The Art of Reframing
I come from a family of Oh My Godders. In my family, everything was a potential calamity: a sore throat. An impending storm. A parking ticket. Being late. Being early.
Now if you grow up in OMG-hood, you learn to panic. Without much provocation. Everything in life is a drama. You default into clutching your chest and hyperventilating. Invariably, you grow up with an anxiety disorder because life is a joyride of the unexpected, uncomfortable and I-never-saw-that-coming’s.
My dad lost his mother when he was young and entire branches of our family tree were wiped out in the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. It was no sunny childhood in the shadow of genocide and grief. Before his mother died, she told him, ‘It’s no good.’ And that’s the message he imbibed so even when things are good, it’s the prequel to disaster. Once a year when I visit him overseas, he bursts into tears as I arrive and says, ‘And you’re leaving in three weeks.’
I grew up with this gloomy sense of life as an untrustworthy experience where one should always expect the worst.
But let me tell you, this way of being is no fun. Not one bit. Not for me and not for anyone unfortunate enough to be in my vicinity.
Also, I noticed – particularly in movies – that those who panic in an emergency or unravel in a crisis are the ones who get their faces slapped just before they get eaten by the shark or get shot. They are also always the first to die. Those who remain calm are the heroes. They survive. And even if they don’t, we’re sad when they perish.
After watching Monty Python’s Life of Brian, I decided I want to be the person who gets everyone singing” Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” in the midst of crucifixion. It was time to convert from OMG-ism to Serenity. To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, I needed to learn to ‘keep my head when all about me are losing theirs and blaming it on me…’
Some years ago, Buddhism showed me a path through meditation. I was intrigued that you could potentially get control over your wayward thoughts and emotions and train them, like a puppy, to do their business in the appropriate place. There I learned to stay with difficult, unpredictable emotions. To breathe into fear, anxiety, uncertainty. This practice also helped me to look at fear more kindly. Not as a bully, but as a teacher. This was my first introduction into ‘reframing’ – the art of looking at difficult experiences, differently.
As Shakespeare said, ‘Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’
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Here’s an example – my sister is deaf. She can’t hear announcements in a supermarket about the specials nor listen to music. In that context, she is disabled. However, put her in a noisy room and ask her what the person across the room is saying, and by the power of her lip-reading skills, she’ll tell you word for word. In that situation, I am disabled. (My sister would make a fabulous spy.) I discovered Daniel Kish on YouTube. He is blind. He also rides bikes and climbs mountains. He taught himself to ‘see’ by clicking his tongue (based on the same principle of echolocation used by bats). Some years ago, I interviewed people living with breast cancer. One woman told me, ‘Breast cancer gave me a chance to have an affair with myself.’
To experience life differently, perhaps we don’t need different circumstances, but simply to look at things differently.
What helps us to reframe? Firstly, a good dose of humour. If we can find what’s funny in a situation, no matter how hopeless, we’ve shifted our view. My husband is a master at this manoeuvre. Whenever I’m feeling guilty about something, he says, ‘Don’t beat yourself up just because it’s your fault.’ Humour is a solvent for self-pity.
Secondly, (and I know how corny this is), Big Picture thinking is always a frame-shifter. Okay, I didn’t get the contract, but I also don’t have to have root canal treatment today. A little gratitude for what we have, rather than a focus on what we don’t have helps us zoom out of the corner we’re facing. A woman having chemotherapy for breast cancer told me she used to put mascara on her one remaining eyelash. When I was moaning about my clothes being tight and how I needed to lose weight, my husband kindly suggested that I ‘just buy bigger clothes.’
In my own life, I have slowly learned to reframe experiences. I now see a back injury or a terrible flu as ‘an opportunity to give my body a complete rest.’ A big tax bill? It means I had a lucrative year. A parking ticket… at least – ah, bugger it, a parking ticket is practically impossible to reframe.
My mantras now include, ‘when one door closes, another one opens,’ and instead of focusing on what’s shut, I now look for what’s beckoning. I ask, What’s the lesson?’ What’s the pattern? What needs to change?
Being inside myself is a much cheerier experience. The beauty of course is that what we believe impacts on what we see. Our vision literally alters our experience. In the words of the British essayist Erich Heller, ‘Be careful how you see the world. It is that way.’
Paranoia is a warzone. And I no longer live there.