Reframe Your World: How to Turn Adversity into Opportunity, Weakness into Strength, and Failure into Success
Definition (my own): To change the meaning of a situation by reinterpreting it in a more resourceful way. Put differently, to change how we think about a situation by looking at it from a different “frame”.
Reframing is all about reinterpreting the world to our liking. It’s about getting a new perspective, challenging assumptions, and going with the flow of life instead of resisting and struggling with every seemingly bad event that happens.
It’s about purposely neglecting the negative aspect of things (damnit, I just missed the train. This sucks. Now I’ll be late. Fucking bullocks!) and instead focusing on the positive (Phew, thank God I’ve missed that train. It looked way too packed. Besides that, now I’ve got time to call my mom. Awesome!)
Reframing is a strategy that helps you find peace of mind, improve your emotional life, and makes dealing with life’s ups and downs a lot easier.
Modern neuroscience is a big fan of this technique as well and refers to it as “cognitive reappraisal” or “re-contextualizing”. James Gross, a neuroscientist and the founding father of emotion regulation research, says that reframing should be in the water we drink.
Everything Is Empty of Meaning
According to Buddhism, everything in life is completely empty of meaning. Nothing is in and of itself good or bad, ugly or beautiful, smart or dumb, enjoyable or otherwise. Nothing carries any meaning. Everything just is as it is.
The meaning always comes from us. We are the ones who interpret outside events, who choose the framing, who decide whether something’s a good thing or a bad thing. That’s why we see situations so differently. For example, a boss yelling at you doesn’t mean anything. It’s you who interprets it and gives it meaning.
It’s never the event that matters. It’s your framing of the event that matters.
You see, if everything in life is empty of meaning – losing your home, getting a divorce, winning a million dollars – then whatever happens in the outside world, doesn’t matter jack shit.
The only thing that matters is your interpretation, your framing of the world around you. You are the one calling the shots. You define the meaning of losing your home. You decide whether winning a million dollars is good or bad. You choose happiness or despair. You are the master of your fate, the captain of your soul.
Life Is an Ink Blot
Have you ever heard of the Rorschach Test? It’s basically a test where they give you different ink blots to look at and then ask you what you see in them. Depending on what you’re seeing in a particular ink blot, they will draw conclusions about what’s going on in your subconscious mind.
You see, the ink blots are very generic. It’s not clear what they represent. In other words, they are empty of meaning. Different people have completely different interpretations. What you see in an ink blot reveals much more about what’s in you than what’s in the blot.
Similarly, what you see in life situations reveals much more about you than about the situation. Your spouse breaking up with you. Your house burning down. You losing your job. You getting a promotion. You winning a million dollars. Just like ink blots, these events are also empty of meaning: You can choose to see in them whatever you want.
One Event. Different Frames. Different Outcomes.
Okay, life is empty of meaning. You can choose your own interpretations. You can see whatever you want in different life situations. Why does this matter anyway? It matters because different interpretations or frames will lead to dramatically different outcomes.
Let’s say a boss tells two of his employees, “We need to talk,” and wants to see them in his office in five hours. The event is the same for both people, but their interpretations differ completely. Take a look…
Person A: Is worried that the boss is upset with her. What did she do wrong? Will she get fired? Will she lose her job? She’s creating all sorts of scenarios in her mind about what might happen. For the next five hours she can barely concentrate, feels anxious, nervous, and experiences lots of negative emotions.
Person B: Is super excited about meeting his boss in 5 hours. He thinks he’ll get a compliment for the great work he’s done over the last couple of weeks. He thinks he might even get a promotion. For the next five hours he’s in a great mood, enthusiastic, and feeling upbeat about life.
The five hours have passed and both employees meet the boss who tells them that they’ll be working together on a project next week. That’s all he wanted to tell them. No big deal. Now, which interpretation would you have preferred? The one that makes you feel like shit for 5 hours straight? Or the one that makes you feel great for 5 hours straight?
You can’t go back in time and change an event that has already happened. The only thing you can do is to choose your interpretation - and that will make the difference between feeling like shit or feeling great. Your choice.
Again: Events don’t matter. What matters is how you frame the events. You can interpret your world in a resourceful or in a non-resourceful way – it’s that simple.
You can interpret your world in a way that will make you happy, grateful, peaceful, and blissful. Or you can interpret your world in a way that will make you angry, sad, depressed, or pissed off.
How Does It Work Exactly?
Right now you may be thinking, “This sounds reasonable. It makes sense to me. But exactly how do I practice this? How do I reframe situations?” Let’s discuss this quickly.
When an event happens, your mind usually comes up with its own interpretation very quickly. A bird poops on your head and the first thought you have is, “What the fuck!!! This stupid bird! This didn’t just happen, did it?” You’re getting all pissed etc… Then, a few seconds or minutes after this initial reaction, you catch yourself responding in this non-resourceful way. You decide to reframe the event, “Hey, maybe this isn’t so bad after all. Maybe this bird poop is great dung for my hair. Besides that, being angry won’t help change the situation at all. I’ll just accept this and chill down.”
Reframing always happens sometime after the event and involves two steps: First, you catch yourself responding in a non-resourceful way. Second, you reframe the situation in a healthier and more resourceful way. The first part requires self-awareness and the second part requires some creativity.
In the beginning, it may help to ask yourself some of the following questions in order to come up with a good reframe:
- What’s the positive here?
