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Stress Mastery : Looking at the World Differently - Reframing & Giving Up Being Right

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Reframing

There is an oft-repeated story of a Chinese farmer that goes something like this:

A farmer and his only son were busily plowing their fields when their horse broke free from its harness and ran off into the nearby hills. When their fellow villagers heard of their plight they began to commiserate, “Oh, what terrible luck! How unfortunate! What will you do?” To which the farmer responded, “Good luck, bad luck—who knows?” Several days later the farmer's horse returned with two other horses in tow. His fellow villagers were astonished as they exclaimed, “What wonderful luck! You lose your only horse and end up with three!” To which the farmer responded, “Good luck, bad luck—who knows?” Several days later the farmer's son was attempting to break one of the horses so as to put it into service on his land. The son was thrown from the horse and broke his arm. All the villagers were united in their opinion that this was indeed bad luck. The farmer as usual responded, “Good luck, bad luck—who knows?” The very next week the imperial army marched through the village conscripting all the able- bodied young men into the service. The farmer's son was spared due to his broken arm. The villagers were once again impressed with this man's extraordinary good luck and told him so. And he replied, “Good luck, bad luck—who knows?”

This story illustrates a skill psychologists call reframing. Because the farmer was able to see things differently (that is, think about them differently than his fellow villagers), he was able to respond differently and experience an emotional calmness and equanimity that evaded those around him. As you get control of your breathing, relaxation skills, and awareness, you can notice what thoughts lead you to feel fear, anger, jealousy, confusion, and so on, and experiment with changing the way you look at things.

As with most things, this is easier said than done. However, be assured that it is definitely easier on you to learn to do it than not to do it. Reframing is like trying on different pairs of glasses and paying close attention to your responses. We've all heard of “looking at the world through rose-colored glasses” as a way to describe chronically optimistic people. And all of us have heard of people who act as if they have blinders on, because of their refusal to see things that are readily apparent to everyone else around them. We would like to offer you some different pairs of glasses to try on and experiment with their effects.

Entering the Funhouse

An older gentleman approached his doctor with a problem. “Every morning at 8:00 A.M. I have a regular bowel movement,” he complained. His doctor was somewhat perplexed and responded, “That doesn't seem to be a problem to me. Most of my patients would be thrilled to have a regular bowel movement at 8 A.M.” The patient replied, “The problem is that I don't wake up and get out of bed until 9 A.M.!”

Humor is the most familiar way in which reframing is used. We are led to believe a situation is one way and then suddenly we see it differently through an amusing lens. This contrast leads to the experience of laughter (a great stress reducer in itself). Whenever we can bring humor to our perceptions, our emotions shift and stress is reduced.

Consider the American amusement park phenomenon of the funhouse. We enter, frequently in the dark, and are beset by all manner of stimulation. The ground is unsteady, strange noises and blasts of air occur seemingly at random intervals, scary images jump in and out of our visual field, and bizarre mirrors distort our reflection. We are alternately scared, startled, and laughing, and emerge having had a pretty good time. Sounds a lot like life. Often our most interesting and funny tales are our descriptions of harrowing or embarrassing moments from our past, told from the safety of the present moment. As we step outside the experience and see ourselves in it, we see it differently and we can therefore feel differently. Remember what you are after here. In most stressful situations you will not be served well by the fight-or-flight response. In fact, trying to change your feelings by acting out this response will create problems. You need strategies for modifying your feelings and emotions so that you can choose an appropriate response. Here are some ideas to help you create your own personal funhouse.

Life as a Sitcom

The “life as a sitcom approach is a simple strategy for changing your point of view. Imagine that your life is being videotaped and consider what this difficult moment might look like to your viewers. One of us discovered this strategy accidentally while moving a very heavy sofa with several friends.

The sofa was so awkward and heavy that everyone had to stop periodically to rest and readjust their grip. While we were doing this, I was intermittently warning all my friends to be careful not to set this large object on their feet. At that very moment I proceeded to lower the sofa onto my own foot! (And I realized that, indeed, it really was a very heavy sofa!) Just as my mouth was opening to ask for help, I mentally shifted to an outsider's view of my situation and started laughing hysterically. I had become Jerry Lewis or one of the Three Stooges, and I simply could not stop laughing long enough to speak. Luckily, my friends, also laughing now, realized I was pointing at my foot and removed the couch.

