Can We Change?

Spoiler Alert on Change: There is a film on Netflix called “The Wonder” about a young girl who wouldn’t eat. Without giving away the whole thing, because her refusal to eat was related to who she believed she was, she also came to believe that, if she could die and be reborn as someone else, then she could eat and live again.

In real life, it is not necessary for us to die and be reborn to better ourselves and our lives.

All we have to do is change our minds (which is pretty much what she did too). From an earlier post commenting on an NPR piece:

“The beliefs, assumptions, expectations that you’ve gotten from your friends, family, culture — those things, Mischel explains, are the filter through which you see the world. Your mind stands between who you are, your personality and whatever situation you are in. It interprets the world around it, and how it feels about what it sees. And so when the stuff inside the mind changes, the person changes.”

That’s it, folks. That simple. All you have to do is change your mind. To quote again from the article, “People can use their wonderful brains to think differently about situations…. To reframe them. To reconstruct them. To even reconstruct themselves.”

What got me going on change again was a Science Daily post this week on how people can become ‘creatives,’ even if they are not, via something called Cognitive Reappraisal.

Cognitive Reappraisal to the Rescue

Okay, so what is Cognitive Reappraisal? Technically speaking, from Psychology in Action, it is recruiting:

…areas of the brain like the orbitofrontal cortex, a major structure in decision making, and prefrontal control systems such as the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain which plays roles in goal appraisal and modulating the emotional activity of the amygdala, a subcortical brain area that processes anger and fear. Instead of becoming a screaming lunatic, the diatribe was subverted, civility restored, a career saved, and a relationship formed. All of this neural activity happens within milliseconds of an emotional situation unfolding, and the behaviors that ultimately come out of that process can dramatically impact one’s life.

What cognitive reappraisal entails is 1.) attending to the emotional situation, which will elicit an automatic judgment of the situation (called an appraisal), and then 2.) a cognitive re-evaluation or re-judging of the situation in a more neutral or positive direction (called a re-appraisal). What happens when you take a split second to cast a better light on an otherwise dark situation is that you can actually upend your emotional experience entirely. What was once an idiotic, reckless driver, is now a guy just trying to get to work on time.

Science Daily reported on cognitive reappraisal studies that found:

Even people who tend to think conventionally, such as accountants or insurance adjusters, can be creative, a recent study suggests, if they can look at emotional situations in a different light.

Without exactly calling it cognitive reappraisal, I realize my clients and I practice this technique for growth and change all the time. For example, just this week I heard myself saying to a wonderfully credentialled woman considering a career pivot, “This is an opportunity, not a problem—you know that right?” to which she responded, “I am trying to remember that.”

For the many others who are also considering this kind of redirect in their lives, from HBR on “Embrace Ambivalence When Making Big Career Decisions :

For many, ambivalence is uncomfortable because it violates our need for consistency. People sometimes react to this uneasiness in suboptimal ways. To avoid or minimize the discomfort as quickly as possible, they might make an impulsive decision based on incomplete or oversimplified information, or they might avoid making a decision altogether for as long as they can.

So, HBR’s authors are recommending that pivoters cognitively reappraise how they think about the ambivalence they experience—as an important and useful part of the process, rather than something to feel bad about oneself about.

How To Practice Cognitive Reappraisal

Here’s some advice on how to practice Cognitive Reappraisal from the Berkeley Well-Being Institute:

By practicing finding the benefits of past event, experiences, or challenges, you can strengthen your reappraisal ability. To practice reappraisal, start by writing out a list of things you learned from a past failure. For example, if you missed an important deadline, maybe you learned that you need to prioritize better, delegate more, or tone down your perfectionism.

Ask yourself these questions to help you reappraise:

  • Were there, or will there be, any positive outcomes that result from this situation?
  • Are you grateful for any part of this situation?
  • In what ways are you better off than when you started?
  • What did you learn?
  • How did you grow and develop as a result of this situation?

Bear in mind that Cognitive Reappraisal doesn’t have to be positive. In fact, there are studies comparing and contrasting Negative and Positive Reappraisal After a Romantic Break-up.

What researchers at University of Missouri found was that, although people felt less “attached” to their ex after negative reappraisal, contrasted with positive reappraisal of the relationship experience they also felt less “pleasant.”

Interesting and important trade off, I would think. All of which means that, as usual, it is important to experiment with what might work best for each of us in different situations.

Start wherever you like. Start big or small. Change your mind about a situation, or the people in it – or simply how you think about it without actually changing anything else at all.

Begin to notice what kind of reappraisal or reframing leaves you feeling most like the person you most want to be. Practice, practice, practice, and see what happens.

To work on this or something else, would love to hear from you at email:  Madelaine Weiss

Warm wishes for the holiday season,


Photo by Unsplash Håkon Grimstad

Share your thoughts and comments.

Our members are talking about this article on Belongly.
Register today and join the conversation.

About the Author: Madelaine Weiss
Madelaine Claire Weiss (LICSW, MBA, BCC) is a Licensed Psychotherapist, a Board Certified Executive-Career-Life Coach, and bestselling author of “Getting to G.R.E.A.T. 5-Step Strategy for Work and Life.” sfas

Keep Reading

Want more? Here are some other blog posts you might be interested in.