How to Use Cognitive Restructuring to Achieve Success

Have you ever noticed that certain events or situations make you feel negative? Maybe this happens when you’re criticized at work or have a bad game. Did you know that it’s not actually the situation that causes you to have such negative feelings?

We can plug in any example of a person feeling badly and the circumstances are not to be blamed. The real culprit lies between our ears.

Negative thought patterns that take place in response to these situations are why we feel badly. Instead of falling prey to our surroundings, we can utilize cognitive restructuring to help us better handle whatever life throws our way.

What is Cognitive Restructuring

When we have perpetual negative feelings, often associated with certain situations, then this is a cause for concern. Continually being exposed to such emotions opens us up to the risk of depression and anxiety.

Having negative thoughts fill our minds can lead to even the most enjoyable activities becoming a struggle. We may find ourselves completely confused and frustrated if we are unaware of why these feelings keep surfacing.

This happened to me while I was in college. I had such high levels of anxiety surrounding baseball, that I found myself dreading each game. A sport that used to bring me so much joy was now only bringing me pain and hardship.

Though, it wasn’t the actual sport that was causing me to feel this way. Instead, for reasons unknown, I had developed an incredibly bad cognitive distortion. It had gotten to the point where my internal dialogue and thinking were automatic and habitual.

Luckily, once I became aware of where my negative feelings were coming from, there was hope.

With the proper help from a sport psychologist, I was able to use cognitive restructuring to alter my thought patterns in response to certain situations and bring happiness and joy back into the sport I loved.

No matter what circumstances are seeming to cause you to feel badly, keep in mind that it is your thoughts alone that are the reason. This can seem hard to grasp, especially if you’re one who likes to blame external causes for your struggles.

However, I prefer to view it in a positive light, since we are the ones causing our negative emotions, we can be the ones to change them.

Cognitive restructuring, sometimes referred to as cognitive reframing, is a technique derived from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). If you’re unfamiliar with CBT, it was developed by Dr. Aaron Beck in the 1960s.

He was researching and working with individuals on depression and discovered that these individuals had consistent automatic patterns of negative thoughts. These patterns included thoughts about themselves, the world, and the future.

As a result of his research, Dr. Beck decided to help patients identify and evaluate their automatic thoughts. This proved to be the beginning of CBT, the use of which is now widespread throughout the world.

Cognitive restructuring is the process within CBT, during which negative patterns of thinking are located, challenged, and altered in favor of a positive alternative. The reason restructuring our minds is so important is due to the pattern of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

The Thought-Feeling Cycle

One of the reasons cognitive restructuring is so important, and why it works, is due to a concept called the thought-feeling cycle.

We may believe that our feelings are a direct result of whatever situation we are in. However, this is not the case. While the circumstances do play a large part, they are not the true cause.

Instead, it is the thoughts that follow the situation that are to blame for our negative emotions. That is why removing yourself from external stimuli may help alleviate some anxiety or depressive thoughts immediately, but it does not serve to treat the underlying problem.

Many times the thoughts happen in a split second, so we are unaware of them. But, a thought precedes an emotion, no matter whether it is unconscious or conscious.

After we have a thought, it is then followed by an emotion. If we are thinking in a negative way, the result will be a negative feeling. Of course, when we feel badly, our next thoughts will likely once again be on the negative side. That is where a cycle forms.

If we are not aware of what is happening, this loop can happen over and over.

As with thoughts preceding our emotions, the emotions will result in certain forms of behavior. If we are in a state of positivity and feeling good, then our actions will mirror it.

On the other hand, if we are in a sour mood, forming all sorts of terrible thoughts in our minds, our behavior will be just as bad.

So you see, the thought-feeling cycle can either be used in our favor or to our detriment. It is up to each one of us to decide for ourselves. If we do decide that the negative thought patterns no longer have a place in our lives, cognitive restructuring is the tool we can use to accomplish this.

"After we have a thought, it is then followed by an emotion. If we are thinking in a negative way, the result will be a negative feeling. Of course, when we feel badly, our next thoughts will likely once again be on the negative side. That is where a cycle forms."

