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Jan Shepherd

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Relax and Re-Frame Distorted Thinking

Posted: 05/06/10 10:23 AM ET

Thanks to the many of you who posted or emailed in response to the question, "Which of the distorted thinking patterns is most relevant for you?" As you might expect, there were as many answers as there were patterns. But, many of you had a question for me, "What can I do about them?" Good question. The answer is, "a great deal." The process is called Relax and Reframe.

The first step in dealing with these patterns is to realize that they are occurring. So observe what's going on and then relax. Just take it easy on yourself. Many of these patterns can make you crazy with negative self-judgments that can quickly turn you from being your own ally to your own enemy. And negative self-judgments have a way of blinding us by shifting the focus away from the distorted thinking and on to the pain that they cause. Until I recognized that, I had no way to deal with them.

The secret for me was for me to be willing to replace the negativity with loving. I had to remove the self-judgments and replace them with self-acceptance and self-love. In other words, whether I liked what was going on or not, I had to accept it before I could change it. I had to acknowledge the truth that it was happening, no matter what, and work with myself the way a loving parent works with a child learning to walk. If I stumbled I'd gently picked myself up, told myself I loved me, that I was learning and try again.

But as powerful as the loving is, it's not enough. The loving can ease the pain created by negative self-judgments, but it takes changes in thinking and behavior to transform the old destructive patterns into productive new ones.

Once you've learned to relax by accepting and loving yourself exactly as you are, it's time to reframe. Reframing lets us see things in a different way than we have seen them in the past. And we reframe almost the same way we relax, by removing judgments.

The distorted thinking patterns share many things in common and chief among them are the judgments they contain such as right and wrong, good and bad -- and it's all about me or its all about them. Take polarized thinking, for example. That's the pattern where you see things as black or white or good or bad. Because there is no middle ground, things are one way or another and our behavioral choices become very limited.

For me sometimes it was no cookies or the whole box of cookies. At other times I binged which made me bad or I dieted which made me good. These patterns don't only apply to food. They can apply to any situation that throws us out of balance. It could be how we are with a significant other, how we deal with our various projects or how we react in the workplace with our boss or employees. It is something that we do internally to distort what is actually going on and turn it against ourselves. For me, it was a food issue that emphasized my distorted thinking. But virtually all of this discussion probably applies to what your issue might be. Remember, liberation is the goal.

Here are four steps I used in reframing distorted thinking patterns:

1. Recognize that it is happening. Instead of just automatically reacting to a situation, no matter how charged or tense or uncomfortable, take a few moments to sort things out before taking an action. You can take a few breaths or take a walk. I learned that sometimes the best reaction is to take no further action at all (like after eating the third cookie).

2. No matter how many alternatives you see to a situation try to find just one more. Then look at each alternative and ask yourself, "Which is most appropriate for me? Which will get me closer to my goal? Which one makes nothing more important than the loving? Which one serves me the best?" Then try that alternative. For me it was reminding myself that three cookies are only so many calories and that is the same number as a serving of steak so I really didn't "blow it" like I was used to telling myself. Then I would throw the rest of the bag of cookies away so I wouldn't be tempted to eat them.

3. Try not to make things personal or take things personally. They rarely are. Most of us vent and blame others when in fact we are angry at our own behavior and ourselves. So when others take it out on you, they are probably just dealing poorly with their own stuff. And when you are thinking about blaming someone else, it's probably a good idea to look inside first. And then relax. It's okay. Take it easy on yourself and make nothing more important than the loving.

This was particularly helpful to me in recognizing both my strengths and weaknesses. If something or someone did push one of my buttons, I knew there was something for me to learn about myself -- that actually the person was doing me a favor. There was a particular episode where a young man was being a bully, which was irritating me to no end. When I realized that I was upset was because I was a bully to myself, a whole new world of self-care opened up for me. I didn't go and eat because I was upset that the person was acting like a bully. I just removed myself from his presence, recognized that it had nothing to do with me, didn't take it personally and praised myself for my growth.

4. This all takes awhile. Awhile to recognize it. Awhile to get it. Awhile to practice it. Awhile to get it down. A long while to master it (maybe even a lifetime). But you will get it and you will, in time, make it a part of you natural behavior.

We'll continue to explore distorted thinking patterns and their role in transformation in my next blog. As always, I look forward to your comments, emails (janshep@aol.com) and those tweets.