Life can sometimes difficult. We don’t get what we want, and we get a lot of what we don’t want. We can start to slip into a mindset, of “Life shouldn’t have to be this hard,” or “What’s wrong with me that I have so many problems” or “My life is cursed.”
Although these are simply thoughts, they can sometimes seem like the truth. If we continue to play these messages over and over in our mind, they become more believable. Reframing, or seeing things from a different frame or perspective can be a great antidote to the tendency to making the mistake of believing everything we think! In changing our point of view on any given situation, we can not only see things differently, but we can actually change the feelings that our negative thinking had generated.
Shifting from a conviction that if I think something, it must be true, to one in which I remind myself that “Just because my thoughts seem true, they aren’t necessarily true,” loosens our attachment to being right about my assessments of things. In so doing we remind ourselves that although we feel certain that our judgments are accurate, we (gasp) could actually be wrong ! Even at those times that we believe that our situation is inevitably going to lead to utter and complete catastrophe or when we are convinced that our belief about something or someone is accurate, leaving just a small opening in our mind to consider the possibility that we could be wrong. Haven’t you ever been convinced that something you believed was true turned out not to be? Or that there might be no hope for a situation to turn out well in the end did? Or that there was no other way to view a situation than from the lens through which you were viewing it, when “miraculously” you saw it from another perspective that left you feeling more hopeful? Of course there are occasions when our efforts to shift our vantage point are unsuccessful in creating a new set of possibilities or fail to prevent the outcome that we seek. But what have you got to lose by trying?
Another way of reframing is simply to ask yourself the question, “May I have had something to do with the situation in which I’m currently in?” Asking this question frequently can shift our perspective from that of a victim, to an active participant. This does not mean that we shift the blame from another to ourselves, but rather that we shift our perspective from the question, ”Whose fault is this?” to “What can I learn from this?” Simply reframing what we see as a problem to a challenge, can not only open up new possibilities for us, but will often result in a shift into a less distressed emotional state.
Another example and an opportunity for reframing occurs when we find ourselves in the midst of an angry interchange. When our anger is inflamed, we are more likely to descend into judgmental, critical thoughts about the other person. When we are flooded with these feelings, we are rendered temporarily helpless. During such times we are likely to see the other person as an adversary rather than an ally or a partner. Doing so increases the likelihood that they will respond accordingly, and we’re off to the races!
With a committed effort to practice pausing to reflect, we can remember that underneath the anger, both our own and that of other, is fear and pain. In that crucial moment of reframing we can dare to speak more vulnerably about our deeper feelings, that frequently invites the other person to disarm themselves to speak vulnerably with us as well. To regularly practice this kind of reframing can do wonders to prevent painful relational breakdowns in the future.
A frequently quoted and dramatic example of reframing comes from Victor Frankl in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he speaks of his experience in a concentration camp during the second World War. For three years, he lived through starvation and torture in four camps. He lost his beloved wife and every member of his family and observed most of his fellow inmates die. Frankl kept his mind active, planning the lectures he would give after his release, using the material from the death camps to illustrate points he wanted to teach. As a devoted teacher, his careful, deliberate planning of his future lectures kept his spirit and body alive in hideous, deadening conditions. He survived the death camps and went on to actualize his vision through the practice of psychiatry, teaching, and authoring several books. He transformed unimaginable suffering to service that touched the lives of millions of people. Most of us will never have to endure anything close to the hell that Frankl’s life was composed of in the concentration camps, but we can be inspired to keep our attitude strong and hopeful, even in dire circumstances.
Reframing requires seeing something in a new way, in a context that enables us to recognize and appreciate positive aspects of our situation. Reframing helps us to use whatever life hands us as an opportunity to take advantage of, rather than a problems to be solved. Breakdowns, no matter from what their source is can be transformed into challenges and new possibilities to experience life more fully and to become a more whole human being.
Reframing is not a denial that the challenges that we inevitably face in life can be extremely difficult. It simply helps us to remember that regardless of the situation in which we find ourselves, we can learn from our experiences to exercise what Frankl claimed was our power, which was, in his words, that “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” We all have that power. Reframing is a tool that helps us to remember that we possess it. We owe it to ourselves and to our loved ones to keep that in mind.