How Do I Know If I Need Cognitive Restructuring?

We can all benefit from utilizing cognitive restructuring in one form or another. It’s very rare we come across an individual who has fully mastered themselves and the way they think. For the majority of us, there will always be areas of improvement.

But how do we know which areas we need to work on?

For me, it was pretty clear and still is. Initially, I had very poor self-talk when it came to most areas of my life. I quickly learned that I needed to perform some cognitive restructuring in regard to how I thought about myself.

I lacked overall confidence and often felt inferior. This had nothing to do with anything external but was triggered by the way I thought about myself. After working hard to restructure my self-perception, I gained confidence and self-worth.

As I said, however, most of us can continually work to improve ourselves. So, once I had built a foundational layer of confidence, I realized there were certain situations and events where I felt more anxiety and fear than at other times.

One area that really stuck out to me was when I was at the plate during baseball. I would get so nervous and fearful of failing. This perplexed me and led to frustration and a decrease in my overall joy for the game.

What I noticed was, leading up to my at-bat, I would be repeating all sorts of negative phrases in my mind. What I thought was an attempt to not fail was actually causing me the negative feelings that resulted in the exact outcome I was hoping to avoid.

Knowing this, I restructured my thought pattern to be more positive and confident building. What this led to was a newfound calmness and confidence at the plate, which hadn’t been felt in a while.

My sights have now been shifted towards speaking situations in which I feel very anxious and fearful. This is the aspect of my life I currently am focused on in terms of cognitive restructuring. There are certain times when I feel more comfortable speaking than others.

I know that this is being caused by a pattern of thought that is taking place. My aim is to pinpoint exactly what that is and work to change it into a system of thought that works to my advantage.

But how exactly does one go about doing this?

As I’m sure you are guessing, cognitive restructuring is not accomplished by simply wishing for our thoughts to change. Work must be put in to ensure that we are successful in this endeavor.

That is why a detailed, step-by-step plan is necessary. It may appear simple, which it is, but it can have profound effects on your life if you stick with it.

I have never understood why people try to make these types of systems complex and confusing. If they are presented in a manner that allows for the greatest understanding, then each one of us can follow the system to better our lives.

That is what I hope to do with the remainder of this article. Cognitive restructuring may seem like a grand and complex undertaking, but it can be accomplished if we stay focused and take the necessary steps to get there.

How to Restructure Your Thinking

To restructure our thinking, there are three steps that must be followed. While a lot of times in my articles, the order of events does not matter as much, in this process, it is important to follow them in the way that is outlined.

The first step will be to locate certain thought patterns, then you will generate alternatives, and lastly, they will be replaced with a positive alternative.

Step #1: Locate Thought Patterns

The first step in the cognitive restructuring process is to locate the thought patterns that are causing the negative feelings.

We must first find out what these patterns are before we can hope to change the way we are feeling. In order to accomplish this, there are three areas we must look into. First, we must determine when we are having negative feelings.

Next, we must discover what thought patterns are taking place during these times. Lastly, we have to see what the emotional consequences are of the thoughts.


This is the step in the process that requires us to pay attention to how we feel on a daily basis. The object of cognitive restructuring is to help ourselves be more confident and positive in situations that usually cause us to feel negatively.

To do just that, we must find the times during our lives in which we are the most uncomfortable, negative, and fearful.

If you are in a constant negative thought cycle, as I was, it may seem like you feel that way all the time. That’s okay but try to think about a specific event where you feel your worst. This will help to discover what the thought patterns are.

It can be difficult to think back on when we were in these negative states, which is why a good strategy is to catch ourselves in the act. In order to do this, we must decide that we will make an attempt to become aware of all the times we feel negatively.

I keep using the term negatively because what you are struggling with may be different than mine. Mine was always about feeling anxious and insecure, while you may be dealing with feelings of anger or something else.

Either way, we are looking for those times during the day when we do not feel how we would like.

A good strategy is to take a few days, maybe even a week, and pay attention to all the times you aren’t feeling great. You can keep a journal with you or just write in one at night, but it’s a good tool to track the times you felt negatively.

