Do you often feel stymied by obstacles in your career or personal life? It’s easy to get mired in the same negative patterns of thinking or action (or inaction) that leave you feeling bad or like you are just spinning your wheels. It’s like wearing blinders that keep you focused in one direction even when that’s not the best direction to take.
When sports teams get into these cycles, they call it playing a “losing game.” To break the cycle, management might shift gears by shaking up the roster, trading players or firing the coach. We can similarly shift gears by changing the way we look at, assess and act on a situation. Imagine that you’re about to host an outdoor party when suddenly it starts pouring. You would not continue to set up tables and chairs in the rain. You would brainstorm workable alternatives. That’s the mindset to bring to any type of problem.
There are three ways to deal with any stressful situation—change the situation… change your attitude toward the situation or the way you think about it…or remove yourself from the situation. The technique for changing your attitude is called reframing.
7 WAYS TO REFRAME
Here are seven reframing techniques to try, depending on the type of dilemma you’re facing…
Choose a positive interpretation of a negative situation. Example: You feel disappointed at having to cancel your trip of a lifetime due to the pandemic. Remind yourself that disappointments happen and, hopefully, you’ll be able to fly again soon. In the meantime, view the booked vacation time as an opportunity to relax, read, pursue a hobby, connect with friends and find other activities to fuel your curiosity and your soul.
Choose a more positive interpretation of an ambiguous situation. Example: Someone yawns while you’re giving a presentation, and you take it as a sign that things are not going well. But that person is just as likely to be tired from a poor night’s sleep as he/she is bored by your talk. You can choose to believe it’s a tired yawn. Another example: You try to talk to your spouse about something, but she acts distant and rushes to end the conversation. The knee-jerk reaction is to feel dismissed or to wonder, What did I do wrong? It’s also possible that she had something else on her mind and the timing wasn’t ideal for her to listen.
Look for benefits that aren’t obvious. Example: Company layoffs result in your being given added responsibilities in areas where your skills are limited, and now you’re in panic mode. Reframe it as a great opportunity to add to your skill-set and expand your résumé. Talk to your boss about seminars or other training that will help you excel.
Wait a beat. This involves becoming an observer rather than a participant. Take a step back—sometimes literally— and just watch. Examples: Is your grandchild having a temper tantrum? Remind yourself that kids misbehave when they’re frustrated. Is a friend ranting at you over something inconsequential? Let her air her grievances and tell yourself, This is probably more about her than about me or Sometimes people have a bad day.
Reinterpret motives or intent behind someone’s behavior. Sometimes it’s better to give the other person the benefit of the doubt than to think the worst. Example: You sent an important e-mail, but a day later you still haven’t received a response and you fear you’re being ignored. It could be that your e-mail went to the recipient’s spam folder or that he is busy or unwell. A simple follow- up phone call may resolve it.
Put events into a wider context. Is the problem bothering you today going to matter a week from now or impact your happiness or well-being? Example: If your stock portfolio took a hit, remind yourself that you’re still ahead of where you were a year ago.
Shift your focus to what’s there instead of what’s missing. Example: You’ve met several milestones in a yearlong plan for achieving better health… but instead of congratulating yourself, you’re doing a lot of hand-wringing over losing less weight than you wanted. Reframe by celebrating the successes. Then create a plan to reach the last goal.
HABITS THAT HOLD YOU BACK
To successfully change your thinking, you may have to undo these common “Mind Traps.”
Holding on to old beliefs. Any time you make decisions based on what you think you need to, should or must do, you’re basing your actions on beliefs that may not be serving you well. Example: Thinking you must bake a cake for your spouse’s birthday despite being so busy with work. You can celebrate just as well with a special selection from the bakery.
Negative self-talk. Many people stay stuck because they berate themselves— I’ll never succeed with improving my diet or What will my family think if I go to the gym instead of making dinner for everyone? Start to believe in yourself, and give yourself permission to do things that make you happy. Try a new approach, get over barriers, or let go of the baggage or guilt that’s been keeping you and your loved ones blocked. It will take time to change a lifelong habit of negative self-talk to create a new habit of positive self-talk and give yourself permission to change. Stay aware, and when you catch yourself, change the inner conversation.
Having unrealistic expectations. When something’s reasonable, that means it makes sense to you. “Realistic” refers to how likely it is to happen. Maybe you constantly badger your introverted spouse about being lively at parties and family occasions, but is it realistic to expect him to do that? Reframe your thinking to accept his personality as it is, and the bickering over this issue will stop.
Looking for the “perfect” solution. Many people ignore possible solutions because they don’t want to make tradeoffs, but every decision involves some level of trade-off. Waiting for the perfect solution usually means you stay stuck. The least-bad option still could be a great choice.
Solutions are rarely all or nothing. There are many increments between any two extremes. I suggest writing on a white board or a piece of paper five or six steps that can take you from one extreme to the other. Then choose a middle ground you can live with. Example: Between working 60-hour weeks, which leads to self-neglect, and working the typical 40 hours, which a workaholic might see as laziness, there are options that leave you time for needed self-care. These could include taking formal lunch breaks each day, working late just two nights a week and not working on weekends. If your goal is to get into a more rigorous exercise regimen but you think that means either going to the gym for hours every day, which you don’t have time for, or not doing it at all, map out more modest options that will improve your fitness level, such as taking a gym class every few days or weight-training twice a week and doing other activities with your spouse on the other days.
If you’re unsure of how to begin to resolve a troubling issue, an effective exercise is to write down why it is stressful, what your current behavior or approach to it is and how else you can think about it. Stop focusing on the action you need to take—which might seem unpleasant or overwhelming—and shift your thinking to focus on the payoffs.
Losing weight is an example. Rather than write down that you’ll have to cut calories and give up high-fat foods (the action), write how this will result in better heart and overall health, feeling comfortable in clothes and being less out of breath when you exercise (the benefits).
If you think only about the problem, you’ll think only of the obvious answer or the one that you already know. Also: The psychological benefits of writing with pen and paper are more powerful than typing on a keyboard. When you write, other thoughts will come to you.