Reframing is a therapeutic technique where you help a client consider an idea from a different point of view, taking the evidence as it is but coming to a different conclusion. Many of us are apt to use totalizing descriptions when we think about our lives; reframing helps us consider alternatives.
The psychologist Irvin Yalom recounts an experience from his personal life that applies. He says, “A lovely example of a reframed comment that provided much comfort to me occurred some time ago when I expressed my disappointment at a bad review of one of my books to a friend, William Blatty, the author of The Exorcist. He responded in a wonderfully supportive manner, which instantaneously healed my wound. “Irv, or course you’re upset by the review. Thank God for it! If you weren’t so sensitive, you wouldn’t be such a good writer” (Yalom, The Gift of Therpy, Kindle Version Pos 444).
Why was this reframe effective? Blatty didn’t try to discount or change how Yalom was feeling. He honored these emotions as they were, but came to a very different conclusion about what they meant, one that was nourishing and meaning saturated. A good reframe honors the immediate experience of the client, not sugarcoating or ignoring any of the raw data, but instead interpreting this data differently.
Another example of reframing comes from a conversation I had with an acquaintance, an anesthesiologist who was struggling with painful feelings of existential anxiety. She couldn’t stop thinking about all the mistakes she might make while her patients were under, that she might fail one of them in a grievous way, and it was eating her up. I told her it sounded like her anxiety was making her a better doctor, that it was keeping her on her game, probably insuring that the mistake she was so worried about making would never come to pass. The appropriate response was to thank her anxiety, not to hate it. She said she’d never thought about it this way and she instantly felt better.
Reframes are some of the most powerful comments in the therapeutic game. They are like a bolt of lightning, a shift of tectonic plates that instantly change the mental and emotional landscape, opening up a previously unseen narrative. In therapy we often talk about change and growth unfolding slowly over time, but the reframe can create instantaneous change, which is exciting for both therapist and client.