Some years ago, I was talking to a good friend of mine who asked, "So, how are you feeling these days?"
I quickly answered, without thinking, "Well, I've lowered my expectations, so life is actually more tolerable."
Having struck us so absurdly funny at the same time, we laughed about that for a long while. After the conversation, I thought my comment sounded negative and morbid--like I've given something up. And then I realized I did: my perfectionism.
This is what is called REFRAMING in Cognitive Therapy. It's a good thing. But I still think back on that conversation and feel torn. Yes, I know the world is not perfect and neither am I. However, when you are young, you have a tendency to look at the future with much more hope and anticipation. People tell you, "Anything is possible!" But as you bump along in life, you find out eventually (or very quickly!), that your opportunities are shrinking and life is usually NOT what you had imagined it might be.
This situation can be worse for people who are told they should set goals, and work for them, and they will accomplish their dreams. Sounds nice--and productive; however, unless you are willing to re-set your goals along the way, willing to be very flexible, life may seem like one disappointment after another.
By middle age, during times of grief and loss, I found myself working hard on looking at the glass half-full, counting my blessings just to stay balanced and not go off the deep end. It really worked! (Usually...) It got me through some very tough times and I learned to survive.
Now, I'm grateful for knowing how to change my perspectives; I'm grateful that I know perfectionism and rigidity ("thinking errors") are unhealthy, and I can avoid them. I'm grateful to have found a way to be content most of the time, even though I realize that I am working through my subjective reality and not objective reality. (I believe there IS objective reality, but who is to say what that is for sure? ;0) But I'm getting Existential again...back to Cognitive!)
Some people are suspicious of reframing, saying that it is just a way of fooling yourself. If that is how they see it, it probably is--for them. As a therapist, we try to get clients to see that there are different ways of looking at the same situation. Certainly, as humans, that is what we all do naturally--we all have our personal perspectives. Just ask any group of people who have witnessed a car accident...
While it makes sense to me, it can be difficult to teach this tool to some clients who use black and white thinking (another thinking error); things are all one way or the other for them. Other clients snap into reframing quite quickly. I have seen the "miraculous results" of cognitive therapy often. So, I believe in its power.
And yet--I still somehow feel uncomfortable at times trying to teach reframing or reframe things for myself. If we are recreating our own reality, how far is it from actual reality? I mean, are we just becoming Pollyannas?
Some of the latest therapeutic approaches emphasize heavily the positive approach--think positive, be positive, avoid negativity whenever possible, and life will become oh-so-wonderful. When I see people really "up" like that, my first reactions are that they "drank the Kool-aid", that the person is not "genuine", living in a world of their own. (Well, it's THEIR perspective, right--isn't THAT OK?) (I sometimes wonder what would happen if objective reality ever crept into their lives. They might explode--or melt!)
I want to be "realistic" with myself and my clients. I think a worthy goal, existentially and theoretically speaking, is to bring objective and subjective reality together as closely as possible, so that we can live a practical life in the real world and reduce the denial in our lives. That sounds harsh, though, too, doesn't it? For me, it is often a balancing act between Existential and Cognitive principles. (After all, not much occurs in a vacuum.)
It is very difficult to know where to draw the line with others; how much reality can they digest? Some denial is a healthy stop-gap measure to keep us going until we are ready to face certain realities. Some people really limp through life, so it is imperative NOT to take their denial "crutches" away from them. Gently guiding, leading, over time is better. (Or, in some cases, never may be better. We don't want anyone contemplating suicide.)
So, maybe reframing can be defined as using a new perspective that is still feels REAL (whatever that is), but feels more HOPEFUL. I do think we can reframe ourselves to a place close to objective reality, if we do it skillfully in conjunction with the personal issues of the client.
Personally, I continually check myself and weigh sides to make sure I'm not just living in a "fool's paradise". Cognitive therapy, done well, can be a very tricky road; but until some other better mode of therapy comes along, I'll stay on that highway!
AARON T. BECK, M.D.
"The philosophical origins of cognitive therapy can be traced back to the Stoic philosophers".
See...how philosophy and psychology overlap?