What is cognitive restructuring and how can we make use of it?
“Cognitive restructuring” is a tool used by psychologists and therapists to help identify beliefs that are maladaptive and destructive to our lives, and then reframe them into new beliefs that are more constructive and healthy.
The basic idea is that our beliefs have a real-world impact on how we think, feel, and act. And when we hold beliefs in our heads that don’t serve our interests or values, those beliefs can spill over into our lives and hurt our ability to be happy or successful.
One thing to understand is that our beliefs are rarely based solely on facts and evidence, but rather our interpretation of the facts and evidence. Every collection of facts is framed in a certain way and looked at through a particular perspective.
When you practice reframing your beliefs, the goal isn’t to delude yourself or ignore reality. Instead, the goal is to look at the same facts through a new perspective and interpret them in a way that can keep us motivated and inspired.
There are always multiple perspectives to any situation or circumstance. By teaching yourself how to change your perspective, you can discover the best way to view a situation so that it brings out your best possible self.
4 Common Examples of Reframing and “Cognitive Restructuring”
If you’ve ever read anything about self-improvement, you’ve probably already come across examples of cognitive restructuring and reframing. You will likely recognize most of the reframes listed below.
Here are the most common examples of reframing:
- “Failure is a learning experience.” This is a very common reframe where we view a particular failure in our lives as an opportunity to learn, grow, and improve ourselves. Almost every happy and successful person uses this reframe, whether they realize it or not.
- “Look at the bigger picture.” Another common reframe is to “zoom out” on our current situation and view it from a broader perspective. When we are caught up in the moment, every little experience can seem like a big deal. The “big picture” perspective is a great way to stay grounded and balanced, no matter our present circumstances.
- “Things could be worse.” One common reframe you’ll hear is that “things could be worse.” It’s important to remind ourselves of all the ways our lives could be worse because it often cultivates a sense of gratitude and appreciation for the things that we actually have going well in our lives.
- “Look at it from another person’s perspective.” Our viewpoint of a situation is often limited, so when we actively try to look at a situation from another person’s perspective, that can yield insights and information that we often wouldn’t notice if we only looked through our own perspective.
These are just 4 common ways we can reframe our perspective and restructure how we think about the world.
Of course, there are millions of ways to reframe any particular situation. And the way you want to reframe a situation will depend greatly on the specific circumstances and your current beliefs about it.
There is never a single correct way to frame a situation. It all depends on how that particular frame serves your values and interests. Ultimately, is it helping you or hurting you?
Remember, the goal of cognitive restructuring is never to ignore your reality or the facts of a situation. It’s merely to reframe those facts into a perspective that better serves you and your goals.
Same Information, Different Story
One of the key things to understand about your mind is that it’s constantly creating stories and narratives to help you explain your life and why things happen to you.
Our minds are pattern machines. We see patterns in everything, even when there aren’t any real patterns there. This is true whether we are trying to understand the universe or trying to understand ourselves. We take our experiences and we make up a story about them.
The truth is we don’t just absorb reality through our senses (sight, sound, touch, etc.), we actively process it all through our minds and build associations that seem to have a logic or rationale behind them.
Everything we experience in the physical world goes through a mental filter before we can make any sense of it. Two people can have the same exact experience but come away with two completely different interpretations.
A collection of isolated facts doesn’t make sense to us. But when we take that collection of facts and try to draw lines between them, we begin to build a story or narrative in our minds.
This is a great illustration of how the same information can have different narratives:
- The first panel represents isolated facts and events before our minds begin to make sense of them or draw connections.
- The second panel represents how our minds can draw connections between different facts and events that appear logical and rational. (“Tom touches a hot stove” → “Tom gets burned” → “Touching a hot stove will burn you.”)
- And the third panel represents how our minds can take facts and events that have nothing to do with each other, but we still see a connection in them. (“Tom is wearing a blue shirt” → “Tom gets rejected for a date” → “Wearing a blue shirt will get you rejected.”)
To be honest, most of our understanding of the world is a mixture of both the second and third panel. Many of our beliefs are logical, rational, and mostly accurate representations of how the world works. It is indeed true that if you touch fire, you will likely get burned.
But we also have plenty of beliefs that aren’t logical, rational, or accurate representations of how the world works. And these are beliefs that we often need to change if we want to begin living a better life.
Understanding this difference between rational and irrational beliefs is a major key to “cognitive restructuring.”
Challenge Your Irrational Beliefs
One of the first steps of cognitive restructuring is being able to identify when a belief is illogical or irrational.
It’s often very helpful to challenge your negative beliefs and question how true or valid they really are — because oftentimes you’ll find that they are fundamentally wrong. This is especially helpful when you have a friend, therapist, or coach to help you question your beliefs and force you to explain yourself.
For example, someone who suffers from social anxiety or loneliness may begin to form the unhealthy belief that, “No one will ever like me.” But how true is this statement?
A person can challenge this belief by asking themselves critical questions. This is a simple example, but it shows how challenging your negative beliefs can help to break them down and dismantle them.
