While working in the kitchen as my daughter watched “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood”—the modern-day, animated Mr. Rogers show for tots—I heard them sing, “Turn it around, and find something good!” My therapist ears naturally perked up to what they were trying to teach my two-year-old daughter: I’ve found that the show is chock-full of mental wellness tips candy-coated and made age-appropriate for toddlers. After Daniel’s birthday cake is smashed, his dad sings this cute tune, trying to help him find something positive that has come out of the situation. Naturally, Daniel Tiger quickly realizes that cake tastes good even when it’s smashed—a beautiful reframe.
With my daughter singing this little ditty around the house all the time, she (and Daniel Tiger, of course) have inspired me to think a lot more about reframes. If you struggle with clinical depression or anxiety, you suffer from occasional cognitive distortions or limiting beliefs, or you’re always looking for an extra tip to improve your mental health, you can benefit from reframes.
Reframing is a technique commonly used by therapists of all different backgrounds with clients of all different experiences. Simply put, a reframe is looking at a situation from a new perspective—one that usually offers new or positive meaning. We are all familiar with reframes to some extent—seeing the “silver lining” of a situation is a type of everyday reframe. But before you write me off as a relentless optimist who sees the world through rose-colored glasses, hear me out.
A reframe offers a new, often more hopeful, way of looking at a problem or situation—it need not dismiss real pain or discomfort. Reframing doesn’t ask us to ignore the reality of our feelings (whatever they may be) and only focus on the positive. On the contrary, a reframe can help us find a solution to a problem by looking at it from an unseen angle, or help pull us out of despair by offering a new, hopeful perspective. And reframes are certainly not just used to see the “bright side” of a dire situation.
Rather, reframes help us quiet our cognitive distortions, turning them into something productive. They can help us believe in ourselves or find motivation in the face of limiting beliefs. Indeed, this practice is far more than offering a mental pat on the back. Becoming well-versed in reframing can strengthen our resiliency, help eliminate self-doubt, and help us see opportunities we hadn’t even considered.
Examples of reframing
Like many therapists, I sometimes offer reframes to clients during sessions. But you can also use reframing on your own, in your everyday life. Reframing can be applied to a number of thought patterns. The proverbial example of a reframe is looking at the glass half-full, rather than half-empty. À la Daniel Tiger, if your birthday cake gets smashed, instead of harping on the fact that your cake is ruined, remember that the cake still tastes great and can still be enjoyed.
Focusing on the negative
I practice a similar reframe every day when I’m getting dressed, per my own therapist’s recommendation. After having two children close together, my stomach is covered in loose skin and stretch marks. Embracing my “new” body has been one of the hardest parts of postpartum and settling into my role as a mom. Sadly, I’ve been conditioned by our culture and my own personal history to see my stomach as unattractive. So when I look at my stomach and start to think these negative thoughts, I reframe it: this stomach worked hard to grow and house my two beautiful daughters for nine months each; without it I wouldn’t have them.
Black or white thinking
You can also use reframes when you catch yourself using statements that include “always” or “never.” For example, if you think, “I never have any good ideas at work,” you can reframe that cognitive distortion by following it up with, “Sometimes I struggle to come up with new ideas, but I execute others ideas really well,” or acknowledge other career strengths you have.
You can do this in relationships, too. If you catch yourself saying that a parent or your partner “always” or “never” does something—such as, “Tom is always reminding me to do the dishes” —you can reframe that thought. For example, you can consider how fortunate it is to have a husband who is conscious of household tasks, especially if that is not your strong suit, so that you can keep a clean home.
Reframing can be used in a whole host of relational situations. A common example therapists use is when another person’s reaction is reduced to a single cause. Maybe you passed a friend on the street and she didn’t acknowledge you, or your cashier at the grocery store didn’t smile at you. People can tend to take these little events personally—you might assume this happened because your friend doesn’t like you or because you said something offensive to the cashier.
Using a reframe, you can think about other possible reasons your friend may not have acknowledged you—maybe she was in a hurry, maybe something terrible just happened and she wasn’t focused on the present, maybe she didn’t recognize you, or maybe she didn’t see you at all. Similar reasons may apply with the cashier—he was having a bad day, thinking about something else, his boss had just yelled at him, etc.
Apologies to gratitude
One of my favorite reframes is to shift from unnecessary apologies to gratitude by replacing “I’m sorry” with “thank you.” Maybe you get home later than your spouse and he has already made dinner and put the kids to bed. Instead of starting off with, “I’m sorry you had to do all of that” you can say, “Thank you for doing all of that.” Not only does it leave your husband feeling appreciated rather than resentful, it helps alleviate the mom guilt you might be experiencing.
