Cognitive reframing is a powerful and simple tool that each of us can use in every aspect of our daily lives – whether in education, the workplace, or our personal life. Cognitive reframing simply means changing our thoughts so that we are able to look at a situation in a slightly different way. Doing this, we’re able to make negative things become positive and gain more control over our lives.
The Roman philosopher Cicero wrote about reframing over two thousand years ago, using a metaphor of an archer.
“One’s ultimate aim is to do all in one’s power to shoot straight, and the same applies with our ultimate goal. In this kind of example, it is to shoot straight that one must do all one can; none the less, it is to do all one can to accomplish the task that is really the ultimate aim. It is just the same with what we call the supreme good in life. To actually hit the target is, as we say, to be selected but not sought.”
[Cicero, De Finibus 3.6]
What Cicero is saying here is this: an archer wants to shoot straight, but they can’t control things other than their aiming. A wind might start and blow the arrow off course. The target might fall over. An enemy soldier [who probably doesn’t want to be shot] would actively be trying to avoid the arrow and hide behind his shield. Therefore, an archer who’s goal is to hit the target is bound to be disappointed as they can’t control whether the arrow hits or not – despite their skill. They’ve set their hopes on achieving something that is not within their power to achieve.
What they can do is make sure that they aim as well as possible – that this is their goal – and then even if the arrow misses, they’ll not be disappointed as they’ve still fulfilled their goal.
They have reframed their problem.
Cicero is well aware that this manner of thinking can be extrapolated to every part of life, and just because we don’t use bows anymore doesn’t make it any less relevant. For example, I wish to be a writer. I can’t choose whether my book gets published and becomes successful, and so I do not aim for that. Instead, I aim to be the best writer I can be – this is in my power to achieve and so I will never be disappointed. To paraphrase Cicero, “to actually be published is, as we say, to be selected but not sought.”
Another way to understand the idea of cognitive reframing is to imagine looking through the lens of a camera. By changing the zoom we change what is in focus and what is seen in the picture. By doing this the picture is both viewed and experienced differently.
Cognitive reframing is a powerful tool for internal problems as well as external ones – after all, we only experience external problems [such as the archer trying to hit the target] inside ourselves, as emotions. This is as all situations that happen to us in life have no inherent meaning. We are the ones who gives situations meaning, and knowing that means that we can change it. This idea is neatly summed up by Captain Jack Sparrow; “The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem.”
There have been a range of studies done in the last decade done testifying to the effectiveness of cognitive reframing in relation to lots of problems, including burnout, depression, PTSD, and addiction. The studies have invariably found that cognitive reframing is of benefit. Not only is there a scientific basis for this technique, it has also been practiced by various schools of philosophy for thousands of years, and it is this ancient philosophy that has formed the basis for techniques such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy [CBT]
Some techniques to aid us in reframing our thoughts and emotions are:
Guy Reynolds is a graduate of Cardiff University with a BA in Ancient History and an MA in Ancient and Medieval Warfare. Guy’s plan is to gain his doctorate and spend his life studying increasingly niche areas of history. Guy has lots of experience working with wild animals, from Falconry Centres to Wetherspoons, and he loves anything to do with books.
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