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How to Positively Reframe Your Clients’ Negative Traits

Three tips to turn negative self-appraisals into strengths


When we can recognize where and how a 'deficit' might actually be a benefit, we can help our clients live more adaptively and happily.

“Every thought we have either contributes to truth or illusion.”

– Gautama Buddha

I don’t know about you, but I try never to be glib with my clients.

A glib reframe is essentially a contradiction. And people don’t like to be contradicted, even if you’re negating their reality with all the best intentions in the world.

Here’s an example of a glib reframe:

Client: “I’m such a terrible person!”
Therapist: “No you’re not, you’re wonderful!”

Now, I personally might enjoy hearing someone describe me as wonderful. (After the ego-buzz wore off, though, I’d probably conclude the person doesn’t know me any better than someone who calls me terrible!) But someone with low self-esteem will not tend to feel better after compliments and praise at all, and may even feel worse.

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“You just don’t understand me!”

A danger of the glib reframe is that it may cause the rebound effect.

In other words, it may cause a client to cling ever tighter to their limiting belief because they instinctively feel it’s under threat.

A danger of the glib reframe is that it may cause the rebound effect. It may cause a client to cling ever tighter to their limiting belief because they instinctively feel it's under threat. Click to Tweet

Clients can and do sometimes protect the familiar even if it is self-defeating. So their response to “No you’re not [terrible], you’re wonderful!” may be “You just don’t understand!”

The more we push, the more they pull.

People need to feel understood in their limitations before we can help them perceive wider horizons.

Don’t get me wrong, glib and direct reframes will work with some people. Especially if their self-esteem is already healthy and they have genuinely never looked at something in the way you describe it to them. But for those with low self-esteem, being too positive about them to them can make them feel worse, not better.1

So when reframing we need to consider:

  • Acceptability: Is the client able to assimilate the reframe? Do we need to use metaphor or analogy or even paradox in order to help instil this new, more positive reality into the client’s mind without them automatically and defensively rejecting it?
  • Timing: Is the client ready for a new way of seeing? If they’re not ready for a confrontational reframe we may simply end up in a tussle with them as they desperately defend their limiting belief, feeling we don’t understand them or their situation.

When our clients feel fundamentally misunderstood by us, we and they lose something very valuable. Only through a sense of shared understanding can a client come to trust us. Without this rapport, our attempts to help them see themselves in a different light are likely to fall flat.

And this is a big deal, because how people feel they fundamentally are has huge implications for how they live.

The immense power of labelling to determine lives

People label other people and themselves in all kinds of ways, and sometimes from superficial data.

Symbols of authority or decency or stupidity can stand in for actual qualities or skills. The outer appearance can mislead us into assumptions about the inner reality.

Clients have often been labelled – by others, by themselves, or both.

When we hear clients describing themselves it’s often in sweeping terms: “I’m so fussy/slow to learn/aggressive/easily addicted/shy/obsessive/prone to guilt…” They smack a label on themselves and come to believe that’s who they are.

This may be somewhat accurate, or it may be well wide of the mark. If a client’s self-assessment seems greatly at odds with all available evidence then we might, at some time, begin to gently challenge those limiting beliefs about the self.

But of course every client will have genuine personality traits, some of which they may view as unmitigated handicaps.

Considering ourselves to be fundamentally ‘shy’ or ‘guilt ridden’ can make us feel hopeless if we view those traits as irrefutably negative.

So how might we reframe ‘negative’ traits?

Tip one: Look for the positives in the ‘negative’

For every action there is a reaction. Nothing is so good that too much of it won’t be bad, and few things are so bad that in some contexts and to some extent they might not provide some benefit.

Some recent research found that simply believing that a negative personality trait has a positive ‘silver lining’ is enough to boost performance in that area.2

For example, believing that pessimism may be a sign of realism paradoxically made people feel less pessimistic! When people were induced to believe they were impulsive but then told impulsiveness was linked to creativity, they actually went onto think and act more creatively.

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Self-perception is important in determining how we feel, think, and act.

When a client defines themselves in limiting terms, I might ask: “Are there any benefits to being prone to guilt/introverted/whatever the case may be?” This, at least, may help your client consider the ‘deficit’ in a new light.

I asked one client, Sharon, whether there was any value in being ‘fussy’. She thought about it and replied that it meant she had high standards.

To another client, Robert, I asked whether there were any upsides to being ‘introverted’. After a time, he stated that he read a lot and thought deeply about stuff.

“So you’re a deep thinker?” I suggested.

“Yes, in some ways I am!”

