When an event occurs one first has sensory input from our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin. The brain takes the raw information and processes it resulting in an experience that includes logical data as well as emotional content. Memories can modify what we experience. At times the recollection of an event can be very different from what was first felt and sensed. We all know that people report very different memories of the same event. This can make even eye-witness reporting inaccurate.

The fact that we learn from our experiences is what makes us human and our civilization possible. After all, why do we go to school? Just as we learn to read or do mathematics, we also learn how to react to different types of events. Most of this learning goes on behind the scenes, unconsciously. In addition, how we “feel” is governed by the mid-brain, also called the meso-limbic system. This is the “old” part of the brain where anger, pleasure, cravings and urges come from. Much of the responses in this area of the brain are programmed at a young age and may be damaged by traumatic incidents, which cause post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). All of this is further modified and complicated by drug abuse and dependence.

Reframing stems from the work of Milton Erikson and Virginia Satir. It means looking at a situation from a different point of view. This type of change can be learned and at first using the concept of “Going on Manual Pilot” is very helpful. (see my paper of this same title at this link: node/145) By this I mean using the executive part of your brain to override the urges and natural responses of the mid-brain.

Reframing takes the same set of facts and gives them a different meaning. This allows a different response and a different feeling, and usually different consequences.

Two major types of reframing are contextual and content. Contextual reframing takes the same set of facts and puts them in a different environment. If you really need your job and you get laid off, it is very bad. If you dislike your job and get laid off with a separation package, it is good, as your were likely to leave your job anyway, and the package gives you time to find a better one. “Every cloud has a silver lining.” By looking at the alternative results of a situation, you can often, “make lemonade from lemons.”

Contextual reframing takes the same situation and changes the perception and meaning. A well-known example is calling an army’s retreat, “advancing towards the rear”. Something impossible can be simply very difficult. Being unkind can be viewed as insensitive.

With practice and guidance one can learn to see the positive side of a situation and how to take advantage of it instead of feeling hopeless and paralyzed.

We naturally respond to identical stimuli differently, depending on the context. I found this quote from Anthony Robbins on the Wikipedia that explains this perfectly:

“A signal has meaning only in the frame or context in which we perceive it.” 1 For example, if a person is resting
in bed and hears his bedroom door open, exactly the same noise will have two totally different meanings
to him and evoke drastically different reactions depending on whether (1) he is alone in a locked house,
or (2) he had previously invited his friend over and left the back door to his house unlocked. According to
Anthony Robbins:

If we perceive something as a liability, that’s the message we deliver to our brain. Then the brain
produces states that make it a reality. If we change our frame of reference by looking at the same
situation from a different point of view, we can change the way we respond in life. We can change
our representation or perception about anything and in a moment change our states and behaviors.
This is what reframing is all about.

An important type of reframing that I use in my chemical dependency practice is to modify the response to over protective and restrictive parents. The patient sees his parent as punishing her or him by having a curfew, limiting the use of the family car, taking away a cell phone, or to insisting on checking urines for the presence of drugs. When I hear this complaint, I usually respond by saying, “Aren’t you lucky that your folks care so much about you”. I ask them to smile when this happens and feel cared for and protected. After all, many of these young people were out on the street using drugs, stealing, hungry, and in danger from many sources. When they start responding to their parents in this way, life gets much better for the whole family.

There is much more to learn about reframing and how it can help you be more effective and happier. Check out these websites for more on the subject;



By Richard I. Gracer M.D.