How reframing can change your life

I’m fortunate to live just a short drive from a few beautiful New Jersey beaches, and walking on the boardwalk is one of my favorite things to do. But a combination of quarantine weight gain and arthritic knees has made it more difficult than usual.

My husband and I went for a walk a few days ago. It had been the first time in months I had been to the boardwalk. It was breezy and cold. After a fraction of what I had been walking before the pandemic’s first shutdowns hit, I was tired and my knees hurt. I was angry at myself and a little embarrassed at my lack of endurance.

As I was making my way back to the car, my husband caught up with me.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

I explained my frustration with myself. He was quiet for a moment.

“Did you walk farther than you did yesterday?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Are you glad you got out to walk today?” he continued.

I knew this was going to get annoying quickly. But he was right. I could choose to swim in my thoughts about what I couldn’t do or focus on the fact that I had started—again—and was doing what I needed to do to make myself stronger.

Reframing, explained

Reframing is a misunderstood skill. It can be easily mistaken for denial or toxic positivity, that emphasis on looking at the bright side, no matter what. Reframing can also be mistaken as a justification for dangerous or damaging behavior.

That’s not how it works.

When used appropriately, reframing is a skill that can make you more resilient and more self-aware. The ability to look at a situation objectively and examine the areas on which you may focus is life-changing. This is a piece I wrote for Fast Company that explored the issue.

I’ll never forget speaking with Lorenn Walker, an attorney and health counselor based in Hawaii. She told me the story of leaving a hotel bar one night in 1976 when she was attacked and nearly murdered. Badly injured and in need of facial surgery, anyone would have understood if she lived in fear or resentment about her attack. But, instead, she worked on reframing the situation during her four-month recovery and after, thinking about it in a different way.

“You have the power to determine how you’re going to look at a situation, and you don’t give that power to other people, particularly people who are bad or who hurt you,” she told me.

Walker looks back on the attack as a catalyst that led her to her work in restorative justice. She counsels prisoners and victims of violent crime in how to make peace with the past.

Keeping it honest

Reframing is a choice. And doing it in ways that are beneficial and not rooted in denial or avoidance starts with being honest and listening to your feelings.

As you look at a situation that’s troubling you or holding you back, what are the truths? Let’s say you’ve been fired from your job. That’s a situation that can affect everything from your self-worth to your ability to pay your bills, so of course it’s stressful and will stir up strong feelings. But could this also be an opportunity? I was fired and, afterward, I launched two businesses that I loved. Could this be the thing that gets you out of your comfort zone and spurs you to pursue what you really want to do—or, at least, to get out of a situation that wasn’t fulfilling?

Keep an open mind as you ask yourself questions and listen to your feelings as you consider those questions. Is there something about the situation that you’re not seeing clearly? How else can you look at it? Sometimes, defaulting to the worst-case scenario feels appropriate. That way, we try to prepare ourselves for what may come. But that’s not necessarily the only valid truth on which to focus.

A few years ago, I interviewed professor and leadership expert Lee Bolman, author of How Great Leaders Think: The Art of Reframing,  about the matter of reframing. He said that feelings and intuition are essential to effective reframing. As you consider the truths about your situation, think about why it’s more valid to shift from viewing an event or circumstance as a terrible thing that ruined your life.

  • Is there something you can learn from it?
  • Can you build on it or use it as a restart?
  • Will it allow you to create something new?

You’re going to know the right truth for you when you consider it. And, sometimes, your ability to reframe the situation is going to take time. Sometimes, reframing isn’t the best thing at all. But it’s important to remain open to the possibility that you can let go a painful, limiting story and choose one that is more hopeful, but no less true.

As I wrote in a story about reframing, Bolman says that successful reframing requires having good stories which meet multiple criteria:

  • It should help you how to live effectively and feel good about yourself
  • It should also help you achieve the goals you want to accomplish
  • It should work for you and those around you

Good stories aren’t self-destructive, self-defeating, or contradictory to common sense. They enhance your well-being and give you hope.

And, sometimes, they let you realize that, instead of focusing on what we can’t do, it may be better to appreciate the few steps we’ve taken toward what we want next.  

Gwen Moran

Gwen Moran is a writer, author, and speaker who wants to help people cultivate more joy and fulfillment in their lives. She is the creator of Bloom Anywhere.