So we’d gone from ‘introverted’, which he’d framed as a negative trait, to a ‘deep thinker’.

Here we’re simply exploring the trait and helping clients consider it in more nuanced and less pervasively negative ways.

But sometimes we may need to go a little further if a client is really struggling to see their self-proclaimed trait in more flexible ways.

Tip two: Suggest a potential positive aspect of a ‘negative’ trait

I sometimes mention research to clients.

One client, Jane, told me wretchedly, “I’m just a guilt-ridden wreck!”

“So you’re prone to guilt?”

“Yes! And it’s screwing up my life!”

We discussed how proneness to guilt was, in some ways, spoiling her life and leaving her open to devious manipulation from certain people and so on.

I mentioned eventually that it was curious that proneness to guilt conferred benefits. I left that hanging, but Jane looked curious.

“You mean it makes people more decent?”

I nodded to her suggestion… and expanded on it. “Also, according to research, people prone to feeling guilty tend to be harder workers and better leaders.3 Yet another piece of research found that being prone to guilt made people more trustworthy.4 I guess,” I added reflectively, “there are some positives to most things!”

One guy, Paul, came to me for blushing – which we worked on successfully. He was terribly embarrassed about the blushing, which others had noticed. I reflected how curious it was that many blushers assume others must think they’re timid or ineffectual, when research actually shows that people deem blushers to be more trustworthy than average.5

Suzie told me she was a “chronic worrier!” When she’d said this for the third or fourth time I asked her – as we had a good level of rapport by now – if she’d always had such a good imagination!

She laughed and said, “You’re right! If only I could put my creativity to good use!”

Which leads us onto the next point.

Tip three: Amplify the good aspects of the trait

I’m not suggesting that we reframe away people’s concerns. I mentioned the rapport-breaking dangers of glib contradiction earlier. I’m simply suggesting that when we can recognize where and how a ‘deficit’ might actually be a benefit, we can help our clients live more adaptively and happily.

I asked Robert whether he’d like to continue to be a ‘deep thinker’, a quality he felt his introversion gave him. He replied that he would – and in fact would like to become more of a deep thinker – but that he would also like to feel more relaxed and confident around other people.

So once we have defined any use or benefit for the trait (even the propensity to panic may potentially be life-saving in the right context), we can suggest that a goal of therapy might be to keep or amplify the benefits and diminish the detrimental or maladaptive parts of the trait.

When we glean the positives from a trait, it can help a client feel less shame around it.

  • Unable to focus at school = fundamentally action-oriented
  • Prone to anger = able to stick up for what is right
  • Stubborn = self-assured and determined.

This isn’t to say that we need to or should try to reframe every situation or psychological problem as a positive, but if a client seems to exhibit a genuine, ongoing personality trait, we can certainly help them find the useful aspects of that, amplify those useful aspects, and diminish the less useful parts.

I’m reminded of a particular Milton Erickson case.

A true analogy for all this

A young woman, presumably in the days before cosmetic surgery, believed because of the gap in her front teeth she would never find love. Somehow Erickson convinced this young woman to use her ‘deficit’ at a water fountain at work where a young man she liked would often be at break time.

She was to use the gap in her teeth to playfully squirt water at him. He found this charming and eventually they married. She was never able to feel negatively about the ‘unsightly’ gap in her teeth again.

As Erickson himself said: “Until you are willing to be confused about what you already know, what you know will never grow bigger, better, or more useful.”

Certainties, especially negative ones, have a way of dampening life down like rain at a picnic. We think we know our faults, but do we really? Could it be that we can view them afresh and be encouraged by reflecting on who we are?

Can our clients become less sure that they’re as defective as they’ve been led, by themselves and others, to believe?

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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Notes:

  1. Swann Jr, W. B., & Pelham, B. (2002). Who wants out when the going gets good? Psychological investment and preference for self-verifying college roommates. Self and Identity, 1(3), 219-233.
  2. Wesnousky, A. E., Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2015). Holding a silver lining theory: When negative attributes heighten performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 57, 15-22.
  3. Flynn, Francis J. “Guilt-ridden people make great leaders.” Harvard business review 89, no. 1-2 (2011): 30-31.
  4. Levine, E. E., Bitterly, T. B., Cohen, T. R., & Schweitzer, M. E. (2018). Who is trustworthy? Predicting trustworthy intentions and behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology, 115(3), 468.
  5. Dijk, C., Koenig, B., Ketelaar, T., & de Jong, P. J. (2011). Saved by the blush: being trusted despite defecting. Emotion, 11(2), 313.

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