Reframing: Seeking Out New Ways Of Perceiving Reality

Reframing: Seeking Out New Ways Of Perceiving Reality

Mark Twain’s fictional hero Tom Sawyer was highly skilled at reframing a situation. When Sawyer was forced to spend a holiday whitewashing a fence, his friends teased him because he had to work while they could play. He turned the tables on his friends, however, by redefining the task: “Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?” Soon his friends were paying him for the privilege of doing the job.

We don’t deal only with facts. We interpret the facts, and we interpret the facts within a context created by the way we “frame” the situation. The frame is the underlying beliefs and assump­tions on which we base our interpretations. Tom Sawyer’s friends started out with the frame that whitewashing the fence was an unpleasant task. Tom convinced them it was an honor and a priv­ilege that they were willing to pay for.

Frames of Reference

Old ways of framing our experiences may be locking us into unnecessary constraints. These old frames can prevent us from exploring and using our own abilities to our best advantage. They may even be responsi­ble for an impasse over alternative realities. Reframing — shifting the perspective from which we experience and interpret a situation — can enable us to respond differently.

Stephen Covey, in his bestselling book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, describes an experience of sudden re-framing:

"I remember a mini–paradigm shift I experienced one Sunday morning on a subway in New York. People were sitting quietly — some reading newspapers, some lost in thought, some resting with their eyes closed. It was a calm, peaceful scene.

"Then suddenly, a man and his children entered the subway car. The children were so loud and rambunctious that instantly the whole climate changed. The man sat down next to me and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers. It was very disturbing. And yet, the man sitting next to me did nothing.

"It was difficult not to feel irritated. I could not believe that he could be so insensitive as to let his children run wild like that and do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all. It was easy to see that everyone else on the subway felt irritated, too. So finally, with what I felt was unusual patience and restraint, I turned to him and said, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?”

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"The man lifted his gaze as if to come to a consciousness of the situation for the first time and said softly, “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”...

"Suddenly I saw things differently.... I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behavior; my heart was filled with the man’s pain. Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely.... Everything changed in an instant."

As this example shows, when the same “facts” are viewed in a different frame, the facts themselves may seem to change.

Assumptions and Interpretations of Reality

Another example is how we might interpret someone’s unwillingness to donate money to a local charity: we can see it as either stingy or thrifty, depending on our frame of reference. If you are facing a long, potentially boring automobile trip with a friend, you might reframe it as a splendid opportunity to get to know your friend even better.

If you and your partner have a continuing struggle because your emotional reality frames situations in a way that makes your partner’s position seem unacceptable, you may be able to break the impasse by reframing the situation, finding other ways of understanding the situation that can accommodate both people’s emotional realities.

Criteria for Reframing

We make meaning in the world around us by taking a limited number of external facts and interpreting them. Our interpretations are based on the frames of personal experience, the roles we play, and family dynamics.

When we talk about reframing, we’re not talking about conning ourselves into a new interpretation or lying to ourselves. But what if there is an alternative set of meanings that explains the current situation as plausibly as the meanings that we’ve always used in the past? What if seeing someone as thrifty is at least as valid an interpretation as seeing them as stingy? A principal criterion for evaluating a new frame is that the new frame must offer at least as good an interpretation of the facts as the old frame. It must be equally believable, or more so.

Reframing can be used to break an emotional impasse either within yourself or with another person. Examining different val­ues choices involves some reframing: you reframe your partner’s position when you look for the posi­tive value your partner supports, rather than their apparent op­position to your values.

You may want your children to be free to go out by themselves, for example, but your husband is opposed to the idea. Reframing starts by recognizing that he is concerned about their safety — something you support as well — rather than assuming that he opposes personal freedom. Recognizing that each of you is supporting a positive value — both personal freedom and security are good — reframes the argument.

Reframing in Action

One way to see reframing in action is to notice how people re-frame past experiences. Professionally successful people often report life experiences that completely disrupted their expected career path. Later they may say that the disruption “was the best thing that happened to me” and go on to explain how their current success could not have happened without the disruption of their earlier plans. They may acknowledge that at the time, it was hard for them to frame the event as anything but a failure or extremely damaging.

We may look back on experiences that at the time were horribly embarrassing — such as first dates, personal hygiene problems, or awkward meetings — and now see them as cute. But they sure didn’t seem cute at the time. Now that we have survived these dreadful experiences, we can see them differently.


Reframing can be used not only to change our perspec­tive of events or experiences, but also to change our neg­ative judgments of qualities in ourselves or other people and see them in ways that are affirming. Here are some examples.

  • Passive — able to accept things as they are
  • Submissive — seeking authority and direction for one’s actions; cautious
  • Seductive — wanting to attract other people and be liked
  • Oversensitive — tuned in to other people; very alive and aware
  • Oppositional — searching for one’s own way of do­ing things; thinking independently
  • Self-deprecating — able to acknowledge faults; humble
  • Prone to crying — able to express emotion, especially hurt or anger; deeply caring
  • Rigid — steadfast in purpose and beliefs; articulating clear boundaries
  • Hostile — highly involved; high-energy
  • Confused — in the process of breaking down old structures in preparation for new growth
  • Lazy — laid back, mellow, relaxed, taking it easy; low-energy
  • Nagging — concerned; trying to bring out the best in someone; really invested in getting things done

Closer to home, many teenage children see their parents as mean, overcontrolling, and a barrier to being accepted by their peers. Eventually these individuals may come to view their parents as loving and protective, but this reframing rarely occurs during their teens. It’s more likely to occur when they become parents themselves.

