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Cognitive Reframing Helps Us Overcome Adversity (Vayechi 5780)

At the end of a twenty two year saga, Yosef is able to look back on it all and see how everything that happened to him was part of God’s plan. When his brothers were worried that Yosef will exact retribution for when they sold him into slavery all those years ago, he appeases them by explaining that it all worked out for the good:

וְאַתֶּם חֲשַׁבְתֶּם עָלַי רָעָה, אֱלֹהִים חֲשָׁבָהּ לְטֹבָה לְמַעַן עֲשֹׂה כַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה לְהַחֲיֹת עַם־רָב׃ Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, in order to allow me to provide for a great nation today.  (Genesis 50:20)

Yosef explains that it was part of God’s will that he should be sold as a slave to Egypt, so that he would eventually rise to power and sustain his family during the famine. 

Yosef’s ability to interpret negative events in a positive light for himself and for his brothers is an important tool used in Cognitive Therapy - called reframing. Cognitive Therapy theorizes that how we interpret our experiences determines our emotions. That is, our perception of our reality influences the meaning we attach to it. Therefore, the job of a good cognitive therapist is to help an individual reframe his/her experiences in a way that is more helpful for living a happy life. 

      For example, a disgruntled teen may complain that his overbearing mother is constantly checking in on him when he is out with friends. He may see his mother’s actions as excessive at best, and suffocating at worst. He may feel that his mother doesn’t trust him and doesn’t value his maturity. This causes him to harbor feelings of resentment towards his mother, and act passive aggressively by not responding to texts or phone calls.

      The first goal of the therapist should be to validate the teen’s emotions, and be empathetic about his notion of feeling smothered. However, in order to help improve the teen’s relationship with his mother, it would also be beneficial to suggest other interpretations of his mother’s behavior. The therapist might say, “It seems that your mother really does love you a lot and can’t bear the thought of something bad happening to you”.         For those who suffered terrible life experiences, religious faith and a belief in an all-loving, benevolent God could be particularly helpful for reframing their perspective. A fascinating study looked at medically-ill elderly patients and measured the effects of religious coping methods on their overall psychological and physical health. The study followed 268 hospital patients for two years, and found that those who interpreted their illnesses as a form of punishment from God had greater declines in physical health, cognitive functioning and overall quality of life. In contrast, patients who interpreted their illnesses as a benevolent act of God were more likely to improve their overall condition.[1]

        Although it can often be quite difficult to do, reframing is a vital skill to learn in order to overcome adversity. Yosef certainly experienced incredible tests of faith in life, yet he was ultimately able to look back, reflect, and connect the dots to see how God was helping him fulfill his true purpose. May we merit to see the grace of God in our collective and individual journeys of life! 

Shabbat Shalom, Saul Haimoff

[1] Pargament, K. I., Koenig, H. G., Tarakeshwar, N., & Hahn, J. (2004). Religious coping methods as predictors of psychological, physical and spiritual outcomes among medically ill elderly patients: A two-year longitudinal study. Journal of Health Psychology, 9(6), 713-730.

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