Skill #17 Reframing Negative Thoughts

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You can change your negative thoughts by learning the skill of reframing. In this post I’m going to teach you a technique that therapists use in almost every session but you probably didn’t know about. And when you learn how to do it yourself, you can change how you think and feel. Our negative thoughts can feel like reality. Negative thinking can make us sad or depressed, but when you learn to reframe your thinking, you can learn to change negative thoughts into helpful ones.

Automatic Negative Thoughts

“Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about the things” -Epictetus

In this post I’m going to teach you a technique that therapists use in almost every session but that you probably didn’t know about. And when you learn how to do it yourself, you can change how you think and feel. 

But to begin with, I’m going to do something kind of weird right now. Just give me 30 seconds, okay? I need you to answer this question: How is the desk the mother of the chair? Go ahead, pause for 30 seconds and think about it.

Maybe you think the desk looks older so that’s why. Or because the chair is padded that it’s an upgraded generation, so it must be newer. Maybe desks were created before chairs in the history of humanity, so that’s why the desk is the mother of the chair. I’ve asked this question of dozens of clients, and I always get a different answer. They’re all great answers. 

And they’re all wrong. 

The desk is not the mother of the chair. But when I asked you that question, your mind immediately began filling in that answer. Your mind is a story creator: it automatically creates connections between things, trying to figure out how the world works. And when it doesn’t know why something happens, it makes its best guess. 

But when it does, it doesn’t feel like a guess. It feels like the truth. 

And when we do this over and over, these assumptions, these stories, create our reality. 

Your unconscious interpretation of situations creates how you consistently feel and act. 

Real-Life Example

Once I was working with a client who was in her late 30’s. She came to me with depression, but the biggest difficulty in her life was that she wasn’t married yet. She lived in a culture where marriage and family were praised as the highest purposes of life, and she longed to have a family of her own. 

The longer she went without getting married, the more she wondered “Why? How come I can’t find someone to love me?” She started to think “Maybe it’s because I’m a bad person. Maybe it’s because I’m not good enough to get married. Maybe there’s something defective or broken about me. Maybe I’m too unattractive.” 

Then one day she said something that haunted me even more than her self-deprecating stories: “Maybe the reason I haven’t gotten married is because God doesn’t want me to ruin any children.” 

Up to that point we had been focused on other issues, but at that moment, I knew we had to work on this one. I knew I had to intervene. So I started to question that story. 

I know this could sound bad, but I didn’t mean it that way: I just asked her to look around and tell me if the only people who get married were perfect, attractive, saintly people. 

She thought about it for a minute and could give me quite a few examples of unattractive, mean, or unskilled people who were married. Some of them had gotten married multiple times. Obviously it’s possible to get married even with some really terrible characteristics. 

Obviously this story, that the reason she wasn’t married is because she’s defective, was false. She was actually very kind, smart, hardworking, healthy, attractive, and just a really good human being. 

I asked her to question her narrative.What other ways could we think about this situation? What if it’s not about your goodness as a person, but there’s just a skill that you’re missing? Maybe you don’t know how to date. Maybe you don’t know how to dress. Maybe you don’t know how to be vulnerable yet. These are skills that can be learned. 

From a religious perspective, maybe it’s not in God’s plan yet. Maybe there’s something else for you to learn through this process. 

Maybe it’s a problem of numbers. There are more eligible women than men in her community. Maybe it’s because guys are intimidated by her. Maybe it’s because guys don’t know how to date anymore. Maybe it’s because our culture downplays the value of marriage. What if this isn’t about you at all? 

As my client questioned her stories, some space opened up for her to do something different. 

Instead of believing “I’m just defective,” she changed it to “What skills can I learn?” She started exploring her negative self-talk and replacing it with self-compassion. She started dating differently. She started allowing herself to be a little more vulnerable. And within a year, she had met a good man, and within two years she was married to him. 

In this situation, the way she was interpreting her challenge was creating a roadblock for her.

Hypothetical Example

How we consistently see problems, how we interpret life, that creates our reality. One of the ways we can change our life is by opening up some space for new stories. 

I like to use the six-pack exercise to do this. I’m not sure why it’s called the six-pack exercise. The trainer who taught me this wasn’t into beer or ab workouts, so your guess is as good as mine. 

But this exercise is all about creating space around our thinking so that we can hopefully choose which set of thoughts is worth believing. And when we choose which thoughts to believe and act on, we can change how we feel and solve problems in our lives. 

Let me give you an example that we can work with.I am so frustrated with my roommate. She keeps leaving her dishes out. It’s selfish and dirty, and it’s embarrassing when I have guests over. I get so stressed out and angry about this.” 

Ok now that you’ve thought about the problem, take a look at your interpretations (what I’m going to call stories). The easiest interpretation is “She is so selfish. I’m being mistreated”  or “I’m the clean one, the good roommate, and therefore she’s the bad one.” All these thoughts leave you feeling angry. Great. How helpful is that?

Does it give you power to act? Is it truthful? Does it give you any room to resolve your emotions? The way that I’m thinking about this problem, the story I’m telling myself is that “She’s being awful, I’m innocent, and she’s ruining my life,” which makes me feel angry and gives me no room to act. 

