalise the effects across a wide spectrum. He had generalised a perceived failure in business, seeing as a reflection of his totality, his entire value. He had ignored everything else in condemning himself – his family, his friends, his personal growth – that makes up his life.
  4. Find exceptions. Sometimes we generalise in a different direction – deeper instead of wider. A failure in one business might be taken to mean a guaranteed failure in all future ventures, causing him never to try again.
  5. Find corresponding strengths. Very often, there is something positive to be found in an event or personality trait, one that we have ignored by focusing on the negative. What is it?

Reframing Sensitivity

It might be helpful to see an example; so let’s have a look at a personality trait: Too sensitive, emotionally weak and easily hurt.

The first step was to remove the negative label – emotionally weak. It was a label, a criticism, and not a statement of facts. It served no real purpose. The other two were closer to descriptions of reality, so they stayed.

Too sensitive, easily hurt.

Next, I rewrote it to be as accurate as possible. I investigated – why did I start calling myself easily hurt? I realised I was quite sensitive to criticism; one comment could stay in my head for days and weeks.

Too sensitive to criticism, easily hurt by it.

Next was specificity. Was I sensitive to every negative remark? No, I handle constructive criticism very well. In fact I welcome it. Abuse by someone who had done it in the heat of the moment doesn’t affect me very much either – I understand how wild emotions could lead to words one doesn’t mean. Calculated attacks cut me the most.

Sensitive and easily hurt by calculated attacks.

Last, and most important, was to find exceptions and strengths. I had taken many attacks to heart and brooded over them for days; but there were also times I didn’t.

I also found corresponding strengths. I had considered being sensitive a weakness, but it carried many benefits – in social situations, it put me at a distinct advantage. Some have said it helps me in my writing; others have said it is a blessing once I achieve my career goal of being a counsellor.

Sensitive and easily hurt by some calculated attacks. But it helps in social situations, writing, and my future career.

In addition to this, I wrote down the specific instances and memories of exceptions and blessings.

Additional Examples

A reader might struggle to see how this applies to some of the other traits; it might be helpful to examine briefly another trait.

Before: Too tall, ladies feel intimidated.

After: I am 6 foot 4. One or two women in a crowd have been intimidated. There will be a few more in the future. But most have no problem with it; in fact, many will like the sense of security a tall man gives. There are also other benefits – in certain social situations, in leadership, and in many sports.

What a difference it makes! The effects of an unexamined label can be drastic. In my teens, I was so insecure about my height that it crippled me socially. One or two girls had been intimidated by my height; I took it to heart, and without examination, let the memories grow into a crippling label.

Understanding

Sometimes, a reframing and examination is not enough. Understanding will be helpful for the more painful labels.

A close friend was upset because he wasn’t doing very well after a few years of business; he was barely paying the rent. When I talked to him, I reminded him of what he had gone through in the past few years. He had gone through a nasty divorce; it had triggered severe depression and several bouts of anxiety. He had spent most of his income, energy, and time on mental health professionals, and was only recently well enough to dedicate more time to his business.

I walked him through the various steps, asking him to see his situation objectively. His competitors had begun their ventures the same time he had, but they were driving fancy cars, and that upset him. But he was still making a small profit; he was still paying the bills. It was therefore inaccurate for him to call himself a “failure”.

In fact, how could he blame himself? He should have been proud of having the courage to go through what he had gone through. It had been a tough few years, and he did extremely well considering the circumstances. Understanding is vital for deep sorrows; I have described it in more detail here. You might also like to read the guilt series – The Importance of Overcoming Guilt, and A Guide to Handling Guilt and Self-Punishment.

I also asked him what benefits he got out of it. He paused for a few minutes, and began nodding. “I’m far stronger emotionally now. I can handle things I could not handle before. I’m more compassionate, I connect better with people.”

“Can you see how this would make a positive difference in your future life and business?” I asked. He nodded silently, a slight smile on his face.

The emotional charge

This next step is one that regular readers will be familiar with, for I sing its praises all the time. But don’t let that put you off – loving and neutralising the emotional charge that accompanies your weaknesses is one of the most powerful steps you can take.

Your emotions underlie your thoughts; they are intimately connected. We’ve worked on the level of thoughts up to this point, to boost the speed of your internal change, work on the emotions as well.

This has been covered in detail in the emotional mastery series, but here is a quick summary.

Welcome the emotion, feel it completely without necessarily acting on it. Emotions are there to be felt. If we don’t feel them, instead trying to avoid them, run away from them, they just go deeper in our systems, showing up in other ways – aches and pains, addictions, influencing our behaviour. Just relax into it – the body might tighten up, so just keep relaxing. Feel it through the body, without thinking about it. Explore how it feels. Ride it out, and it will release its hold on you.

The first option is to heal the negative label directly; think of the weakness and heal how it makes you feel. The second is to go back in time. Find the first date that stood you up, the first time someone laughed at you for being overweight, and heal that pain.

Your New Description

The next step is to simply write up your new description of the situation or yourself. Many flaws and setbacks might still be there, but this new description is rooted in reality and not clouded by judgement, emotions or time.

This description, then, is something to be obsessed over. Read it constantly; think about it every chance you get. You might even carry it around in your wallet or purse. You could also leave it in prominent areas of your bedroom, your office - anywhere you spend a lot of time. Let this practice remove the misinterpretations that has been hurting you all this time.

Any time you are feeling down, turn to this new description. Heal and release the emotions your old description brings up.

Remembering the Exceptions and Strengths

The final step is to analyse the exceptions and the strengths. You’ve remembered the exceptions to your perceived weakness, their corresponding strengths. More importantly, we should focus on specific situations.

Take your time here, and dig up compliments, awards, and everything else you can think of. Write them all down, big or small. The reason for this is simple: many brains are wired to remember the negative and forget the positive. Our self-image, our very happiness – they are then created around our negative distortions.

For instance, I have always thought of my teenage self as shy and awkward around the opposite sex. Certain painful memories reinforced that image – I had latched onto the negative and distorted them so that they seemed to represent my entire past. Upon investigation, I began to recall many positive experiences with the ladies – in fact, they numbered more than the negative.

There might be discomfort at this step; many of us will have been raised to be humble. People tend to respond negatively to those we see as boastful or proud. But it is perfectly fine to blow your own trumpet in private – it is healing to your self-esteem.

Contemplating the Exceptions and Strengths

Meditate on this – close your eyes and repeat the benefits and strengths; relive these instances. Feel them.

Write down these instances in the same way you’ve written down your realistic view of your weaknesses. Read them, obsess over them. There is no major difference in the way we’re handling these and the way we handle our weaknesses; we’re giving them extra attention.

These forms of affirmation and contemplation are different from wishful thinking, building castles in the air. We are not imagining a false reality – we are basing them on reality, specific memories and instances.

Try it for yourself, and see if it doesn’t make a change in your life.

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