Mitch, a relatively new participant in the domestic violence help group, knew he wanted to stop reacting so strongly. He especially wanted to stop the kind of reaction that resulted in his domestic violence arrest. He’d already identified some of his buttons—the things that seemed to regularly set him off. What he wasn’t confident about was how to stop himself from becoming violent when (not if) his buttons were pushed again.

Start with the thought

Steve, a group veteran, shared a concept he believed was one of the most helpful things he’d learned. Big reactions are driven by strong emotions, and those emotions are generated by our thoughts. Said in reverse order, certain thoughts cause emotions, which then drive reactions.

Thoughts cause emotions which drive reactions.

Steve told Mitch that by changing his trouble-causing thoughts, he would have different, less powerful emotions. “There’s always another way of thinking about any situation” Steve said. Those different thoughts would make it easier for Mitch to control his emotions and actions.

Reframing thoughts means looking at situations differently

Mitch liked the idea of getting better control of his reactions. But how, exactly, could he change his thoughts? We then discussed the concept of reframing thoughts—looking at a situation from a different perspective. The group contributed several of their own examples of thoughts that led to big reactions. “Stink’in think’in” was how one guy described it.

Together, we worked to reframe those thoughts into less powerful ones. Here are some examples:

Thought: My partner always takes my hard work for granted.

Reframed: My partner didn’t show appreciation for my hard work, but I know they are tired and distracted right now. Overall they are grateful and I know I am doing a good job.

Thought: That’s so rude when people interrupt. I never get any respect.

Reframed: When people interrupt, it shows their bad manners but it doesn’t mean what I had to say isn’t worth listening to. I can wait until they are in a listening mode and try it again.

Thought: I must be stupid because I don’t understand investments.

Reframed: I haven’t spent much time trying to understand investments. Here’s what I do know and I can always learn more if I want to make the effort.

Thought: No one wants to be with me.

Reframed: There’s a right person out there for me, and I’m only looking for one.

Absolute words

One pattern the group quickly noticed was when we include absolute words like “always” and “never.” These words leave us with a sense of inflexibility and hopelessness. And, it turns out, they are almost always never true (see what I did there?).

Instead of saying or thinking these absolute words, try reframing thoughts with words like “usually” or “sometimes”. These create more options and generate less powerful emotions. Even something that has been consistent, like “My marriages always end in divorce,” can be modified with words like “until now,” which gives us hope.

Absolute words like “always” and “never” leave us with a sense of inflexibility and hopelessness.

Want some practice developing better emotional control? Write out five thoughts that are behind your most powerful negative emotions. (Hint: our most powerful emotions are the ones that cause our strongest reactions. See our Slow Motion page for more help identifying them.) Then, reframe those thoughts into ones that are more positive and more flexible. This exercise will help your mind follow a new path when those trouble-causing thoughts hit next time. Like every skill, the more you practice, the easier it becomes.

Here’s a video about this blog post.