When In Doubt, Reframe

I mentioned something in passing in a recent post that I’d like to spend some quality time unpacking today—reframing. In my ramble about Theoretical Tinkering, I said that it was by reframing my ruminations that I was able to turn away from the depression I could see looming and make my way back to reality by reclaiming my own thoughts.

Dogs are masters of reframing their perspective.
Dogs know all about reframing

“The first step is to understand that what you’re experiencing is not who you are.”

I have found the power of reframing to be truly transformative for myself, obviously, but also for others I’ve worked with and friends I’ve mentioned the concept to in passing.

Reframing, Unpacked

Before diving in any farther, a quick formal definition to ensure we’re on the same page (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 terms I would actually use in conversation—reframing is taking an issue, situation, or interaction and turning it around in your head to see it from different perspectives. Another way to look at it (see what I did there?) is as separating the issue from your Self, setting it down on the floor in front of you, and walking around it (something I’ve also written about, over here).

The concept of separating an issue from your Self might seem…woo-woo, or just 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 just that, a discrete situation. 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. Really let each distinct perspective sink in and make an impact on how you view this thing.

In performing this separation, you will gain a certain distance from the issue. This will allow you some room to breathe, to really 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 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 cultural/societal assumptions we make, often unconsciously.

Time For A Personal Example

For something like 15 years, I worked in IT support in one capacity or another. I figured out relatively early on that this was not the field I was supposed to be in, yet with the passing years and increasing experience it became difficult to make any substantive career moves.

I didn’t get into the field for any of the reasons people expect. I don’t particularly like computers. I like helping people. I like being able to help them solve a problem that allows them to be their best selves and do what they need to do more efficiently and effectively. It turned out I had the ability to fix computer and software issues.

Don’t ask where that came from. No clue.*

After going through my own health journey over a period of several years, I discovered a relatively new field called Wellness Coaching. Coaching relies on skills that I seem to have innately. Things like listening intently (and listening fully before speaking); only asking deep & open-ended questions that cause people to really think through their answers; and using intuition to interpret the pauses in conversations. This leads to discoveries on the part of the client, helping them find their way to their definition of wellness.

Fast forward—I’ve completed a Graduate Certificate in coaching, incurring the student debt I’ve read so much about recently, and moved back to Seattle. Upon my return, the first thing I did was resume my IT job hunt. How did that happen?

Enter Reframing

One day soon after my return, I was sitting in my micro-studio (rent here is obscene) when I was hit with a blinding flash of “Well, Duh.”

Shift things up by reframing the issue.
Photo by Alexas Fotos from Pexels

My training in coaching positioned me nicely to fill the role of team lead or senior member of a support desk team. These roles often come with the expectation of mentoring/coaching younger members of the team, along with the usual customer interactions. I could now use the traits I already possessed and felt like I had to quash behind my mask of IT Guy. The possibilities became endless once I made the cognitive shift to seeing my traits and training as boons to my existing career rather than as a failed attempt at changing careers altogether.

This perspective shift, or reframing, changed my view on the time and money I put into this certificate. I became able to see it as a way to further my career goals, whatever they may be. And at the same time, it gave me a way to use some of those traits that were previously getting in the way and causing a disconnect in my day to day life.

I’m still working on a write up that covers how I finally, after nearly 20 years, was able to make the transition to full-time writing. It’s an even longer and windier story than this one so it’s proving a challenge to get into words. Stay tuned.

Wow, that example kind of got away from me. Yet it remains on point for the topic. You can do this exercise with any situation you encounter. Whenever you find yourself saying, “OK, here’s what happened, now what?!?!” 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 new and varied perspectives and you’ll be confident that your course of action is right for the situation.

Now for a quick word on those culturally-based blinders I mentioned in passing. 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, then being able to push them aside to see what they’ve been blocking from view.

Cognitive Blinders: We’ve All Got’em

Cognitive blinders work the same way, they stop us from seeing what's right there.
Image by JacLou DL from Pixabay

One of the greatest benefits of reframing is that you have the chance to consciously, and mindfully, do exactly that.

There are 2 primary blinders I want to quickly cover. The first is what’s called 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 next.

Let’s say you’re sitting at a stoplight. The Availability Heuristic is what tells you that within 30-90 seconds that light will turn green and you’ll be on your way. This comes into play with Reframing because it’s this heuristic that tells you what to think about your options for the issue at hand. If you’ve ever experienced something similar to the current situation, you already have some idea of how to handle it.

The problem with this 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 step back and reframe, you may not realize this until it’s too late.

Blinder #2 is the effect of what Daniel Quinn calls “…the voice of Mother Culture humming in the background…” This is the accumulated detritus of the culture you were raised in. Let’s say you’re in the US like I am. This would include everything from what you learned watching Sesame Street to the lessons about sharing you (hopefully) learned in kindergarten. It includes what you learned playing outside with your friends as a kid (if you’re at least my age and your parents let you play outside), and it includes what you learned from watching and internalizing 20+ years worth of commercial TV and Hollywood blockbusters.

Both of these blinders are easily addressed. All you have to do is take a step back, take a breath, and reframe the situation. 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 indeed 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.


*Well, that’s not strictly true. I’m pretty sure it relates to where I fall on the Global => Sequential learning spectrum. I’m all the way Global. This means that I look at a problem and see it all at once as a single, unified whole. Sequential folks see things as a series of logical steps, to be followed in order, one at a time. The benefit to me being global is that I can often see where the glitch is with only a minimum of input from the customer and/or a minimum of poking around – rather than following a series of 10+ steps, most of which are irrelevant to the problem at hand.

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