A Superpower for the Rest of Us

a line drawing of a woman's face with a prism starting behind her head, moving through her eyes, and ending in the distance

By Ellen Flannery-Schroeder

Psychology professor Ellen Flannery-Schroeder shares how she uses the therapeutic technique of cognitive reframing as a superpower. And the best part is, you don’t have to live in the Marvel Universe to access it.

I have a superpower. It’s not superhuman strength, telepathy, or time manipulation, but it may be just as powerful.

My superpower is the ability to find the good in the bad. No matter the situation—positive, neutral, or downright awful—I focus on the positives. I shift my attention until it lands on something good.

One summer morning a few years ago, my family and I went out for breakfast at a popular restaurant. When we arrived, the line was long. As we waited to be seated, servers strode past with plates of eggs Benedict, pancakes, omelets, and sausage. The sweet smell of freshly baked cinnamon buns made our stomachs growl. After about 30 minutes of the food parade, our patience was wearing thin. But waiting and watching the food go by meant we saw just about everything on the menu, so when we sat down, I’d know exactly what I wanted to eat. When I focused on that, it was easier to wait.

Another example of how I’ve used the superpower: The day my teenage daughter hit a deer while driving, I was grateful she wasn’t hurt. Maybe you’ve done the same thing in a similar situation. If so, whether you knew it or not, you were tapping into
a powerful technique.

And here’s another one: When it rains, I focus on how my allergies improve.

In truth, it’s not always easy to access this superpower. There have been many times when I’ve tried and tried—and failed; and other times when I couldn’t even muster the will to try. But usually, with a little time and distance from the situation, a good night’s rest, or time with family or friends, I can find my way to the positives once again.

I recall the first time I saw this superpower in action. Years ago, when my father was hospitalized with a serious illness, my brother, living nearest to the hospital, became the messenger of all health updates. If you’ve been through a serious illness with a loved one, you know the path to recovery is full of ups and downs. With my dad, there were times when nearly every indicator was trending in the wrong direction. But my brother would zero in on a singular index of something going well and offer it to us as some sort of gift. It was a miraculous thing to behold.

In psychology, we refer to this as cognitive reframing or cognitive restructuring. It is the process of shifting one’s perspective to see a situation in a different light. In therapy, we often encourage our clients to ask themselves, “Is there another way I can look at this situation?” or “What would I tell a friend if this happened to them?” Cognitive reframing can help shift one’s mindset, providing opportunities for personal growth and change.

I have set out to hone this superpower in my children. Once, when they were younger, I offered them an assignment: Armed with a camera, capture something beautiful, special, even magical, in our very ordinary and overgrown backyard. (I’ve often thought that photographers see the world a little bit differently than the rest of us—their eyes trained to find and capture the beauty of a seemingly ordinary moment.) The kids returned with photos of sun streaming through tree leaves, a tiny flower nestled in a dense clump of grass, the speckled back of a small bug, a fern unfurling itself to the world—things that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.

So, have my children fully mastered use of the superpower? Have I? No, not quite. We are still sharpening our skills. But I think we’ve developed some proficiency—enough to have learned that there is beauty all around us, even in the darkest places and times, and that where you place your focus makes all the difference.

Ellen Flannery-Schroeder is a psychology professor in URI’s College of Health Sciences. She is the Dr. Glenda L. Vittimberga ’88 Endowed Professor of Psychology, director of training in clinical psychology, and director of the Pediatric and Adolescent Anxiety Lab. She is a licensed psychologist specializing in parenting, childhood emotional health and wellness, and cognitive-behavioral therapy, with a special interest in childhood anxiety disorders. Flannery-Schroeder has worked with her students on research examining the role of emotional regulation strategies, including cognitive reframing, in childhood anxiety disorders, and she teaches her clinical psychology students how to use cognitive reframing with their child/adolescent clients.

Illustration: Anthony Russo