THE BLOG
01/07/2015 03:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Beyond Reframing

"Reframing" is the art of shifting perspectives, and is considered a core skill in pretty much any field that involves directing people's perceptions, ranging from therapy to politics to marketing and advertising. A good re-framer can convince you that black is white, or at the very least that white is the new black.

For example, one of my all time favorite re-frames is contained in the text of Robert Cialdini's Influence: Science and Practice. It is in the form of a letter from a university student to her parents:

Dear Mother and Dad,

Since I left for college I have been remiss in writing and I am sorry for my thoughtlessness in not having written before. I will bring you up to date now, but before you read on, please sit down. You are not to read any further unless you are sitting down, okay?

Well, then, I am getting along pretty well now. The skull fracture and the concussion I got when I jumped out the window of my dormitory when it caught on fire shortly after my arrival here is pretty well healed now. I only spent two weeks in the hospital and now I can see almost normally and only get those sick headaches once a day. Fortunately, the fire in the dormitory, and my jump, was witnessed by an attendant at the gas station near the dorm, and he was the one who called the Fire Department and the ambulance. He also visited me in the hospital and since I had nowhere to live because of the burnt-out dormitory, he was kind enough to invite me to share his apartment with him. It's really a basement room, but it it's kind of cute. He is a very fine boy, and we have fallen deeply in love and are planning to get married. We haven't set the exact date yet, but it will be before my pregnancy begins to show.

Yes, Mother and Dad, I am pregnant. I know how much you are looking forward to being grandparents and I know you will welcome the baby and give it the same love and devotion and tender care you gave me when I was a child. The reason for the delay in our marriage is that my boyfriend has a minor infection which prevents us from passing our premarital blood tests and I carelessly caught it from him. I know that you will welcome him into our family with open arms. He is kind and, although not well educated, he is ambitious.

Now that I have brought you up to date, I want to tell you that there was no dormitory fire, I did not have a concussion or skull fracture, I was not in the hospital, I am not pregnant, I am not engaged, I am not infected, and there is no boyfriend. However, I am getting a "D" in American History and an "F" in Chemistry, and I want you to see those marks in their proper perspective.

Your loving daughter,
Sharon

While reframing can be useful and is certainly fun, it can also sometimes blind us to a deeper truth about the nature of thought. For example, many years ago I participated in an experiment designed by Robert Anton Wilson where we were tasked to deliberately read things as close to 180° from our normal way of thinking as possible, a practice I continue somewhat informally to this day.

The idea was not to try and change anyone's mind, but rather to raise our consciousness to the level where we could see the nature of the mind, and more specifically the nature of thought. Because our personal reality is of necessity constructed inside our mind via thought, we are all prone to get stuck in what Wilson called "reality tunnels" - that is, points of view that seem so real and justified to us that we cannot see how any reasonable person could possibly see things any differently than we do.

As our level of consciousness rises, we will still see what we see and believe what we believe - we just hold our own thoughts and opinions more lightly as we gain some insight into their transitory and at times almost arbitrary nature.

When we look more deeply in this direction, we begin to see that thought works much more like a paintbrush than a camera. We are not so much recording reality with our minds as we are creating it.

Yet in order to usefully reframe something, we first have to believe there's something real to reframe. If Sharon's parents hadn't been stuck in a reality tunnel where letter grades were significant, there would have been no need for Sharon to have put them into a different perspective. And if you weren't already stuck in a reality tunnel that something is a major problem in your life, you would have no need of trying to find a more positive way of viewing it.

In other words, when your "reality" looks real to you, like a photograph, it's human nature to want to frame it in such a way as to make it seem better or worse than it actually is. But the moment you see the arbitrary "made up" nature of your personal reality, like a painting, you're free to make it up differently in any moment.

Of course, there will always be things in our lives that seem more "real" to us than others, and we will be tempted to frame them in whatever way makes us feel better about things.

But when that happens, perhaps the most important thing to remember is this:

Even the most life-like photograph ever taken is still just a photograph.

With all my love,

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For more by Michael Neill, click here.