While we still recommend being careful with heavy objects, this incident demonstrates the power of shifting your point of view. The pain and upset would have been far more intense had the person not been caught up in the hilarity of the moment.

Life as a Novel

Frequently, when going through prolonged difficulty we tend to put ourselves down and create stress by seeing ourselves as failures, now and forever. It is as if we have forgotten that things have not come to stay, but have come to pass.This gives you a different perspective and reminds you to take a longer view of your life's possibilities. Think about the life stories of great men and women. Almost invariably they are stories of failures that were converted into learning experiences, which then led to success. For example, were you aware that Abraham Lincoln lost eight elections, failed in business, went bankrupt, and suffered a nervous breakdown before he was elected president? There was a guy who didn't let failure get in the way of his success. His numerous failures built his character and made for a fascinating life story. Let your imagination roam into a successful future and look back at this time. What are you learning? In what way will it lead to your success?

Special Effects

The two reframing strategies discussed earlier are essentially about viewing your life literally from an outside or observer perspective. The next strategy includes playing with this perspective over time. This grouping of strategies is built upon a simple realization. Consider the fact that every special effect you have ever seen in the movies was first imagined by someone. This means that your imagination is capable of duplicating anything you have ever seen and fully capable of changing your experience in any given moment. For example, a very popular method of disrupting anxiety over public speaking is to imagine that your audience is nude. (A minority of people find this particular image really scary.) It is important to remember that we are in the funhouse to play and experiment. The next time you are bothered by a thought about the past or about the future, play with some of the following special effects:

  • Change the voices in a memory to sound like Donald Duck and his nephews.

  • Imagine that someone who is being particularly critical of you is suddenly seized with an attack of belching or flatulence.

  • Add circus music to the soundtrack.

  • Go beyond observing yourself. Watch yourself watching yourself.

  • Imagine that an individual who always manages to intimidate or anger you is wearing a clown hat or mismatched clothes with dirty smudges, or is half-nude, and so on. The idea here is to create an image that is so ludicrous that it evokes your amusement rather than your anxiety or your anger.

  • Pretend. Pretend. Pretend. Be childlike.

Case Study in Reframing: Using Special Effects

Julie was happily engaged to her boyfriend, and he had given her no concrete reasons to be jealous or to doubt his fidelity. Nonetheless, she found herself feeling quite jealous of an attractive, younger girl who lived in the same apartment building as her fiancé. Often she and her fiancé would run into this girl in the building or at the pool, and she would feel angry when her boyfriend chatted with her, although these conversations were not flirtatious and not of the sort that should have aroused her suspicions. When she confronted her fiancé with her feelings and asked him not to speak to this girl, he was annoyed and advised her to work on her feelings of jealousy. Since his actions were totally innocent and just friendly, he felt it was unfair to have to totally ignore this girl just to make Julie comfortable. When Julie considered the situation, by putting herself in her fiancé's shoes (a technique discussed in more detail in the next section), she decided there was merit to his point of view and suggestion that she work on her jealousy. To facilitate this end, she used reframing strategies to counteract the anxiety she felt when she saw the girl. Since the most common place she ran into this girl was in the elevator in her fiancé's building, she used that as the setting for her visualization. Julie imagined that she and her boyfriend ran into the girl on the elevator. Once the doors shut, the girl was immediately beset with an uncontrollable fit of gas, resulting in both audible flatulence and burping. Imagining this ridiculous scene made her double over with hilarity, and also resulted in Julie feeling sorry for the poor girl and her embarrassment. Julie was amazed that when she next saw the girl in question, all feelings of anxiety and jealousy were replaced by amusement and recollections of her silly, yet very useful, fantasy.

