Reframing a Negative Belief

In a past article, “Key Moments: Seizing the Opportunity in Life’s Difficulties” I defined key moments as a situation or event which is upsetting, presents a challenge and demands a response. How we handle our key moments determines, to a great extent, our happiness and success in life.

Key moments happen every day. Some are relatively mild and others challenge us to the core. Although there are many techniques for working through our key moments, I’m going to share one very powerful technique for doing so. By walking yourself, thoughtfully, through these steps, you learn to respond positively to negative triggering events and, thus, increase your personal effectiveness.

I’d like to teach you this technique by sharing an example. Then you can apply the technique to yourself.

A man who was attending a seminar I offered recently talked about a deteriorating relationship with his 14 year-old son. I know lots of people can identify with this. He and his son were in an endless power struggle about everything from homework to curfew to not helping out around the house, etc. He was a continual source of frustration to the father who, at times, even hated to be home because of the tension. (I wonder how the son was feeling.) I took him through the following process. The blue are his answers.

1. Identify a recurring triggering event to which you respond negatively. Continual tension with 14 year-old son.

2. Explore the actions you typically take as well as their consequences. I talk to him, reason with him. Remind him to get things done, like his homework and chores around the house. When that doesn’t work, I’ll raise my voice. We get into an argument and he tells me to leave him alone. He may walk out on me and slam the door. I get mad and ground him when he gets back home.

What is it like when you behave this way? It’s awful. I can’t stand it. I hate coming home, wondering what it’s going to be like tonight, what battles we’re going to get into. I avoid him as long as I can but find that I feel this anxiety in my gut almost continually. When things blow up I feel really angry and then afterwards feel terribly guilty for losing control and worry about what he might do.

What are the payoffs or benefits you get out of behaving this way? (Payoffs are the rewards we get from our negative behavior. If not for payoffs, we wouldn’t do these behaviors.) I can eventually get him to do what I want. At least I could in the past. That’s getting harder all the time…. I let him know that I’m the boss. As bad as it is, I don’t want him to think he’s bigger or got more authority than me.… It feels good to finally let off a little steam. I’d rather be angry than feeling all the anxiety…. (After a little coaching, I helped the father see the next one). I don’t have to face my fears about what his failure would mean and feel like to me.

What negative consequences result from behaving this way? I’m tense all the time. As I said before, it’s no longer fun to be at home. It seems like everyone is walking on egg shells. My wife is upset with me for being too hard on him. The other kids seem shut-down.

3. What belief(s) might cause you to behave this way? (Identify several and then choose one that you would like to reframe)

  • My son doesn’t have a clue.
  • He’s a selfish little jerk that doesn’t care about anyone but himself.
  • He’d be totally irresponsible and out of control if I didn’t keep him straight.
  • He’s going to waste his life away if he doesn’t change his attitude.
  • He’s making our family miserable.

I’d like to reframe the belief that “he’s a selfish little jerk that doesn’t care about anyone but himself.”

4. Identify the distortions of logic within this belief—that “he’s a selfish little jerk that doesn’t care about anyone but himself.”

  • Either/or thinking
  • Over-generalizing
  • Catastrophizing
  • Labeling

Note: Most of our negative core beliefs were formed in a moment of emotional pain and, consequently, are based upon distorted and incomplete data. Some of the common distortions of thinking are the following:

Either/Or Thinking: We look at the world in either/or terms. Either you like me or you hate me.

Over-generalizing: We see one event as the truth. “You can’t trust management.”

Mental Filter: We pick up on a negative detail and dwell on it exclusively until our whole vision becomes darkened.

Catastrophizing: We make events bigger or worse than they really are. My girlfriend left me and I’ll never be happy again.

Mind Reading: We assume we know what others think and feel without checking it out. A friend failed to say “Hi” and, therefore, must be mad at me.

Fortune telling: We assume things will turn out poorly before they have even happened. I am certain that my presentation will be a disaster.

Labeling: We place a label on someone or something which oversimplifies the way it really is. “Men are jerks.”

Personalizing: We feel it is our fault when things go wrong. “If I had been a better father, my son wouldn’t have gotten into trouble.”

5. How might you change this belief to one that is more rationale and empowering towards achieving the results you desire? (Come up with several ways of restating this belief and then choose the one that you like best.)

  • He’s being a teenager.
  • He’s really has some great personal qualities.
  • He’s going through some hard times and trying to figure out who he is.
  • He’s really a pretty good and talented kid who’s going through a tough time trying to figure out who he is and how to assert his independence.
  • He doesn’t like his dad controlling him.
  • He’s a good kid who can figure things out. He’s going through a tough stage of life and doesn’t know how to react to his dad controlling him.

I think I’ll go with the last one. “He’s a good kid who can figure things out. He’s going through a tough stage of life and doesn’t know how to react to his dad controlling him.”

6. Imagine yourself, in the future, facing the triggering event identified in step one. Your old belief would have been (“He’s a selfish little jerk that doesn’t care about anyone but himself.”). Instead, you now believe (“Daniels a good kid who can figure things out. He’s going through a tough stage of life and doesn’t know how to react to his controlling father.”)

How would you act? I’d have more empathy and remember back to my middle school days… I’d take time to listen to him instead of blowing up at him… I’d invite him to talk to me about what he’s got going on in his life… I’d let him know what I admire about him… I’d let him make more decisions and figure out the consequences… I’d tell him about me and my father (that wasn’t good.) Of course, I’d still expect him to do his chores around the house and obey some family rules. But I might take a look at some of those rules to make sure their appropriate to his age… Or maybe I could let him tell me how he feels about them.

How would you feel? (With tears in his eyes), It would feel so good. I love him so much but I’ve been scared that he’d make some really dumb decisions. Kind of like me. But this would help me feel close to him again… I’d feel better about myself. It would be easier to come home.

What would be the consequences of acting and feeling this way? We could talk. We could be close again. Maybe there’d be some conflicts but I’d talk to him instead of blowing up and trying to get my way. The other kids wouldn’t feel so much tension. My wife and I could start talking again. I’d be learning a different way of parenting, at least teenagers.

7. Integrate the new belief into your daily behavior by:

  • Writing it down
  • Taking action on it for the next several days
  • Collecting evidence that verifies it
  • Evaluating the results you are getting

(Note: I met up with the father several months later and asked about his son. Sure enough, he’d broken through to a new relationship with him. The two of them could now talk and, although they had to work through some differences, they felt trust and goodwill that had been missing. The father was very grateful for the opportunity to reframe a core belief.)

By going through this process, we reprogram ourselves to react differently to our key moments. We change their meaning, how we feel as we experience them as well as our actions. This technique will work if a person is truly willing to take responsibility for a key moment and use it as an opportunity to learn and grow. And the good news is that as we learn how to work through one key moment it becomes easier to use the process to work through others.

Roger K. Allen, Ph.D. is an expert in personal transformation, leadership, and teams. His tools and methods have helped hundreds of businesses and tens of thousands of people transform the ways they work and live. To learn more, visit www.theheroschoice.com.


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