Let’s try a thought experiment:
Suppose you’re riding a bike and you get hit in the back of the head with a rock.
For the sake of the story, let’s assume that you’re completely fine. So you pull over on the side of the road to collect yourself.
How would this event affect you? First, we’ll ask why it happened.
Scenario one: a teenager in the park throws the rock at your head.
This could be traumatic. You will probably call the authorities, and as a result, may never ride your bike through the park again.
But now let’s imagine scenario two: you’re riding a bike next to a cliff on a windy day and a stone fell onto your head.
The physical sensations of getting hit in the head with a rock will be quite similar. But your emotional response will be dramatically different.
This is because of the difference in how you psychologically frame the events in question.
If a teenager throws a rock at your head, you’re going to be pissed! Even if the rock doesn’t physically hurt you.
But if a rock fell from a cliff and hit your head, you will probably think, “What is the chance!?” and carry on with your day.
The point of these scenarios is to explain the psychology behind Framing. And we’re going to explore how to use different framing tactics to minimize psychological suffering in our life.
Here’s the psychological strategy of framing, best described in William B. Irvine’s book, The Stoic Challenge.
When presented with a setback, take a moment to consider how best to frame it.
Put it in the wrong psychological frame and we may be traumatized by the event.
Put it in the correct frame and we can brush it off and carry on with our day.
Let’s consider the frames available:
Suppose we don’t get something we’re expected to get; we can’t get the time off from work we expected for the holidays.
One response is to put this event into the unfairness frame. “I’ve worked hard and this is unfair!” Do this and we will likely get angry and upset.
The better frame to put this scenario in, one that reduces our psychological suffering, would be the competing obligations frame. This would mean stopping to consider why your boss can’t give you the time off. Maybe the holidays are so busy that your job would suffer if you couldn’t work and take care of the customers.
That said, maybe it is possible your boss cheated you. But even if it’s the case, allowing ourselves to get upset just increases the harm done.
Let’s turn to a different disappointment.
Imagine someone is late for a meeting, therefore wasting your time. We can put this into a spiteful frame. “He did this on purpose, just to upset me!” you could say.
Alternatively, we could put this into an incompetence frame: assuming that the person just has a hard time managing their time.
We may still get upset, but it will take away the sting of being insulted by the person. We may even have empathy towards the person for being late.
Another strategy to combat this is to expect less from people.
Lowering expectations takes the sting out of these situations, and alternatively allows us to be pleasantly surprised when people are on time.
Let’s discuss two more ways how to reframe your thoughts.
Suppose things just keep getting worse and worse. There’s a snowstorm, your flight is canceled, and now you can’t get a ride from the airport.
The first frame coming to mind is the storytelling frame: think about this scenario in autobiographical terms.
This domino effect of setbacks is creating materials for your autobiography. It represents an opportunity to add a sentence, or a paragraph, or in the case of really bad setbacks, an entire chapter to your autobiography.
Use the storytelling frame to act on the assumption that we will someday write our own autobiography. We will honestly and fully describe the challenges we faced in daily living and the manner in which we handled those challenges.
Now most of us will not actually write an autobiography on the story of our lives. But we may be able to use the content to work with the last frame I’m going to mention.
The comedic frame: to make the bad things that happen to you the basis of a joke.
Even though we may never write and publish an autobiography on our lives, we will share stories with our friends and family. And there’s nothing better than turning a major challenge into a joke that you can laugh off with your favorite people.
By using these frames, we can greatly reduce the chance of being angered or upset by life’s setbacks.
And in return, these frames will increase the chance that you will respond to the setback in an effective manner.
So go ahead and start reframing your setbacks. It’s an intelligent way to play this game we call life.
And how will you know you’ve found the right way how to to reframe your thoughts?
You’ll know when your anger or frustration begins to dissolve. Or better yet, you come up with a funny story to share with your friends and family 😉
Here’s an exercise you can do right now to practice, How to reframe your thoughts.