Any event or interaction that we experience is only ever an interpretation of reality. What is actually going on outside of us, in our environment, will never be known in an objective way.
In every split second of experience we each create meaning based upon our own values, beliefs, and personal/cultural knowledge. Just as Shakespeare pointed out in Hamlet,
‘ for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’.
Rarely do people fully choose their interpretations of good or bad, but rather adopt them unconsciously from the earliest childhood moments. What we swallow fully as little kids often continues to drive our lives well into adulthood, or at least until we become aware enough to discern if the pills are more bitter than sweet.
Regardless of how open minded or even scientific we might be in our approach to life, it’s near on impossible to resist making meaning about the world around us. If you sit ten people from different cultures around a table and ask them what makes food, art or entertainment so valuable, you might not be surprised to get ten different opinions.
Knowing that meaning is attributed rather than inherent is important and hugely useful for getting the best from our lives. Humans behave in response to the meaning we make from an experience, not the experience itself. Therefore if we want to change our behaviours we can start by renaming or reframing the meaning we make.
We can do this reframing of experience in multiple ways.
Change the way we feel in the experience. It’s pretty obvious that if we’re challenged during a time of high stress or feeling unwell that the event will have more impact upon us than if we’re in a peak performance state. The age old, go-to method of taking a long walk when a problem arises is an effective way to change our feelings about the problem or challenge. The next time you find yourself generating a negative and unhelpful assessment of a situation, take a few moments to slow down your breathing, adjust your posture to release any tension and maybe go for a walk whilst smiling and saying hello to people. By changing the way we feel in relationship to a situation, we change the situation itself.
You can also change another person’s state as they interpret an event. Telling a joke, story or simply reaching out to (appropriately) touch another person can have the effect of transforming the meaning about an otherwise problematic event.
Classic reframes: For as long as there has been language, there have been reframes. Some of the most popular ones are popular because they are so effective.
This too shall pass.
Nothing of worth comes easy
If it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger
There is always someone worse off than me
All good things come to those who wait
The more you know the less you need
A problem shared is a problem halved
Every cloud has a silver lining
All language has the capacity to change the meaning of a situation and is limited only by our creativity and flexibility of use.
Perceptual reframing is when you look at the situation from another person’s point of view. If you were an older, wiser, or calmer person, how would you interpret the event? If you were the person you are arguing with, how would you interpret the event? There are an endless degree of perceptual positions you can take to find new meaning in what you are experiencing. What about an alien from another planet? (check out my app ‘untrain your brain’ for videos in how to do this)
Direct reframing is when someone says, ‘this is bad’ and another person says, ‘this is good’. It’s the least effective way to change meaning, as it will often create a push back.
Ask better questions. When you next find yourself experiencing an unpleasant or undesirable situation, you can ask yourself, ‘what else is this?’ Or, ‘what useful, positive, helpful lesson can I take from this?’
By having the ability to change our perception and meaning of the challenges that come our way, we can gain more access to the clever, problem solving capabilities of our neurology.
The next time you perceive an event that you would usually label as stressful, use one of the above patterns to transform its meaning and notice the immediate effect.
For each of us the choice is available to experience a life full of appreciation, optimism, curiosity and satisfaction. Or the opposite if that’s your thing.
Even the most pessimistic of creatures can summon at least some form of reframe every so often,
‘It’s snowing still,’ said Eeyore, gloomily.
‘However,’ he said, brightening up a little, ‘we haven’t had an earthquake lately’.