Reframe Your Limitations
“There was a mighty white elephant with a strong trunk and long tusks, trained by a good master, and willing and serviceable. This elephant, led by his trainer, came to the land of the blind. Very soon the rumours went in the land of the blind that an elephant had come to their country. So the wise men and teachers of the blind came up to the elephant and began to investigate him. And when the elephant was gone they met and discussed the animal among themselves. There were some who said he was like a great thick snake; others said he was like a snake of medium size. The former had felt the trunk, the latter the tail. Further, there were some who claimed that his figure was like a high column, others declared he was large and bulky like a big barrel, still others maintained he was smooth and hard but tapering. Some of the blind had taken hold of one of the legs, others had reached the main body, and still others had touched the tusks. In the end they abused and scolded one another over their disagreements, and finally every one of them swore that everyone else was a liar and was cursed on account of his heresies. Everyone of these blind men was honest in his contentions, sure of having the truth and relying on his own experience. But the elephant trainer knows that every one of them has a parcel of the truth, that every one is right in his way, but wrong in believing his outlook to be the whole truth.
— Shakyamuni Buddha – Lotus Sutra
As this famous Buddhist parable from 3000 year ago demonstrates, for most of us, our understanding of our lives and the world is limited. If we are not careful to realise these limitations, we will find ourselves falling into the trap of making judgements about our life that are not accurate and are based on a narrow view. This is particularly unhelpful when it comes to overcoming suffering and moving forward, as we often become our own worst enemy and entrap ourselves in persistent negative beliefs.
One of the most effective ways to quickly gain a happier perspective on events, that liberates us from confining feelings and beliefs, is something that we all do naturally from time to time. This is what psychologists have called a “reframe”. Reframing our current situation can immediately help significantly to overcome the natural resistance to change we can sometimes feel.
What is a Reframe?
Quite simply, a reframe is a different way of looking at a situation that allows you to see the same issue from a different perspective, and feels, more positive by opening new possibilities. However, a reframe is not simply spin, nor is it fantasy. The power of a good reframe lies in the fact that it is plausible and based on something you already believe or strongly suspect is true. Placing your current situation in the context of this new view helps you feel better about it immediately. Necessarily, reframes are highly personal, as we all have varying beliefs and views and the reframe has to emerge from these. It is hardly possible to come up with a one size fits all approach that will not sound glib to some while convincing to others. The task is to find a reframe that works for you.
““My life has been filled with terrible misfortunes, most of which have never happened.
— Mark Twain
How To Reframe
There are a few principles to keep in mind when considering the reframing technique. It is critical that you know and accept these principles before you start actively trying to add reframing to your personal development toolkit. A reframe is far more effective when you understand what’s going on behind the thought.
The first basic principle is that events or situations do not have inherent meaning; rather, you assign them a meaning based on how you interpret the event.
This can be difficult to accept, but you must. Even when something horrible happens to you, it is only horrible because of the way you look at it.
This is not to make light of a tragedy. It’s perfectly OK to be sad when something bad occurs. That being said, even a “bad” event can be given a “positive” meaning.
The second principle is that every thought has a hidden “frame” behind it. The frame is your underlying beliefs and assumptions that are implied by your thought.
The final principle is that there is a positive intention behind every negative thought.
That inner voice of yours that expresses negativity is only doing so because it wants to help you in some way. That doesn’t make the thoughts right or acceptable of course, but it does mean that your inner voice is not an enemy to be resisted.
By finding the positive intentions behind your thoughts, you can work with your mind to find a positive reframe. That is far more effective than chastising yourself for having negative thoughts in the first place!
So, without further ado, let’s get into the actual technique of reframing. At it’s simplest, reframing involves just two steps: observing a negative thought, and then replacing it with a positive one.
Observing Negative Thoughts
If you’ve never tried to pick up on your negative thoughts before, implementing the techniques in this section will probably shock you.
Negative thoughts pop up in your mind many times a day, often follow the same few patterns, and usually sneak by unquestioned.
It’s time to put a stop to this.
Keep a thought journal. Even if you get nothing else from this section, you will be amazed at what you find out about yourself from keeping a thought journal. Keep a small notepad in your pocket or bag so it is available at all times. I’ve found that trying to take notes on my phone is too slow, but you are free to try it. Anytime you have a negative thought, write it down in your journal. This immediately stops your negative thought in it’s tracks. It also allows you to analyse your negative thoughts and notice the most common problem areas or limiting beliefs that you should work on.
It can be tempting to ignore this first step but do so at your peril. Observing your own thoughts is fundamental to being able to reframe them successfully.
Replacing Negative Thoughts with Positive Ones
Before moving on, I can’t emphasise enough the importance of the previous section. If you haven’t been observing your negative thoughts, you simply will not be as successful at replacing them.
Here are some valuable tactics to help you replace your negative thoughts with positive ones.
Use milder wording. This one is really easy, and you should start doing it immediately. Words do matter, and if your thought is worded with a more mild negative, you won’t feel as bad. For example, if you were to think “I really hate that person”, you would feel worse than if you thought “I’m not a fan of that person”. So go with the second one.
Ask yourself: “What is the best way for me to accomplish this?” When you are facing a challenge or fear, you can ask yourself this question to help you focus on the solution rather than the problem. The phrase “best way” implies that there are multiple ways around the problem and focuses on the positive.
Ask yourself: “What can I learn from this?” Now, instead of having a problem, you have a way to improve yourself. Every challenge is also an opportunity to learn, so take advantage of it.
Challenge your assumptions. Try to figure out what the frame behind your thought is. Chances are you have a limiting belief that is encouraging you to think negatively about your situation. This limiting belief is based on assumptions you have made that probably are not true. Find reasons why they aren’t true, and you chip away at the beliefs causing the negative thoughts. This is the most powerful long-term reframing technique, and it is far more effective if you’ve been keeping a thought journal.
These techniques are like rules of thumb that you should have available for when negative thoughts rear their ugly head.
If you really want to succeed with this, you should figure out what your most common negative thoughts are and have a specific reframe available whenever you have that thought.
Consistently applied, you will find yourself instinctively thinking positively in situations that you had previously had horrible thoughts of.
Many of the negative thought patterns you probably experience involve a thinking distortion, or your mind putting “spin” on the events that happen to you.