Let’s start with a definition of terms, from Wikipedia:
Cognitive reframing is a psychological technique that consists of identifying and then disputing irrational or maladaptive thoughts. Reframing is a way of viewing and experiencing events, ideas, concepts and emotions to find more positive alternatives.
In other words, reframing is taking an issue, situation, or interaction and turning it around in your head in order to see it from different perspectives. For the visual learners out there, look at it as separating the issue from your Self, setting it on the floor in front of you, and walking around it.
The concept of separating an issue from your Self might seem…woo-woo, or a tad odd to some of you. No worries. The first step is to understand that what you’re experiencing is not who you are. The situation you find yourself in is exactly that – a situation – a separate, discrete thing. It’s something that’s happening in this moment. The Self that is experiencing it exists independent of that situation.
Internalizing this fact is what will allow you to view the incident as something you can set down in front of you and examine. This lets you see it from many different angles, taking in multiple perspectives on the issue. Do several laps. Let each distinct perspective sink in and make an impact on how you view this thing that is your situation.
In performing this separation, you will gain distance from the issue. This will allow you some room to breathe, to examine the issue from these alternate perspectives and get a better grasp on it. You’ll see additional possibilities that may have been hidden previously due to the cultural blinders we all wear. These blinders are the inherent biases we all carry with us every day; the things we think we know and the societal assumptions we make, often without realizing it.
You can do this exercise with any situation you encounter. Whenever you find yourself saying, “OK, here’s what happened, now what do I do?!?!” Or, “here’s the only option I can see…” This is your cue to try reframing. You may very well end up right back where you started, and that’s OK.
If so, you’ll get there having examined the situation from all these perspectives and you’ll be confident that your course of action is right for the situation.
Now, let’s take a moment to discuss those Cognitive Blinders I mention in passing above. Don’t think you don’t have them. We all do. The trick is being able to see them BEFORE they get in the way. Part 2 of the trick is being able to push them aside to see what they’ve been blocking from view. There are 2 primary blinders I want to discuss.
The first is the Availability Heuristic.
In summary, this is how we use the information we have collected from previous experience to judge what’s going to happen now. Let’s say you’re sitting at a stop light. The Availability Heuristic is what tells you that within 30-90 seconds that light will turn green and you’ll be on your way.
If you’ve ever experienced something like the current situation you’re working with, you already have some idea of how to handle it. The problem is that the previous experience you’re using to formulate these ideas may not be as closely related as the heuristic tells you it is. If you don’t take the time to acknowledge this blinder, you may not realize any of this until it’s too late.
Blinder #2 is what Daniel Quinn calls “…the voice of Mother Culture humming in the background…”
This is the accumulated detritus of the culture you grew up in. Let’s say you’re in the US like I am. This includes everything from what you learned watching Sesame Street to what you learned watching one pop star beat up another with no repercussions. It includes the lessons about sharing you learned in kindergarten. And it includes what you’re learning watching the current political…situation. It includes what you learned playing outside with your friends as a kid. And it includes what you learned from watching 20+ years worth of commercial TV.
Both of these blinders are easy to address. First, you have to be present enough to realize that they’re in play. Then, you have to take a moment to ask yourself two questions: What are these blinders blocking? And what are they forcing you to focus on instead?
Once you can reconcile the difference between these two things, you’ll start seeing the whole picture.
Now take a step back and reframe the situation.
Once you’ve finished this exercise, as I mentioned earlier, you may very well end up at the same conclusion you arrived at pre-reframing – and again, that’s OK. Having looked at the issue from all sides, you can rest assured that that is the most appropriate solution, in this moment, for the situation at hand.
This can be a powerful tool in your arsenal as you move through life, from conflict resolution at home to the direction your career is going. I encourage you to give it a try the next time you find yourself appraising a sticky situation, you might be pleasantly surprised by what you find.