Reframing, as a counseling and psychotherapy intervention, involves nudging clients toward viewing their thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and life situations from a different or new perspective. Reframing is an especially popular technique among cognitive, existential, and solution-focused therapists. In the following excerpt from our book on the strengths-based approach to suicide assessment and treatment, we discuss reframing . . . and what to do when it fails.
Framing Pain and Suicidality as Evidence of a Normal Self-Care Impulse
Another reframe involves viewing suicidality as coming from a place of self-care or self-compassion. Using your own words, you might try a reframe like this:
As you talk about wanting to die, I’m struck that your wish for death also comes from your wish to feel better . . . and your wish to feel better is normal, natural, and healthy. What I’d like to do for now, is to partner with you on the healthy goal of feeling better. I need your help on this. For now, we can put your wish to die on the sidelines, and focus on feeling better. We can’t expect immediate positive results. Will you work with me to battle your pain, and little by little, to help you feel better?
This reframing message is intentionally repetitive, and almost hypnotic. The purpose is to engage with and activate the healthy part of the self that wants to feel better. When clients respond to this message, hope for positive outcomes may increase. If clients reject this reframing message, suicide risk may be high.
Framing Pain as Meaningful
Victor Frankl (1967) used reframing to address depressive symptoms in the following case.
An old doctor consulted me in Vienna because he could not get rid of a severe depression caused by the death of his wife. I asked him, “What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?” Whereupon he said: “For her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” I then added, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it is you who have spared her this suffering; but now you have to pay for it by surviving and mourning her.” The old man suddenly saw his plight in a new light, and reevaluated his suffering in the meaningful terms of a sacrifice for the sake of his wife. (1967, pp. 15–16)
Consistent with Frankl’s existential perspective, his reframe involves viewing suffering as meaningful. If clients view suffering as meaningful, life can feel more bearable.
When Reframes Fail
Reframing and redefining client emotional distress takes many forms. But, sometimes reframes don’t fit and don’t work. Reframes may be ineffective due to: (a) cultural insensitivity, (b) symptom severity, (c) inadequate rapport or alliance, and (d) countertransference (Lenes et al., 2020; Parrow et al., 2019). When your efforts to reframe fail, clients may withdraw or become agitated and you may risk a relationship rupture (Safran & Kraus, 2014). If the reframe doesn’t fit, process the issue (e.g., “Based on your reaction, it doesn’t seem like the idea I shared fits well for you”). After listening to your client’s response, you might need to proceed with strategies for rupture repair (see Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2017). Relationship repair might include a direct apology and further processing. For example,
I’m sorry my idea for how to think about your pain wasn’t a good fit. But I’m glad you let me know it doesn’t fit. Lots of counseling is like an experiment. Sometimes we discover something doesn’t work. If you think something doesn’t fit or work for you, I will always want to know. Thank you for telling me.
When it comes to using reframing and redefinitions, your theoretical foundation is less important than the pragmatics of finding something that works for your client. The process involves: (a) identifying a potential reframe, (b) asking clients permission to try it out; (c) sharing the reframe; (d) observing client reactions, (e) verbally checking on client reactions and goodness of fit; (f) continuing to collaboratively experiment with the reframe or collaboratively discard it as a bad idea; and (g) addressing the relationship rupture—if one occurred.
If you’re interested in our suicide book, give it a Google. Given the our unique hyphenated last name, it’s not hard to find.