- How can I benefit from this?
- What can I learn?
- How will this make me a better person?
- Looking back at this situation 20 years from now, does it matter at all? What can I take away from it?
At first, you may find this technique difficult because you either lack the necessary self-awareness, creativity, or both. But just like with any other skill, your reframing will become faster and better the more you use it.
And remember, it will pay off big time. For the better you get at this skill, the less power outside events will have over you. You’ll become like a mind ninja who diffuses any negativity in a matter of seconds or minutes.
Reframe Your World: Some Practical Examples
Let’s say you’re a pro football player and break your leg in training. You’ll be out and can’t play for the next 6 months. Your first interpretation is terrible, you respond like a total victim. You complain, you whine, you bitch, you ask, “Why ME?!” Blah blah blah. Then, after a few days or weeks, you realize that you’ve been an idiot and have responded in a completely childish and non-resourceful way. So you decide to reframe the situation.
“What if this seemingly bad injury turns out to be a huge advantage? What if I can use the injury as fuel for growth that forces me to work harder than anybody else? Maybe I can use the rehab to increase my upper body muscles and my mental strength.” And so that’s exactly what you do. You read lots of mental training books and even hire a mental trainer. You also start working out your upper body a lot. You work harder on improving yourself than you have ever before in your life, constantly reminding yourself that this injury was the best thing that ever happened to you.
As you step back on the pitch, you’re a better player. You’re faster, stronger, and better in tackling. Most importantly: You’re mentally indestructible. You’re full of confidence. You never complain. You never criticize yourself or your teammates. You’re a great team player. All in all, you’re a better and more successful player. You’ve taken a seeming adversity – breaking your leg – and turned it into a huge advantage.
This is just one of endless possibilities. You can reframe anything you want in your life. Lost your job? It gives you time to think and opens the doors for a better job. Miss the bus? Cheer up! You might meet an old friend in the next one. Getting sick? Nice! Finally some time to chill and think and read. Hungover? Good! Lesson learned.
David Hawkins, the great spiritual teacher, once said, “You are only subject to what you hold in mind.” What does it mean? It’s another way of saying that outside events don’t matter. You are subject to what’s in your mind, not what’s in the world. It’s almost like the placebo effect. If you believe that breaking a leg is an unfair advantage, then it will be so. If you believe getting divorced has a silver lining, then it will be so. If you believe losing a thousand dollars might turn out to be a good thing, then it will be so.
The Last Freedom of Man
Victor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor who was held captive in a concentration camp from 1942 to 1945, came to realize during his experiences that we can always choose the meaning we give certain events. He called it the last freedom of man, “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”
Whatever the hell happens, you have the freedom to choose your own meaning. You have the freedom to reframe your life to your liking. Nobody can take that away from you. So make use of it.
Thanks for Reading
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Great article and makes a lot of sense. So much of what we worry and stress over is made up in our own heads. I am definitely going to try this reframing. Many thanks as always for your insights.
Thanks! Be sure to give it a try a couple of times. Works like magic for me in that I can let go of a lot of negative emotions fairly quickly.
Thank you. I would love to try re framing .
Cheers! Nothing’s stopping you, mate 🙂
Thank you for this great article! I’m always seeing the negative in all situations. I can’t wait to put reframing to use. 🙂
That’s awesome, Sally! Let us know how it goes.
About the analogy of the 2 scenarios where the employee is about to meet the boss..
I would think that after meeting the boss Person A would feel a huge sense of relief (for not being criticized) whereas Person B would feel disappointed that his good work isn’t being acknowledged.
Emotions can be complicated…
Also…reframing can be so complicated. I have a situation with a friend who basically dropped me…and it was…and continues to be… extremely hurtful. I tried to look at it as an opportunity to branch out and make new friends…which I did but it didn’t take away the pain of being hurt by the old friend.
Anyways just some thoughts… I do love your blog.
Yeah, the analogy maybe wasn’t the best one. The idea was to show how different interpretations lead to different emotions. A more realistic example is when something “bad” happens. We can either feel resentment, envy, sadness, and other negative emotions for days, weeks, months, or even years until we have our hindsight moment. OR we can try to create that hindsight moment earlier – by finding a more resourceful explanation, thus moving from mostly negative emotions to neutral or even positive.
Sorry to hear that your friend dropped you. And I think it’s completely natural that you feel hurt; we all would in such a situation. Reframing will not remove that feeling of being hurt, but it may add some positive emotions into the mix. Or it may just create some distance between you, the situation, and your feelings. Maybe even more important in your situation are mindfulness and self-compassion – they can really kind of “soften the blow”.
Also, keep in mind that reframing is a muscle like any other skill. The more you use it, the better you get at it.
All the best!
A friend sent me this article. My wife died a year ago. It hurt to read “What’s the positive here?”, but when I did think about it positive things did come to mind (finding out how much others lover her, seeing how strong and good her kids were for example). Thanks for the idea.
I’m glad you didn’t take the easy way out (“My wife died! How could you say there’s something positive in this!? F-you!!”). Adversity can either make or break us in the long-run. If (re-)framed properly, adversity breeds depth, growth, and wisdom.
Few days back I took a session on Reframing a problem. That time it was not clear to me… U have shared very practical examples for easy understanding and it’s implementation in day to day life. Somewhere it is linked with one of NLP technique .Thank u for this ☺
My pleasure. Glad you find it useful 🙂