Reframe to Change the Game

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BetterUp Studios

15 min

A businessman on a street corner

When you find your thoughts running away from you, spiraling into fear and anxiety, it often means that you have internalized a negative and unhelpful automatic thought pattern. Tracking these thought patterns, labeling them, and coming up with rational alternatives—a process known as cognitive reframing—engenders positive behaviors that will help propel you forward.

Cognitive Distortions and the I-L-S Framework

The first step to reframing a situation is to recognize how you fell into an automatic thought pattern in the first place. In many instances, you will find that you have fallen prey to one or more cognitive distortions, such as:

  • Black-and-white thinking (ex. Thinking that struggling with a particular task means that you are no good at your job.)
  • Mindreading (ex. Assuming that your coworkers have a more negative view of your work than they really do). 
  • Catastrophizing (ex. Worrying that a small and ultimately inconsequential mistake will get you fired.)
  • Emotional reasoning (ex. Believing that since your manager assigned a difficult project to you, they don’t care about your time or well-being.)

Fortunately, there are ways to push back against cognitive distortions like these. One of the most effective is called the I-L-S framework:

  • Identify the thought.
  • Label the thought. You can use the psychological term for the type of thought (as in the above example) or make up your own term (e.g. Inner Critic, The Blamer). Labeling is proven to create a helpful distance and objectivity.
  • Shift the thought. Once you are viewing the thought with more objectivity, it will be easier to choose to replace or shift the thought to one that is more helpful. If that isn’t working, at least bringing in the idea that you might not be right can go a long way to getting you unstuck.

Although it’s not easy to shift our perspective on a difficult situation, the I-L-S framework is a method you can use in the moment to keep your mindset agile amidst challenges.

For an example of how the I-L-S framework can be applied, check out this case study -- and then apply the framework to one of your own challenges!


Step 1

Consider a challenge in your own life that you have been struggling to overcome. What unhelpful automatic thoughts have come up around this? (That’s the “I” or “Identify” in I-L-S.)

Step 2

Next, name the cognitive distortions (like the ones outlined in the article) each of these thoughts are connected with. Write them down and outline how they manifested themselves. (That’s the “L” or “Label” in I-L-S.)

Step 3

Finally, brainstorm a different idea to replace the original automatic thought. What might be a more positive, empowering, or rational thought? What might your most loyal ally say? (That’s the “S” or “Shift” in I-L-S.)

Tip: It might help to draw up a chart, as shown in the case study example, to organize your ideas as you reflect.

Unhelpful Automatic Thought Which Cognitive Distortion? Rational Thought: “What would my most loyal ally say?”

Reframing won’t solve your problems, but it can help you can chart a productive path forward. As you continue to work to overcome the challenges you face, return to the I-L-S framework that you wrote down here. After a week or so has elapsed, take a moment to reflect on where you are with regards to the challenge; chances are, you won’t be feeling as stuck as you once did. 

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