I had been trying to get my picky 7 year old nephew to try different (and healthier) foods. He informed me on day that he didn’t like spaghetti and meatballs and I thought to myself “What kid doesn’t eat spaghetti?”. He loves pizza so I knew it couldn’t be the tomato sauce taste.
I hypothesized he had “learned” not to like it, probably on the basis of one experience. Perhaps he had a bad version of it and forever after assumed he would never like it. How often do we all perhaps make faulty generalizations like this? I tried a technique known technically as cognitive reframing, to put the same dish in a new light for him to see if he could perhaps like it in some form. Once the aversion based on the past was gone, could he have a different reaction to it? I asked him to try my fabulous “pizza noodles”.. since I know that he loves pizza and also enjoys plain buttered noodles. The result was indeed fabulous. He ate the whole (admittedly small) bowl! He still took some small issue with the meatballs, but his face and tone of voice told me that he wasn’t wholly against them as evil incarnate as he had been in the past. This little success highlighted for me the importance of unlearning the past and being able to put a new spin on old experiences so that they do not keep us stuck.
This is a topic that is fascinating to me. It seems nothing short of life changing to be able to reformulate experiences and change the very fabric of our perceptions. How to accomplish this reframing and to what extent it is effective are important issues to tangle out however. I recently came across “Keeping Emotions in Check May Not Always Benefit Psychological Health” which cites a new study that indicates reframing isn’t always beneficial and can even be harmful. They term the reframing “reappraisal” but it amounts to the same thing. (Is this a reframing of the concept of reframing by calling it something else? Oh the joys of psychological semantics!)
The results of the study show that context is paramount when using reframing and that in instances where the stress is something beyond our control reframing does indeed help, but when the stressor is within our control, “reappraising” it in a more positive fashion does not help. If we realize we are in a situation that is changeable and somewhat within our control, than trying to shift our perception of it to a positive scenario may be considered on some level as a disservice to our innate tendencies towards goal achievement. For instance, if we know we can do better at a given task, and receive a kind of stress from getting a bad evaluation, shouldn’t we want to do better and let that stress motivate real action and change? To reappraise it as not really bad might seem more like a poor excuse to ourselves (teacher the dog ate my homework!) rather than an honest appraisal. This begs the question are the appraisals of situations that are not in our control really honest or are they more acceptable simply because we have no alternative? Contemplating all of this, I remembered Paradoxical Intention in Logotherapy, in which a neurotic problem is exaggerated rather than combated in order to lessen the problem (hence the term paradoxical). An example of this might be if you have trouble sleeping at night, rather than trying to force yourself to sleep which might keep you awake longer as you worry more and more about getting to sleep, you would try to stay awake. I think there is something to this strategy but there aren’t many studies done on it as of yet. The idea behind this is to “resist not evil”; that the harder we fight certain demons the stronger they may become.
Here is an interesting article on reframing anxiety as excitement (with a rather misleading title in my opinion) that might also shed light on the variables at play. Perhaps the bigger the leap we have to make in our conceptual framework, the harder it is to pull off? Like the pizza noodles, it’s all food for thought.
- Keeping emotions in check may not always benefit psychological health (psypost.org)
- Avoid Anxiety by Reframing How You Think About Negative or Anxious Emotions and Situations (simonmoesgaard.wordpress.com)