If you want to take a reframe to another level, you can even use reframes in the midst of an argument when you’re feeling angry. Linda Bloom, LCSW, and co-author of 101 Things I Wish I Knew When I Got Married, suggests reframing in these situations by remembering that anger is a secondary emotion—underneath anger is fear or pain. If you can pause long enough to reframe your anger into one of those more vulnerable emotions to the other person, it’s likely to be well-received rather than with more anger or stonewalling. Likewise, if you can reframe another person’s anger by considering what they are scared of or hurt by, you are likely to feel empathy rather than rage toward them.
When you catch yourself thinking about a worst-case scenario, reframes can help you out of that mental hole, too. Let’s say you miss a deadline at work and start to catastrophize, “I can’t believe I missed that deadline; I’m going to get fired.” You can apply a reframe by thinking about the facts—the same situation—but considering what else might be true besides the conclusion you came to. Yes, you missed a deadline. But maybe you remember you missed a deadline one other time and you weren’t fired then. Or maybe you realize you missed a deadline this time because you poured so much time into the project and produced excellent work. In both cases, reframing helps you talk yourself off a cliff.
Reframing on your own
Clearly, reframing can be applied to myriad situations and work wonders for changing your perspective and even turning your mood around. But looking at a situation from a new perspective can’t always be willed. When you’re struggling to view a situation from a new angle, these tips will help you reframe on your own.
01. Keep a journal
Whether with an actual pen and paper or the notes app on your phone, keeping a designated space for writing down any cognitive distortions you catch yourself thinking can be helpful. Sometimes, we just need to remove ourselves from a situation or thought for a bit in order to think about it differently. To do this, write down the thought or situation that seems to be at a dead-end in the moment in your journal (or app). At the end of the day, or even on your mid-day coffee break, take a look at what you’ve jotted down, and see if you can reframe your thoughts now that you are not in the heat of the moment.
02. Ask questions
Thinking, “How can I view this differently?” may not always be enough of a prompt to view a limiting thought or frustrating situation from a new perspective. Sometimes, you just need to ask yourself the right question. When you’re dealing with a problem and it’s hard to see anything but the downside, think small—literally. Daniel Tiger’s little ditty easily gets stuck in your head and reminds you to “turn [your situation] around, and find something good.” In all seriousness, ask yourself if there is a positive that could come out of this situation. If what you’re seeing is the glass half-empty, is there a way to see the glass half-full?
When you catch “always” or “never” statements, ask yourself to find an example that disproves them—is there a time that I did offer a creative idea at work? Or, go back to the last example and ask yourself if there’s another way to look at the situation, even if it is always true. Sure, creativity and new ideas aren’t my strong suit, but I am great at executing, making a deadline, and working hard. I can’t be good at everything.”
Another helpful question to ask, especially when trying to shift away from a place of blame, is wondering, “What are other possible reasons this could have happened?” This question can help us with the “frowning-cashier example,” when we are quick to attribute an external situation to something we did.
In the example of feeling angry or experiencing someone else’s anger, ask yourself, “What might I (or she) be scared of or hurt by that’s underlying this anger?” For example, if your partner is angry at you for coming home late at night, could he—underneath his anger—have been scared that something might have happened to you, or hurt that he wasn’t included? The anger also might not be directly related to the primary emotion (fear or pain).
Maybe your mom quickly escalates to anger, and you’re not sure why. Could she have been hurt by a parent as a girl, and now her anger acts as a defense mechanism against getting hurt again by others? Asking yourself these questions about your own anger and others’ can help you access empathy and compassion for yourself and them.
03. Don’t forget to validate
As mentioned before, reframing is not an excuse to dismiss our very real emotions. Looking for the positive in a situation doesn’t mean the negative aspects aren’t valid, too. Reframing helps us not to see the world through a purely negative filter, and helps us avoid getting stuck or feeling hopeless in hard situations.
So, when reframing, don’t forget to validate the hard part, too. Using the word “and” can be incredibly helpful here: “I feel so guilty about missing that deadline, and I missed it in order to produce excellent work.” Remember the formula “Validate then reframe” (maybe even write that at the top of your notes section or journal): “I feel upset and embarrassed about my body after having children. And, my body worked so hard to grow and nourish my daughters—it’s what I have to show for all the work I did.”
Becoming well-versed in reframing doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and practice. But with intentionality, you can become skilled at quickly recognizing a cognitive distortion and reframing it, or using reframes to find opportunity and hope where you previously felt stuck.