After doing this a few times, you should be able to see a pattern of situations that are leading to these states.

"The object of cognitive restructuring is to help ourselves be more confident and positive in situations that usually cause us to feel negatively."


After pinpointing when you are feeling the most negative, it is time to figure out what thought patterns are taking place.

This will take the same kind of conscious awareness as locating when. Once we’ve decided on the times that our minds tend to turn sour, we have to pay close attention to what we are thinking in those situations.

I like to use the same sort of strategy as we just did, by recording all the thoughts that we have during these times. We want to write them down because it will help during the next step.


The last area we must look into when discovering the current thought patterns that are present is the emotional response.

This should be easy since it was the emotional response that drove us to find the situation in the first place. But, we are wanting to get a little more specific.

We want to really think about what the consequences are of each thought. Ask yourself:

  • How do I feel?
  • Does one series of thoughts lead to another?
  • How am I acting as a result of my emotional response?
  • Why am I feeling this way?

All of these questions will be helpful when it comes to reconstructing the way we think.

Step #2: Generate Alternatives

The second step in the cognitive restructuring process is to come up with a list of alternatives for our current thought patterns.

In the previous step, we should have comprised a list of all the current negative thought patterns that we have. They could be specific to a certain situation, or general negative beliefs we hold about ourselves.

We want to come up with an alternative way of thinking during times when we normally hold distorted ideas. There are two ways to accomplish this, creating situational alternatives and general affirmations.

Situational Alternatives

For specific situations in which we have the most mental distortions, we can come up with an alternative plan for how we perceive what is happening.

For example, let’s say you usually get nervous whenever you walk into a room full of people. Your mind becomes full of negative thoughts about what other people may be thinking about you.

Instead, you can develop a new way of thinking that calms you down and brings your attention off what other people are thinking.

General Affirmations

If you have found that your negative thought patterns are more general, in regard to an overall lack of confidence and belief in yourself, then changing your natural internal dialogue is necessary.

This is where I had to start because even without a situation luring me into distorted thinking, I was stuck in a negative loop.

What we can do is develop a list of alternatives to what we have discovered are our usual thoughts.

Step #3: Replace Negative Thoughts with Positive Ones

Step three of the cognitive restructuring process is where you will use all the information gathered in the previous two steps.

At this point, we should have an understanding of when we have distorted thinking, what that thinking consists of, and a list of alternatives. It is now time to put those alternatives into practice.

The first way this can be done is by utilizing a daily practice of affirmations. Take the list of alternatives you made and come up with about five to ten positive phrases. These should all be in the present tense.

Some examples include:

  • I am confident.
  • I am intelligent.
  • I am happy.
  • I am joyful.
  • I love the way I look.

Once you get past the initial corniness of repeating these phrases, you begin to see how well they work to shift the overall perception you hold about yourself.

The second way is to be mindful of when you are in a situation that usually induces negative thinking. Be prepared by having the alternatives you created at the ready.

The next time you are in such a situation, do not wait until the negative thoughts begin to appear, proactively start implementing your alternatives.

"Cognitive restructuring is a fantastic tool we can use to alter the way we think, feel, and behave. Our thoughts are where the rest of our lives derive from, so it is important we put processes in place that are working to our advantage."

Final Thoughts

Cognitive restructuring is a fantastic tool we can use to alter the way we think, feel, and behave. Our thoughts are where the rest of our lives derive from, so it is important we put processes in place that are working to our advantage.

No matter what situation is resulting in mental disharmony, you can always trace the cause back to thought. Once we locate what that thought process is, we can replace it with a positive alternative and watch as our lives transform for the better.

Have you had any experience with cognitive restructuring? If so, what technique did you use to change your thought patterns? Please leave a comment below, as I would love to hear about it.

I hope that with this article, you have become informed about how powerful our thoughts are, and a great way you can begin to work on shifting them. Whether negative or positive, our thoughts are our choice, so why not use them to our advantage?

If you have any questions about cognitive restructuring or any other performance psychology topic, please feel free to reach out to me.

Thank you for reading, and I wish you the best of success in all you do.

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