Mastering the Art of Rethinking

5 min read

This post is by Kate Petrova.

Picture this: you are in the final stages of securing your dream job. After acing the interviews and forging what feels like a real connection with the hiring team, an unexpected email sends your world into a tailspin. They chose someone else. Thoughts begin to rush through your mind: “Should I have done something differently?” “Will I ever get a job?” If allowed to run their course unchecked, thoughts like these could easily spiral into a cycle of toxic negativity and self-doubt. Instead, how can you recover from this setback and move forward?

One powerful tool that can come to the rescue in such moments is rethinking. Rethinking is an emotion regulation strategy that involves intentionally changing your interpretation of an emotional situation and your role in it in a way that changes how you feel. It’s like being a director in your own life’s movie. Only in this case, choosing a different angle on a dramatic scene changes not only how you view it but also how you feel.

In the past few decades, studies have shown that rethinking can be tremendously beneficial. People who use this strategy experience reduced stress, greater emotional resilience, and stronger interpersonal relationships. Rethinking can even enhance overall health and well-being. Like any skill, rethinking requires practice and patience to master. You can follow these three steps—the three E’s of successful rethinking—as you practice it in your own life:

  1. Engineer a helpful way of thinking about the situation.
  2. Elaborate your new way of thinking about the situation to make it as concrete as possible.
  3. Experiment with it until you find the right fit.

Let’s go through each of these three steps in a bit more detail.

Step #1: Engineer a helpful way of thinking about the situation

The first step in rethinking successfully is coming up with a helpful new interpretation of the situation. A helpful reinterpretation is one that doesn’t just seem possible on the surface but one that resonates deeply without denying any part of the reality. Getting rejected from your dream job stings. But simply sweeping hurt feelings under the rug, telling yourself that the job wasn’t that great anyway, could feel like lying to yourself—an unhelpful kind of rethinking that is unlikely to work. Instead, a more believable and, as a result, more helpful attempt at rethinking the situation might go something like this: “I feel disappointed that I didn’t get the job, and that’s normal. But this also provides an opportunity for me to reflect on what went well during my interview, identify gaps in my resume, and improve my future prospects.” This way of rethinking allows you to face the situation head-on while maintaining a realistic and growth-oriented outlook.

Step #2: Elaborate your rethinking

Now that you have the bare-bones version of a believable new interpretation, it’s time to really breathe life into it by making it more concrete. Specifics add depth to your rethinking. Like vivid scenes from a movie, interpretations that you can imagine in detail are much more memorable, which makes them more likely to stick and become integrated into the way you see the world. Consider the job rejection scenario once again. “This isn’t as bad as it seems,” is a good start. But “Although this specific job didn’t work out, this setback is unlikely to have a negative impact on my long-term prospects because I am still in the early stages of my career and have a solid safety net” is a better reinterpretation that can be more seamlessly integrated into your life. Creating this level of concreteness requires you to dig deeper and take a comprehensive view of your situation. Doing so can feel uncomfortable at first, but it will substantially strengthen your rethinking in the long run.

Step #3: Experiment with your rethinking

The last, but equally vital step is to try out your rethinking and to tailor it to really make it work for you and your situation. Like fitting a piece into a jigsaw puzzle, the first piece you pick up may seem right initially but turn out to be wrong upon closer inspection. As you elaborate on your new interpretation, you may need to experiment with several versions before hitting on the one that really clicks into place. For example, you might originally reinterpret your job rejection as an opportunity to tear down your entire interview persona—from your choice of wardrobe to the way you carry yourself—and build a brand new one to take its place. But upon further reflection, you might come to realize that this way of rethinking doesn’t really align with your true beliefs or values. For example, you might realize that some of what the employers saw as “flaws” are, in fact, core parts of who you are. You might then experiment with an alternative interpretation that reframes the rejection as an opportunity for personal growth and self-discovery, or even a catalyst for exploring alternative career paths. Ensuring that your rethinking dovetails with your values and goals beyond the immediate situation is essential for long-term emotional thriving.

Cut yourself some slack!

Rethinking is hard. It requires effort and practice. Recognizing your emotional responses and finding alternative perspectives that are grounded in reality is not a skill that comes naturally to most of us. Yet, like any skill, it can be honed over time with effort and patience. As you practice this important skill in your own life, remember that even the most seasoned rethinkers find certain situations tricky to reframe. The anguish of a breakup, the sting of professional rejection— these are hard to view from another angle. And sometimes an approach rooted in problem-solving, accepting things as they are, or soliciting help from others might work better than rethinking ever could. Just remember, struggling with emotion regulation doesn’t mean you’re failing. It means you’re human.

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