Giving Up Being Right

The number of different ways of looking at the world is limited only by your imagination. There is no substitute for your willingness to experiment with different pairs of glasses and notice what happens when you do. In other words, there is no right way to see things. In fact, we are going to recommend that you give up needing to be right. Of all the possible ways of looking at the world, the one most guaranteed to cause you stress and strife is the one that insists that your way of seeing things is the right way (Osterkamp & Press, 1988).

Giving up trying to always be right is a really hard thing to do. Why? We all love being right. Right? We've been taught since our youngest days to do the “right thing” according to the authority figures that surround us. We are rewarded for it. We feel good about ourselves for doing it. We try to figure out what the right thing is because we want to succeed, to win. Our culture worships winning. We remember the winners and display their names prominently in our stadiums, magazines, and commercials. Winners generally make a lot of money. Losers don't get the endorsements and the high praise. When you win, you typically feel good about yourself. Losing often hurts. And losing can be threatening to your self-esteem. Remember, any time you feel threatened you begin to engage the fight-or-flight response.

Looking for Win-Win Outcomes

If you are playing tennis or chess or any other competitive event, we recommend that you still put your focus on winning. However, we recommend extreme caution in trying to win in the arena of interpersonal relationships at home or at work. Operating out of a win/lose framework in relationships ultimately leads to all the players losing. Frequently, spouses with troubled marriages enter marital counseling with the hope that the therapist will choose sides and please explain to the other one how wrong he or she is. It is explained rather early on in the process of marital therapy that to ask who is winning in a marriage is an absolutely ridiculous question. A marriage built upon winning and losing is a marriage built upon conflict and threats. By definition it is then built upon stress. Our bodies respond to the ongoing battle of wills to be right as if it were a battle of the flesh, and once again the fight-or-flight response is engaged.

Good relationships embody the ability to compromise, to find ways that allow each party to get some of what he or she needs. Great relationships embody the ability to synergize. That is, they find ways for both parties to collaborate and create ways that allow the needs of each to be met. In other words, they find a way for everyone to win. As Stephen Covey has said in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, this requires courage and consideration. Courage helps us stand up for what we need. Consideration allows us to honor the fact that others feel their needs as deeply as we feel ours. Consider this story for a moment:

Two young girls are fighting over a single remaining orange. Both simply insist that they need it. In a win/lose relationship, one of the children will end up with the orange, and one will end up with nothing but bad feelings and a desire to win the next time. In a good relationship they will cut the orange in half and share it. They will compromise and this is better than one of them losing. Neither, however, is completely satisfied. In a great relationship they speak to one another about why they want the orange. As it turns out, one of them needs the peel for a recipe and the other simply wants some orange juice. Both can have everything they want because they had the courage to speak up for themselves and the consideration to listen.

Stepping into the Other Person's Shoes

We maintain that looking for win/win outcomes in all relationships reduces stress. But practically speaking, how do you give up the need to be right, to win in your personal relationships? As with virtually everything else we have related to you, this too begins by breathing and becoming aware of the cause of your rising level of tension. When we are trying to be right, by definition we see the other person's point of view or way of thinking as wrong. In order to go for a win/win solution to a problem, it helps to be able to step into the other person's shoes and experience the world through his or her eyes. This requires the funhouse skills we discussed earlier—that is, you need to pretend.

As you do your relaxing breathing, begin to allow a sense of the other person to form in your mind. See her in detail. Notice her expressions. Pay attention to the language she communicates through her body and her nonverbal communications. Hear not only the words she speaks, but the tone, tempo, and volume of her speech. Speculate about what she is feeling. As you do this, imagine that you can step into her body and look out of her eyes. Hear yourself saying the words and thinking the thoughts she might be thinking until you can feel what she is feeling. Do this until you can feel her sense of being right. Then step back into your own body and notice whether you feel any differences. Could she possibly feel as strongly as you do? Is it possible that her position has merit as well? Remember, the idea is not necessarily to give up your position and adopt hers (though that might happen). The idea is to move yourself to a place where you can work toward both of you meeting your needs, where both of you can win. Allowing yourself to feel, think, and experience the other person's viewpoint is a powerful way of facilitating the process of win/win.

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