We often think about ourselves in very exaggerated and irrational ways, and just being a bit more sceptical of the negative beliefs we hold about ourselves can often be a good way of proving ourselves wrong and opening up new ways of thinking.
Once you dismantle an irrational belief, you can think of a way to reframe it into a more accurate and positive belief.
In the example above, you might change your belief from “No one will ever like me” → “Not everyone will like me, but that’s okay!” or “Many people would like me if they really got to know me!”
Remember, the goal of cognitive restructuring isn’t to make up super unrealistic beliefs like “Everyone will always like me and think I’m the best thing since sliced bread!” Instead, the goal of cognitive restructuring is to find a more positive way to frame a belief, without deluding the facts of the situation.
Often times even just simply being more honest with yourself is a good way to begin tearing down irrational and negative beliefs that don’t serve you.
Watch Your Language
When it comes to our thoughts and beliefs, the language we use can play a big role in cognitive restructuring.
Sometimes even just expressing the same exact belief using different words can change how we think and feel about a situation — and ultimately change the meaning we take away from it.
Therefore, when analyzing your beliefs, it’s important to pay special attention to the exact words and phrases that you’re using and to ask yourself whether there’s a better way to word that belief so that it can serve a more positive and constructive purpose in your life.
Here are important ways to change your language to help cognitive restructuring:
Words and phrases have connotations
Every word or phrase you use has a different connotation or feeling that you associate with it. This is why we have to be particularly careful with what words we choose when we describe our experiences, because they can completely change the way we feel about that situation.
For example, when you say “We broke up,” it implies something is broken and can’t be fixed, but when you say “We went our separate ways,” it implies a shared feeling of moving forward.
Looking at a break up from those two different angles can make a big difference in how you view the relationship. Be willing to play with different words and phrases and see which ones resonate the best for you and keep you in a positive mind frame.
Avoid extreme language
When expressing a negative thought or belief, we often use exaggerated language like “never,” or “always,” or “very,” which tends to imply that something is absolutely true (“I’m very bad at math!”). But by using less extreme language like “sometimes,” or “at times,” or “a little” we can lessen the impact of those negative beliefs and reframe them into something less serious.
One simple example of downplaying negative thoughts is instead of saying “I’m very stupid,” say “I can be a little stupid sometimes.” It doesn’t change the facts (everyone makes silly mistakes sometimes), but it takes away some of the power of that negative belief and leaves you open to improve and change.
The power of “yet”
One of the best ways to keep your mind open to new possibilities is to harness the power of “yet”. “Yet” is a very productive and healthy word to add to a sentence when you are describing something that hasn’t happened to you.
For example, instead of saying “I haven’t achieved my goal,” you can say “I haven’t achieved my goal yet.” This keeps you honest with the fact that you haven’t achieved something, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t achieve it in the future.
The past doesn’t dictate the future — and reminding yourself of that can keep you empowered and motivated during tough times.
Using metaphors to frame your experiences
Another very powerful way to change your perspective of a situation is to use metaphors to frame your experiences.
Metaphors are ways of describing an experience in terms of another experience. Therefore, by finding new metaphors to use, we simultaneously teach ourselves how to look at an experience through a completely new lens.
For example, we can think of “Love” as an uncontrollable force (“There was a spark!” / “We gravitated toward each other.”) or you can think of “Love” as a collaborative work of art (“We need to grow together!” / “We need to make compromises and sacrifices.”)
Which metaphor you choose to describe your experience will radically change how you think, feel, and act in that situation.
You narrate the story of your life
Whether we do it consciously or not, we are all the narrators of our own life story. We often see ourselves as the protagonist and everyone else plays different types of characters throughout our story (including “good guys,” “bad guys,” “friends,” “enemies,” “lovers,” “heroes,” etc.)
By actively rewriting the story of your life, you can reframe the way you see certain memories and past experiences — and dive deeper into restructuring how you view your life as a whole.
All of these are great tools to use when attempting cognitive restructuring.
Whether it’s something simple like changing a single word, or trying to look at an experience through a whole new metaphor, or focusing on your life story — the language we use can play a major role in how we shape our beliefs and how they influence our lives.
Your Thoughts and Beliefs Matter
Overall, one of the big lessons behind cognitive restructuring is knowing that your thoughts and beliefs matter.
Your beliefs influence how you think, feel, and act in your life. And by changing certain beliefs (especially beliefs about yourself), you can change your life by changing how you act and how you respond to your life situations.
Psychologists often use various forms of cognitive restructuring to help people with depression, anxiety, mood disorders, and personality disorders. It’s one of the most helpful aspects of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is currently one of the most popular forms of therapy.
Interestingly, a recent study showed that many people who learn Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy techniques on their own can often see just as much improvement as those who receive Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy professionally.
Of course, that doesn’t mean a psychologist, therapist, or coach can’t be a helpful person to talk to, but it is great to know that we can learn helpful techniques on our own and still reap some of the rewards.
If you’re not actively practicing “cognitive restructuring” in one form or another, you should strongly consider trying it out for yourself and seeing how it can help.