Reframing: A Powerful Technique To Overcome Negative Emotions

In 480 BC, the Spartan warrior Dienekes was preparing his men to fight the Persian army.

As the Spartans were settling into the mountain pass of Thermopylae in central Greece, they got some alarming news.

A man had caught a glimpse of the Persians and reported that their army was vastly larger than anything he had ever seen.

“When they discharge their bows,” he said, “the arrows are so many that they block out the sun.”

But surprisingly, Dienekes didn’t get riled up.

Instead, he calmly replied: “Oh good, then we will have our fight in the shade.”1

The Power of Reframing

Dienekes response isn’t just incredibly badass—it’s also a great example of reframing2:

A psychological technique that consists of identifying and then changing the way situations, experiences, events, ideas, and emotions are viewed.

In other words, it’s a way of altering your perception of things.

And that can be very useful because it’s not the things themselves that disturb us; it’s our perceptions about them that do.

To use psychology speak, it’s not “stimulus → response”; it’s “stimulus → perception → response.”

And that’s an empowering insight because it means that we can change how we feel and act in any situation — simply by changing how we frame it.

There are countless ways you can reframe any situation you’re in, but you can use the following widely applicable frames as inspiration3:

The Cosmic Perspective Frame

Our minds tend to inflate our everyday problems.

So, even minor annoyances often appear overwhelming.

You can overcome this by taking a cosmic perspective.

Imagine that you’re floating so far away in space that the Earth is just a tiny dot in the distance.

Then, return to the difficulties in your life.

From this new vantage point, you’ll probably find that what weighed you down isn’t as heavy after all.

The Temporary Gifts Frame

We tend to assume that we own the things in our lives.

But that’s an inaccurate and unhelpful assumption.

Because, in reality, nothing is truly ours to keep.

Everything— including your health, possessions, and loved ones — is on loan.

They are temporary gifts you’re welcome to enjoy but eventually will have to return.

By adopting this frame, you’ll feel much more appreciation for the blessings in your life and much less like a victim when they are taken away.

The Mental Training Frame

Most of us consider adversities bad — obstacles that get in the way of our happiness.

You can change this view by perceiving obstacles as mental training opportunities:

  • A highway traffic jam is patience training.
  • A meeting with an unpleasant person is compassion training.
  • A setback in a personal goal is persistence training.

This way, you can turn everyday annoyances into challenges that make you stronger.

The Downward Comparison Frame

This frame is all about imagining how much worse off you could be:

  • If you’re frustrated while waiting in line at the store, be grateful that you live in a country where food is abundantly available.
  • If you’ve had a cold for weeks, think about all the people in your local hospital fighting much more serious diseases.
  • If you feel mistreated by someone, imagine all the people who have been oppressed, enslaved, and even tortured.

Changing your perspective this way will make your problems appear much smaller — or even laughably trivial.

The Historical Context Frame

It may not seem like it on the news, but whatever is happening right now has happened many times before.

Diseases, wars, natural disasters, poverty, and greed have all been around long before we were born.

The world hasn’t gone crazy — it’s been crazy all along.

Keep that in mind, and you’ll drastically reduce your anxiety, stress, and fear about what’s going on in the world.

How to Use Reframing

Here’s a simple 5-step process you can use to stop reacting instinctively and start responding deliberately:

  1. Pause and reflect — Use strong negative emotions as a trigger to take a brief mental break.
  2. Notice your thoughts — Become aware of what your inner dialogue is saying about the situation.
  3. Question your assumptions — Let go of unhelpful interpretations about what’s happening.
  4. Consider alternative frames — Ask yourself how you can perceive the situation in a more helpful way.
  5. Reassess your feelings — Notice to what extent your new frame alleviates the negative emotions.

The more you practice reframing this way, the better you’ll get at it.

Change the Frames, Change Your Life

The quality of your life largely comes down to the quality of your thoughts.

And it’s in your power to choose whatever thoughts you want.

So, I encourage you to practice reframing in your everyday life.

Over time, it can fundamentally change how you think, feel, and act in difficult situations.

Footnotes

  1. Dienekes
  2. A Concept Analysis of Cognitive Reframing
  3. Hat tip to the Stoic philosophers for providing these frames.