The Reframe Game
Let’s play a little game.
Check out this picture and tell me what symbol you see.
Now look again and tell me what number you see.
What body parts?
What we’re looking at remains exactly the same, but when we change what we’re looking for, we see very different things.
A kid who loves baseball might see a pitch as an opportunity for a home run and feel excited. But after that same kid gets beaned by a wild fast ball they might see a pitch as something to be afraid of and refuse to step up to the plate.
Here’s one of the most famous optical illusions in history. What do you notice?
Look one way and you see the silhouette of a rabbit with its pursed mouth looking off to the right and its long ears stretching up to the left. Shift your gaze slightly and the rabbit’s ears turn into a duck’s beak.
Here’s another one.
What did you notice?
Gaze one way and you see a black vase or a chalice against a white background. But shift your focus slightly and you see the silhouettes of two white faces staring at one another.
Here’s one more.
Look at it from one vantage-point and you see a young woman wearing a black choker glancing away from us over her right shoulder. Change your perspective slightly and the young woman’s choker turns into the thin lips of an old woman with downcast eyes wearing a white scarf.
Each image appears first as one thing, and then — poof! — another. Nothing has changed except the way we are looking, yet when we alter our perspective on the drawings, it’s as though the drawings themselves are altered.
The same is true of all situations, even imaginary ones.
At the end of The Little Prince, after the prince is bitten by the snake and transported back to his beloved Asteroid B-612, the narrator suddenly realizes that he forgot to draw the prince a leather strap to muzzle the sheep on his asteroid. So sometimes when the narrator looks up at the night sky he worries the sheep have eaten the little prince’s beloved rose.
Most of the time he manages to reassure himself that the rose is safe. At these moments when he looks up at the night sky it seems to him that “all the stars laugh sweetly” like “five hundred million bells.”
But other times he worries the little prince has gotten distracted and let the sheep eat the rose. On these occasions when he looks up at the stars, he says “the bells are all changed into tears.” As the narrator observes, “Nothing in the universe can be the same if somewhere, no one knows where, a sheep we never saw has or has not eaten a rose….”
Then the narrator implores us, the readers, to see if this is true in our own experience. He asks us to look up at the sky and decide whether the sheep has eaten the flower or not.
It’s impossible for us to know, of course, but it’s hard to deny the narrator’s conclusion: “you’ll see how everything changes…”
When we change the way we look at a situation, even an imaginary one, it not only changes the situation we’re looking at, it also changes the way we feel about that situation, and even the way we sense it.
This insight isn’t exactly new. Over 2,500 years ago, in the opening passage of The Dhammapada, one of the most influential Buddhist texts, Siddartha Gautama purportedly said, “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.” Just under 2,000 years ago the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus famously proclaimed, “It is not things that trouble human beings, but the ideas that they form concerning things.”
Although this basic insight is ancient, what’s brand-new is all the research that now backs it up. Researchers have confirmed that reframing or “cognitive reappraisal” — in other words, reinterpreting a potentially emotion-eliciting situation in a way that alters its meaning and changes its emotional impact — not only decreases levels of negative emotion[i], but neutralizes or diminishes sympathetic nervous system responses[ii], reducing activation in emotion-generating brain regions such as the amygdala[iii] and ventral striatum.[iv]
Research has also shown that reframing can improve memory,[v] enhance performance on exams,[vi] contribute to greater experience and expression of positive emotions, and improve overall psychological health.[vii] Relative to those who suppress their emotions, for example, individuals who habitually engage in reframing show lower symptoms of depression, are more satisfied and optimistic and have higher self-esteem. They also demonstrate greater environmental mastery levels, personal growth, self-acceptance, coping strategies, autonomy and interpersonal skills.[viii]
At a time when there are so many things in our world that are out of our control, this research is more important than ever, especially since, as the research itself makes clear, it is precisely when things are out of our control that reframing is most helpful.
After all, when you can do something about a stressful situation, it doesn’t make sense to reframe it — you take action. If there’s a rotting cucumber in your fridge, you don’t reframe the smell, you clean out the fridge. If you have an excruciating tooth-ache, you don’t reframe the pain, you go to the dentist. If there are glaring economic, racial, environmental, gender or health injustices, you don’t reframe them, you do something about them.
