What is reframing?
Reframing relies on our ability to switch attention from one way of looking at something to another way. The duck-rabbit illusion on the right is a famous example. When you look at the picture from right to left a duck appears; in the reverse direction a rabbit emerges.
But, where the duck-rabbit illusion is a perceptual change, reframing works through language. Reframing observations, ideas, judgments, problems and stories. Using it, we draw attention to another viewpoint. Too often, our thoughts seem to us to be the only way to look at something; reframes enable us to try on others for size.
Many jokes are actually verbal reframes, as the punch-line reverses our initial expectations. Example:
“I keep missing my ex. But my aim’s slowly getting better...”
The human tendency is to get stuck stuck in rigid judgments. For example:
‘I am a failure.’
‘She is a freak.’
‘He is a narcissist.’
‘You are evil.’
‘They are persecuting me.’
Although some of these judgments may contain a partial truth, it is overstated. For people cannot be defined by labels. And our judgments about life often obscure as much as they reveal.
Reframing uncovers those aspects of the problem that are clouded over by the terms we use to define them. In this way it reveals unconsidered possibilities, thus opening us up to personal change.
One thing all psychotherapists have in common is that we are constantly reframing the things our clients tell us. Sometimes these new frames fail. But when they succeed it can take the client in a new, and more hopeful direction.
Reframing problems as failed solutions. Example: Every time you avoid going into a crowded room, you stay in your comfort zone.
Reversing self-attributions. Example: You blame yourself for your daughter’s problems. Have you considered how she might be contributing to her own problems?
Reframing unwanted emotions. Example: Your frustration over these arguments may be a cue for you to look harder at this relationship.
Reframing mistakes in judgment. Example: It’s easy to sit in judgment over the mistakes you made as a teenager. But you didn’t know then what you know now.
Reframing mental health problems. Example: A lot of successful people are obsessives. Channelled in the right way obsessionality delivers precision and depth in thinking. That’s how NASA scientists put people on the moon.
We all carry stories about life experiences in our heads. These stories can often seem more real than the experiences themselves. Yet those same stories can also be a prison, in which we become victims rather than heroes. Psychotherapists, especially narrative therapists, are aware of the power of changing stories in therapy. thus changing the frame through which we make sense of past experience. Changing the story can neutralise painful memories, in the way that Charles Dickens did when rewriting his childhood experiences in his novels.
One reason why people read novels is that the plots are often based on the hero’s journey, in which tragedy turns to triumph as the protagonist undergoes a series of trials which lead to a change in character. Leading from there to fresh experiences that herald a new start in life. Such novels are attractive to many as they imply that even the most painful experiences can be utilised in personal progress.
A client I met several years ago described to me how his life had been a series of misfortunes and damaging experiences. From his parents’ acrimonious divorce, to the loss of his family home, his step-father’s abuse, expulsion from school, drug addiction, and a string of failed relationships.
Yet, as I heard that narrative it seemed to me that there was a different story waiting to be heard: a story about resilience. No matter how bad things had gotten he continued to search for a better life. Along the way, recognising that the people he hung around with, and the drugs he had taken, were not the way to achieve it. He gave up drugs and alcohol, moved away from his bad neighbourhood, worked his way through college, and formed his own business.
The new story we worked on together was a story about the life he wanted to live, rather than the life he had lived so far. A story in which he was a hero, rather than just a damaged child.
This is an exercise in reframing unhappy experiences with other people that anyone can do. It is a virtual reframing process in which you review the same scene from the point of view of different characters.
Your chosen memory might relate to a moment of anger, frustration or distress involving another person. In which you experienced conflict, rejection or something else that was painful. You can also use it on confusing experiences, or unfinished situations.
Yet, if you are new to this way of working it might be best to experiment with minor examples at first.
First, identify the episode you wish to review. Recalling the location, the circumstances, the others involved, and your thoughts and feelings. You can write these down if you wish.
Imagine yourself back in this scene, but this time as an observer, watching and listening to the event.
Select three or more mentors from the list below, and have them join you in commenting on the event.
A super intelligent alien
A young child (not you)
A parent or grandparent
Your older, wiser self
A close friend
Your guardian angel
Your favourite philosopher (living or dead)
A spiritual figure (e.g. Christ, Buddha, Krishna, etc.)
Listen as each of these mentors describe to you their take on what happened, and what you can learn from it. Write down anything new or surprising that you learn.
Finally, review your original thoughts and feelings about the event. How have these changed? Consider how these new perceptions can empower you in the life you have now