June 4th, 2014


Here is an excerpt from my book Enlightening Technical Leadership.

Reframing, studied by neuroscientists formally as cognitive reappraisal, enables us to see the silver lining of a dark cloud, and to recognize that lemons can be turned into lemonade. We don’t deny or hide any of the facts of a situation, we just change our focus of attention and subsequent action. In Your Brain at Work, David Rock presents a key insight from Kevin Ochsner’s research in this area:

As Ochsner explains, “Our emotional responses ultimately flow out of our appraisals of the world, and if we can shift those appraisals, we shift our emotional responses.” … Ochsner’s research finds that as people reappraise positively, there is increased activation of the right and left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, and a corresponding reduction in activation of the limbic system. … It turns out that conscious control over the limbic system is possible, not by suppressing a feeling, but rather by changing the interpretation that creates the feeling in the first place. [emphasis added]

(In the brain, the prefrontal cortex is associated with higher-order activities including prioritizing, decision making and problem-solving, and the limbic system is associated with a vast range of emotional responses and the formation of long-term memories.) Reframing can be enormously, sometimes magically, successful at neutralizing stress and freeing up energy. A minor shift in how we view a situation can make a major difference in how we feel.

Of course, psychologists and philosophers have been telling us this for quite some time. Take a minute to ponder this observation from Carl Jung:

You know, it is sometimes an ideal not to have any kind of convictions or feelings that are not based upon reality. One must even educate people…that their emotions ought to have a real basis, that they cannot swear hell and damnation at somebody on a mere assumption, and that there are absolute reasons why they are not justified in doing such a thing. They really have to learn that their feelings should be based on facts.

But to [develop further] one should unlearn all that. One should even admit that all one’s psychical facts have nothing to do with material facts. For instance, the anger which you feel for somebody or something, no matter how justified it is, is not caused by those external things. It is a phenomenon all by itself. That is what we call taking a thing on its subjective level. …

If you have reached that level…you have succeeded in dissolving the absolute union of material external facts with internal or psychical facts. You begin to consider the game of the world as your game, the people that appear outside as exponents of your psychical condition. Whatever befalls you, whatever experience or adventure you have in the external world, is your own experience.

Every time we re-frame, we break one mental frame and make another one. We undermine that absolute union of material facts with psychical facts. This is what I value most about reframing. It reminds me that situations cannot compel me to feel a certain way. Situations aren’t inalienably “upsetting”, “embarrassing”, “terrifying” or “frustrating”, or for that matter “joyous”, “heartwarming”, “inspiring” or “exciting”. All of those emotional responses are valid, can be empathized with, and can be witnessed and experienced as fully as needed/wanted. But they stem from the mind itself, and are not locked to external circumstances.

The more we practice reframing, the more we become comfortable with holding multiple frames of reference simultaneously. Holding multiple perspectives doesn’t hold us back in any fundamental way from making clear decisions. We just don’t assume that the loudest voice in our head is always the clearest one. We listen for quieter voices that may have important things to say. When we make a decision, it may well be the same (or even more sharply defined) as what we might have otherwise chosen. But there is less of our self-image trapped in the decision. If we end up winning at another’s expense, there is less of a need either to gloat or to feel guilty. And if we see wisdom in an opposing point of view, we can more readily change our mind without needing to save face.

What we gradually lose is the need to prove ourselves as being right, as well as the need to prove the imagined-or-real naysayers wrong. This opens us up to discovering deeper truths about ourselves and others.

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