But if there’s not much you can do — if the course of the virus is out of your hands, if the guy or girl already left, if the trauma has already occurred — that’s when you start reframing. In fact, when it comes to deciding when to practice the art of reframing, Kris Kristofferson’s line is a pretty good guide: “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.” In other words, if you can’t get out of it, a stressful situation, then get into it, reframing.
Or, to put it in terms of the famous “Serenity Prayer,” we could say: “Grant me the serenity to reframe the things I can’t change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
13 Ways of Looking at a Stressful Situation
With these important caveats in mind, let’s look at a baker’s dozen of the most powerful ways to reframe a triggering situation or person or feeling that’s beyond our control. A brief article on each reframe will follow.
o View it as a test or challenge of your ability to do what matters, no matter what
o Look at it like an alarm clock that’s reminding you to take action
o Consider it a gift that will grant you both empathy and the power to help others
o Look at it like a wake-up call to live in alignment with your core values
o View it as a teacher who’s helping you to learn and grow
o Consider it a reminder to drop your judgments
o Imagine you’re a researcher who has designed this experiment to advance your understanding
o View incurable suffering as an opportunity to identify with something greater than yourself
o Look at it as a reminder to look for what’s looking
o Consider it a tor-mentor who is mentoring you by tormenting you
o Put things in perspective by considering how much worse things both were and could be
o View it as a reminder to take a vastly elevated view of your difficulties
o Look for the laugh
[i] Feinberg, Willer, Antonenko, & John, 2012; Gross, 1998a; Kross & Ayduk, 2011; Lieberman, Inagaki, Tabibnia, & Crockett, 2011; Ray, McRae, Ochsner, & Gross, 2010; Szasz, Szentagotai, & Hofmann, 2011; Wolgast, Lundh, & Viborg, 2011
[ii] Gross, 1998a; Kim & Hamann, 2012; Sheppes & Meiran, 2007; Shiota & Levenson, 2012; Stemmler, 1997; Wolgast et al., 2011
[iii] Goldin, McRae, Ramel, & Gross, 2008; Kanske, Heissler, Schonfelder, Bongers, & Wessa, 2011; Ochsner & Gross, 2008; Ochsner et al., 2004
[iv] Staudinger, Erk, Abler, & Walter, 2009
[v] Kim & Hamann, 2012; Richards & Gross, 2000
[vi] Jamieson, Mendes, Blackstock, & Schmader, 2010; Jamieson, Mendes, & Nock, 2013
[vii] Gross and John, 2003; Abler et al., 2010
[viii] Garnefski et al., 2001; John and Gross, 2004
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Feinberg M, Willer R, Antonenko O, & John OP (2012). Liberating reason from the passions. Psychological Science, 23, 788–795.
Garnefski, N., Kraaij, V., & Spinhoven, P. (2001). Negative life events, cognitive emotion regulation and emotional problems. Personality and Individual Differences, 30(8), 1311–1327.
Goldin PR, McRae K, Ramel W, Gross JJ. The neural bases of emotion regulation: reappraisal and suppression of negative emotion. Biol Psychiatry. 2008 Mar 15;63(6):577–86.
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Gross, J. J., & John, O. P. (2003). Individual differences in two emotion regulation processes: Implications for affect, relationships, and well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(2), 348–362.
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Richards, J. M., & Gross, J. J. (2000). Emotion regulation and memory: The cognitive costs of keeping one’s cool. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(3), 410–424.
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Shiota, M. N., & Levenson, R. W. (2012). Turn down the Vol. or change the channel? Emotional effects of detached versus positive reappraisal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(3), 416–429.
Stemmler, G. (1997). Selective activation of traits: Boundary conditions for the activation of anger. Personality and Individual Differences, 22(2), 213–233.
Staudinger MR, Erk S, Abler B, Walter H. Cognitive reappraisal modulates expected value and prediction error encoding in the ventral striatum. Neuroimage. 2009 Aug 15;47(2):713–21
Szasz PL, Szentagotai A, & Hofmann SG (2011). The effect of emotion regulation strategies on anger. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 49, 114–119.
Wolgast M, Lundh LG, & Viborg G (2011). Cognitive reappraisal and acceptance: An experimental comparison of two emotion regulation strategies. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 49, 858–866.