Reframing explained

Reframing

by Vlad Dolezal on March 11, 2013

A few years back, I wrote a detailed guide on how to change your limiting beliefs.

It’s one of the most popular posts on this blog, and I’m very proud of it. But occasionally, I get e-mails from new readers who have trouble applying the approach. And about 80% of the time, the sticking point is reframing.

That clearly means I didn’t do a good enough job explaining reframing the first time around. So I thought I’d clear that up.

Read on if you want to find out how your mind loves to overgeneralize small situations, how this gets you stuck with crippling limiting beliefs that warp your view of the world, and how to change this.

How we form beliefs

Imagine you’re walking down the street, one warm summer day.

You’re not paying attention, and you stumble on a crack in the pavement. And as it just happens, you stumble into a kid, give them a good shove, and they drop their ice cream. The kid immediately bursts into tears.

“Oh no, I’m a horrible person!” you think.

Bam! That’s how beliefs form.

One little thing happens, or a series of little things, and your brain finds a pattern to match them into. Then it makes that pattern into a belief about the world.

This is a great mechanism that helps you survive and function. For example, early on in life you learn that “falling from high places hurts”. This helps you be careful around cliff edges and other dangerous places later in life.

And as soon as you form a belief, that to you becomes how the world is. You don’t think of apples falling down due to gravity as a belief. You simply think of it as things are.

Unfortunately, this trigger-happy pattern-matching mechanism in your mind sometimes produces laughably wrong results – if only you take the time to scrutinize them. But we almost never do that, because as soon as you form a belief, it becomes transparent to you. Like a piece of twisted glass – it warps everything you see through it, but you’re not consciously aware of the glass itself.

And that’s how it happens that you stumble on the street one day, accidentally push a kid to make them drop their ice cream and burst into tears, and somehow generalize that to mean “I’m a horrible person”.

Your mind matches the pattern of making a kid cry and decides that’s the best interpretation for the situation.

Granted, this example is a bit exaggerated. But most limiting beliefs are equally ridiculous. They’re a giant moon-to-Earth leap from the original situations that you use as evidence for those beliefs – you just don’t notice it, because those beliefs have become transparent to you, and you simply see them “as the world is”.

But once you become aware of those beliefs – once you realize that you’re looking at the world through a piece of warped glass – then you can begin to change them.

How reframing works

Reframing simply means taking a different view of a situation that happened. It’s not about lying to yourself – it’s not any more “right” or “wrong” than any other interpretation. It’s just a way of changing the meaning of a situation by putting a different “frame” around it.

Just like a skilled photographer can completely change the meaning of a picture by choosing what to include and what to leave out. For example, consider the famous “seal photobomb” photo below. With the use of clever framing, it turns from a pretty photo of a lying seal in front of a group of penguins to an internet classic.

seal-photobomb

(I’ve tried finding out who the original photographer is to give credit, but my google-fu turns up only sites upon sites reposting the photo without giving credit. So, unknown hero photographer – rock on!)

In the case of bumping into the kid with ice cream, one frame (way of looking at the situation) is “I’m a horrible person.”

Then again, you can choose a much less crippling way of looking at the situation – “I wasn’t paying attention and I stumbled.”

Isn’t that much better?

And even if you got into a similar situation several times, it would be really unhelpful to frame it as “I’m a horrible person”, or even as “I’m clumsy.” That way of looking at the world leave you feeling disempowered and stuck.

How about this instead – “I tend to get lost in my thoughts when I’m outside and trip often. I’d like to pay more attention when I’m walking near things or people I don’t want to bump into.”

Isn’t that way more empowering?

How to apply reframing when dealing with limiting beliefs

When you’re dealing with limiting beliefs, that means you’ve taken situations that happened, generalized them, and then applied this generalized belief to other situations, slowly gathering up more and more evidence for an unhelpful way of viewing the world.

Once you recognize a limiting belief as such, changing it comes down to two main parts:

  • dislodging the limiting belief itself
  • finding support for a replacement empowering belief

Read the full post on changing your beliefs for details.

Dislodging the limiting belief means figuring out what supporting evidence you hold in your mind, then reframing that supporting evidence so that it no longer supports the belief.

Let’s go through a few examples.

Example 1

Limiting belief: “I’m a horrible person.”

Evidence: I bumped into a child, made them drop their ice cream and made them cry.

As we’ve already seen, a good way to reframe this is as “I didn’t pay attention to where I was walking.” That way, the event that happened no longer supports the old limiting belief. (Unless you believe that not paying attention to where you’re walking makes you a horrible person. In which case work on reframing that belief, too ;-).)

Reframe: “I didn’t pay attention to where I was walking.”

Example 2

Limiting belief: “I’m unattractive.”

Evidence: My mum called me ugly when I was 9 years old.

This evidence could be reframed in several ways. Whichever one is best depends on the circumstances:

  • My mum was feeling upset that day and said things she didn’t mean.
  • My mum had horrible self-esteem issues, and projected them onto me.
  • My mum found me unattractive back then, but I’ve grown and changed since then.
  • Physical looks are just part of being attractive, certainly not the whole package.
  • My mum found me unattractive, but it’s not like I want to date my mum. Different people have different preferences for looks.

In this situation, it can be particularly helpful to notice supporting evidence for a replacement empowering belief (along the lines of “I’m attractive to certain people.”)

Example 3:

Belief: “I’m bad at maths.”

Evidence: I failed a test.

Reframe: I didn’t study enough. I used the wrong studying methods.

And that’s all on reframing.

Hopefully this clears up the misunderstandings. If anything is still unclear, do leave a comment below. I’d love to update this to make it as clear as possible for future visitors.

If you find the idea of reframing really neat, check out my series on reframing strategies. (As you can see, for breaking down limiting beliefs, I’ve focused on framing down. It’s the most handy one in this situation.):

  1. Pre-framing – or considering a situation not as an isolated event, but in terms of what happened to cause the situation
  2. Post-framingsimilar yet opposite to the reframing strategy above, considering a situation in terms of its intended effect
  3. Framing up  – or picking a higher, overarching frame that will break down any incompatible smaller frames contained within it
  4. Framing down – again, the opposite of the above – breaking down an overarching frame to think of a situation in more isolated terms, instead of in terms of sweeping generalisations

And finally, to read the full article for which I put together this clarification, check out how to change your limiting beliefs.

(image courtesy of neilt)

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

pawel March 11, 2013 at 16:53

Hi

My concern is part about ” figuring out what supporting evidence you hold in your mind”. Some beliefs can be so deep-rooted that it’s hard to find one specific situation (or few situations) which caused this, especially when it was in childhood. What to do when there is no evidence to re-frame?

Regards

Reply

Vlad Dolezal March 15, 2013 at 17:32

Hey Pawel,

in that case, I’d recommend reframing any pieces of evidence you do remember, and keep gathering evidence for your replacement belief. And if you see any new pieces of evidence trying to align themselves with your limiting belief, notice it immediately, and reframe them as they happen. This will help you erode your limiting belief over time, it will just take a little bit longer.

Reply

Laura June 9, 2013 at 16:58

I’m really glad I came across your blog by mistake 🙂 I’m currently working on my bucket list and was googling ideas like yes man and found your blog.

This weekend I hand wrote 100 letters to companies asking for free stuff, to see if I can get things just by asking

Hope life is treating you well 🙂

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