Now just for fun, I want you to think of six other ways to interpret her actions. Take a look at your assumptions about why she is doing what she is doing. Just to clarify, these new interpretations don’t have to be helpful, correct, or accurate — just make something up. Here’s a few examples of stories:

  1. She’s doing it out of spite, just to bug me. She knows that I don’t like it. 
  2. Maybe I’m just a terrible human being who deserves to be treated badly (this is a obviously unhelpful interpretation, but for right now we aren’t judging, we’re just exploring).
  3. Maybe she just comes from a different background and doesn’t know how to wash dishes or culturally she is used to her mom doing it and she’s not aware that it’s up to her.
  4. Maybe she is completely overwhelmed and can’t cope with life, school, job, boyfriend.
  5. Perhaps she has no idea that it even bugs me. 
  6.  Maybe I can learn something from this. Like how to communicate my expectations or how to serve someone. It literally takes me five seconds to put her cereal bowl in the sink. 

And just to show you that there are so many ways to interpret a situation, I’m going to throw out four more. 

  1.  Maybe her dish system is just different than mine. Maybe she likes to do them at night or first thing in the morning.
  2. Maybe she’s a space alien from another planet where there was a magical ray that cleaned the dishes automatically.
  3. Maybe I’m actually the one being way too uptight about cleanliness, demanding that dishes get done immediately. I’m the one letting my rigidity get in the way of nice feelings in the apartment. 
  4. Maybe she has ADD and has a hard time following through on tasks. 

Now some of these might seem a little out there, unrealistic. That’s ok. Just because we think something doesn’t mean it’s true.  

How we consistently think leads to how we consistently feel. So my thought “She’s so selfish” made me feel angry. Thinking “I deserve to be mistreated” left me feeling depressed. Thinking “Maybe she’s completely overwhelmed” helped me feel compassion for her, and thinking “What if she doesn’t know it bugs me?” gave me a little hope that things could improve if I talk with her. 

You can choose how you consistently feel by choosing which stories, which interpretations of situations you consistently believe.  

Your Own Experiences

When we can only see things one way, we are rigid and inflexible and often feel powerless to act. When we open ourselves up to different ways of seeing, we can choose which thoughts line up with the values we want to act on.  

So here’s the technique that therapists use all the time. It’s called reframing. Reframing is when therapists say something like “Let’s look at this from another perspective.” And now, from my previous story, you know how to do this yourself. 

Think of the last time you got really bugged at someone. Close your eyes and for a minute just put yourself back in that situation. What were you feeling? What were you thinking about that person? And use your own example to create at least six different ways of seeing a problem. 

Helpful Narratives

If you catch yourself getting really stuck on right or wrong or true or false, you may be creating unnecessary rigidity. I’m not saying that all stories are equal; I’m saying it’s the process of considering alternatives that frees us to choose healing. Let yourself explore different ways of seeing things, and then you can choose a narrative that is most helpful for you.  

Here are three questions you could ask yourself that may be helpful in deciding which story to act on:

1. Is my story truthful? Check your stories for self-deception, self-justification, and cognitive distortions. We’ll be  talking more about all of these in upcoming sections. After we’ve searched our stories for untruths, we can then choose between a variety of interpretations based on our values: Which leads us to question number two.

2. Is my story kind? Do you value giving people the benefit of the doubt? Do you value looking for the best in people or assuming that they have some reason behind their actions that isn’t malicious, no matter how frustrating their actions may be? Choose a narrative that is both truthful and helps you live your values. You want to choose a story that works for you, not against you. In general, kindness leaves you feeling happier and more peaceful, although there are definitely times for setting boundaries or protecting yourself. 

3. Does my story give me power to act? Focusing on whether the situation is good or bad or whether the person is good or bad leaves us powerless. Asking “Where is my locus of control? How can I change or influence the situation?” tends to give us more power. 

Ghandi said “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Am I getting so bugged about this situation that I am acting the same as or worse than the person I’m bugged at? For example, a parent yelling at their child “Don’t yell!” or someone being so mad at another person for refusing to forgive them. Check yourself for the value you’d like to see, and then ask  “Am I living that?”

Feeling Stuck

But what if we feel too stuck to even do the six-pack exercise or ask ourselves the three questions about our stories? Sometimes we get so wrapped up in our stories that we can’t see the situation any other way. 

Sometimes we get stuck in seeing the other person as awful, horrible, terrible, even when we’re no saint yourself. And sometimes the reality is that the other person really is being awful. But regardless of others’ actions, we need to find a way to personal peace. 

When we get so sunk into our own perspective and can’t get out, we need to step back, slow it down, and reach out to our resources. Here are some things to try when you feel stuck in how you’re seeing a situation:

  1. Take a break from the situation (so you can come back with a clearer head).
  2. Do some activity that helps you feel calm, loving, and open. Maybe it’s playing guitar, watching a funny show, playing with children, going for a walk, getting out into nature, or praying. 
  3. Write about it.
  4. Get another’s perspective. This can be helpful at times, but don’t depend on others for justification or rationalization of your story. Find someone who doesn’t always agree with you and listen to them for perspective. 

When you slow things down and try to get other perspectives, you open yourself up to having more choices in your life. 

Growth Mindset

One of the most powerful ways to take a situation that makes you feel helpless and turn it into a situation that empowers you is to use a growth mindset. What this means is that with each challenge I face, instead of using a “this is good or bad” mindset, I ask myself “What can I learn from this?” or  “How can this experience help me become a better person?” 

When we consider problems from this perspective, we can almost always find some way to grow in strength. Sometimes I even pretend that everyone else is a robot just sent here to test me to test how I will react to a certain situation and whether I will do it with integrity. 

The bottom line is we make interpretations of every circumstance in our life, and our interpretations create our reality. They color our view and determine how we feel and how we act. But if we can learn to notice our stories, we can choose which one we are going to give our energy to, and that can free you to change how you feel and solve more problems. 

Basically, learning the skill of reframing is a key to living a happier life.


This is part of a 30-section course, How to Process Emotions. Check out the full course with added bonuses below. 

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