Cognitive Reframing: Definition, Techniques & Examples

Instructor: Emily Cummins
We all have negative thoughts from time to time. Psychologists have developed ways to try and change negative thinking to positive thinking. In this lesson, we'll talk about cognitive reframing, which is a technique to try and help us think more positively.

Cognitive Reframing

We all have negative thoughts sometimes. Have you ever tried to actively change these thoughts? Cognitive reframing is a psychological technique that attempts to help people stop thinking negative or stressful thoughts. Basically, the major idea here is that our thoughts about a situation are almost more important than the situation itself. Put another way, when something difficult or stressful happens to us the way we react to the situation and the thoughts we have about it are extremely important. Let's talk a little bit more about what cognitive reframing looks like.

Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis

There are a couple of important figures we should talk about. They both played a role in developing theories and ideas about cognitive reframing. First, we have the psychologist Aaron Beck. Basically, Beck saw negative thoughts as dysfunctional. He came up with what he saw as a number of thinking distortions. In other words, Beck saw people as often having distorted beliefs about the world. So, for example, all or nothing thinking is a pattern of negative thought that involves black and white thinking.

For example, if you do poorly on one exam you may see yourself as stupid, no matter how well you've done on past assignments. This is similar to overgeneralization, where one negative occurrence starts to feel like constant failure. Sometimes people also have a tendency to disqualify positive thoughts. So, for example, you may deny that anything positive is happening because it might contradict the negative belief that is so powerful to you.

Beck saw these negative beliefs as something we could change through reframing our thoughts. Beck saw this as an opportunity to help alleviate negative thinking by putting a positive spin on the situation we're in. For example, let's say you had an exam and you didn't do very well on it. You're thinking thoughts like, I'm so dumb, I'm never going to be able to do well in school and I'll never be able to get into college. Instead of thinking thoughts like this, you should reframe your response to the situation. You can think about ways to better prepare in the future and how you'll do much better on the next exam.

Albert Ellis is another important figure to know. Like Beck, he was also concerned with the way negative thoughts impact us. He felt that being negative make us feel stressed and anxious. Ellis identified what he termed irrational beliefs. These are thoughts like, I must do something, I have to do something, I should be able to do something. Ellis called these beliefs the basic musts, and thought we have to practice eliminating these thoughts.

Ellis came up with something known as Rational Emotive and Cognitive-Behavior Therapy (REBT). REBT is all about managing our negative thinking before negative thoughts become negative behaviors. Ellis thought there were ways we could dispute our negative thinking. According to Ellis, we should ask ourselves a series of questions such as is there any evidence that this negative belief is true? We should also ask ourselves if the belief provides any function for us. In other words, is there anything about holding the negative belief that is helpful? We should also ask if the belief is logical. When we really stop and think about these questions, we might be able to dispel negative thoughts.

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