The challenge is to reframe the experience while you are going through it, to free up more options or release tied-up energy. Here are a few strategies for doing that:

  • Brainstorm at least three possible reasons this situation could have arisen, in addition to the explanation you’ve been assuming.
  • Reframe a problem as an opportunity.
  • Reframe a weakness as a strength (see section above).
  • Reframe an impossibility as a distant possibility.
  • Define the situation as neutral (“I’m not an important player in the situation”) instead of oppressive (“They’re out to get me”).
  • Ask how someone you revere (such as Jesus, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King) would solve this problem.
  • Change the context: “Questioning everything is a prob­lem for Joe now, but when he reaches adulthood it will be a strength.”

I had an important experience with reframing early in my career. I had the opportunity to work closely for several years with a very distinguished man who became an important mentor to me. The relationship ended when he engaged in several behaviors that I found very hurtful. I chewed on that hurt periodically for a couple of years.

Finally I asked myself, “How did he perceive the behaviors in which I engaged?” To my chagrin, I realized that there were several things I had done that he could have interpreted as disloyal or unsupportive. I still didn’t see what I had done as justifying the destruction of the relationship, but once I understood how I had contributed to the situation, I was able almost immediately to stop grinding emotionally on the events. I changed my understanding of the situation by changing the frame to take his perceptions into account.

Learning How to Reframe

Psychotherapists use reframing extensively to help people resolve issues they find troubling. As the psychotherapist Mark Tyrrell puts it: “When someone is stuck in a particular thinking style and unconsciously assumes that their (limited, negative) view is the only perspective, then a major shift can occur when another wider, more flexible, and positive view is unexpectedly and unarguably demonstrated to them. After such a reframe moment, it is usu­ally impossible for them to maintain the problem behavior in the same old limiting way.”

Working with a therapist can be extremely helpful in reframing problematic situations. But many people do not have the time or money to work with a therapist. Here are some things you can do that may help you reframe a situation.


Many people have found it helpful to maintain a journal, a summary of daily events with a particular emphasis on how you feel about those events. This journal can include the time of the mood or thought, the source of it, the extent or intensity, and how you responded to it, among other factors. Often when you go back and read past journal entries, your frame of reference becomes very visible. This may give you insights into what needs to change.

Thinking the Script through to the End

In your imagination, push the situation to its logical conclusion. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Will you lose your job, marriage, or savings? How would you cope if these events oc­curred? What would you do? What could you do?

Most of the time when you predict the worst possible outcome, you’ll find you’re still standing at the end of it. Somehow, facing the worst reduces significantly the fear and anxiety associated with that possibility. It may be unpleasant, but you’ll survive. Having looked at the worst-case scenario, you are free to get on with living. If it does happen, you are prepared for it.

What would happen

What would happen if we reframed the biggest frame of all — our life story? If we understood our life story differently, would life be different for us now?


We interpret external facts within a frame structured by our underlying beliefs and assumptions. You may be able to break an impasse with yourself or your partner by reframing the sit­uation: finding alternative ways of understanding the situation that can explain it just as well as your original understanding and can accommodate different emotional realities. Techniques such as journaling and envisioning possible outcomes can help with the process.

Copyright ©2019 by James L. Creighton.
Printed with permission from New World Library

Article Source

Loving through Your Differences: Building Strong Relationships from Separate Realities
by James L. Creighton, PhD

Loving through Your Differences: Building Strong Relationships from Separate Realities by James L. Creighton, PhDDr. James Creighton has worked with couples for decades, facilitating communication and conflict resolution and teaching them the tools to build healthy, happy relationships. He has found that many couples start out believing they like the same things, see people the same way, and share a united take on the world. But inevitably differences crop up, and it can be profoundly discouraging to find that one’s partner sees a person, situation, or decision completely differently. Although many relationships flounder at this point, Creighton shows that this can actually be an opportunity to forge stronger ties. The result moves couples out of the fear and alienation of “your way or my way” and into a deep understanding of the other that allows for an “our way.”

Click here for more info and/or to order this paperback book. Also available in a Kindle edition.

About the Author

James L. Creighton, PhD, is the author of Loving through Your DifferencesJames L. Creighton, PhD, is the author of Loving through Your Differences and several other books. He is a psychologist and relationship consultant who has worked with couples and conducted communications training for more than 50 years. He recently developed and conducted couples conflict training for several hundred professional staff of the Thailand Department of Mental Health, based on a new Thai translation of Creighton’s book, How Loving Couples Fight. He has taught throughout North America as well as in Korea, Japan, Israel, Brazil, Egypt, Russia and the Republic of Georgia. Visit him online at

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