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.
Thoughts cause emotions which cause reactions.
Steve, a group veteran, shared a concept he thought was one of the most helpful things he’d learned—that his big reactions were being driven by some really strong emotions, and those emotions were being generated by some of his thoughts. Said another way, certain thoughts cause emotions, which then cause reactions. Steve told Mitch that by changing his trouble-causing thoughts, he would have different, less powerful emotions. That would make it easier for him to keep control of his actions.
Reframing takes a thought and looks at it from a different perspective.
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—taking a thought and looking at it 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: I’m unemployed and I’m never going to get a job.
Reframed: I’m transitioning my career right now toward better opportunities.
Thought: No man or woman wants to be with me because I’m a loser.
Reframed: There’s a right person out there for me, and I’m only looking for one.
Thought: I’m stupid because I don’t know ___.
Reframed: Here’s what I do know.
Thought: I can’t do ___.
Reframed: How can I ___?
Thought: I failed at ___.
Reframed: ___ was a good learning opportunity.
One pattern that the group quickly picked up on 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 “usually” or “sometimes” to create more options and 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 me 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.