“If you spend too much time looking in the rearview mirror, you will crash your car.” - Matthew Perry
It’s 11:59 pm on New Year's Eve and you’re anxiously waiting to shout “Happy New Year!” It’s a rare moment in which everyone is on the same page that the year is about to end and a new one is about to begin. You may feel nostalgic reflecting on the year ending, thinking back on your accomplishments or milestone moments, or you may also feel anxious about saying goodbye to a chapter in your life or disappointment that you didn’t achieve certain goals. Many of us experience anxious thoughts around the year ending, which can take us out of the moment and allow feelings of guilt, shame, sadness, and regret to seep in, along with questions of, Did I follow through with my New Year’s resolutions? Was I committed to what I sought out to accomplish a year ago? A year is a long span of time, filled with unpredictability, and yet many of us have expectations and feel disappointed when we don’t meet certain goals within that time frame, like finding a new job or relationship, especially if we set out to do so with our resolutions from last year. We may also be reflecting with a heavy heart on what won’t enter the new year with us, such as a loved one who passed away, a relationship that ended, or a job we lost.
This year, consider ways to reframe these anxious thoughts to honor the progress you have made and explore your strengths. Drawing from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), let’s practice a technique called “cognitive restructuring,” which helps us observe our automatic negative thoughts and replace them with a healthier way of thinking (Cognit Ther Res, 2012). Instead of reflecting on your year in black-and-white terms or catastrophizing future outcomes based on how you feel this year went, let’s explore ways to be more gentle and nuanced with ourselves.
Thought Reframing Techniques
Thought reframing techniques are used in cognitive behavioral therapy to alleviate faulty cognitive distortions. A distortion experienced by many is known as “all or nothing” thinking, which involves perceiving the world as a binary — a pair of opposites. Also known as polarized, dichotomous, or black-and-white thinking, it’s the tendency to see things as “either/or” (PsychCentral, 2022). For instance, you were either a success or a failure. Reflecting on our year through the lens of this “all or nothing” thinking and further “catastrophizing” (to imagine the worst possible scenario) could certainly spike anxiety levels and leave us feeling bleak.
These techniques are also referred to in dialectical behavior therapy, an evidence based approach founded by Marsha Linehan and derived from CBT. DBT introduces “dialectics” which are statements with two opposing thoughts that are both true. These principles are important to consider in the following section.
Examples of Cognitive Distortions and Ways to Reframe
To break this down further, let’s explore some examples of anxious thoughts one may experience at the end of the year and identify a potential reframe. Do note, judging our thoughts is not productive or helpful, but it’s important to recognize if they are healthy or unhealthy in the process.
Cognitive Distortion: “This year was one of the worst years of my life. I won’t forget it.”
Reframed Thought: “I faced challenges this year that have changed my life. I am more resilient AND I still feel sad sometimes.”
This statement is heavy yet true for people experiencing life altering events and unpredictable changes. The reframed thought acknowledges how your life has changed, yet also honors the strength built and introduces a dialectic (the AND) to challenge the all or nothing thought.
Cognitive Distortion: “How am I going to survive this year without (insert name here)?”
Reframed Thought: “My loved one passed away and I am anxious about adjusting to the new year without them.”
It can be especially difficult to reflect back on the loss of a loved one and nerve wracking to imagine life without them. Acknowledging the anxiety for what it is can help to avoid catastrophizing the situation.
Cognitive Distortion: “I was laid off and will never find a job again.”
Reframed Thought: “I’ll be looking for a new job and I hope I can find a job with aspects that I liked in my previous role.”
Cognitive Distortion: “I was so busy this year; I can’t believe that I didn’t reach my new year’s resolution of losing weight.”
Reframed Thought: “I had a busy year and did not prioritize my health as much as I would’ve liked. I hope to balance a healthy lifestyle going forward.”
Cognitive Distortion: “I wanted to stop (insert unhealthy habit) this year, but I failed. I’ll never be able to quit.”
Reframed Thought: “I am more aware of what barriers are preventing me from stopping (unhealthy habit), and I will continue to work on this.”
Cognitive Distortion: “All my friends have found love this year and I didn’t. I’m going to end up alone.”
Reframed Thought: “Everyone’s timeline for love is unique, and I will find it in my own time. Seeing my friends get into relationships has given me hope for my future.”
These five examples are only a handful of thoughts that may be experienced as the year comes to an end, but we hope it provides some insight on ways to reconsider negative patterns of thinking. Reframing our anxious thoughts as the year ends allows room for growth, acceptance of the now, and excitement for the future.