What we perceive as imperfections in others, and see as annoying, triggering behaviors, can be viewed in a different way. Those same behaviors and habits that make us crazy can instead be what remind us of how lucky and blessed we are to have those people in our lives.
The top left off the toothpaste, can, if we let it, remind us of the love that person has for us. Interestingly, so much of what bothers us in life is actually the same stuff that gives us our sense of connection. Habits, of both others and our own, help to give us our sense of meaning.
The challenge is to see the opportunity to define that meaning; to choose our responses, and in that process redefine our feelings.
When we see the clothes on the floor, the top of the toothpaste off, or whatever… and we have a flash of anger or depression. “Why is he or she doing that to annoy me?” we ask. Our assumptions about the behavior lead to actions that hurt us both psychologically and physically. With that flash of emotion; whether it be; anger, annoyance, depression, or anxiety, we become fatigued.
When the emotion rises again and again at this very simple behavior, a cycle is set in us so that we default into a set of actions. Those actions cause separation and anxiety instead of calm.
Instead of having those annoying actions upset us, we can use them instead as a reminder that we are not alone.
We can either accept those annoyances as a signal to remember our connection with the person, or we can create stress and fatigue in ourselves. We can look at those triggering behaviors as proof of life together, proof of love, or only as an annoyance. The choice is up to us. The innocuous behavior that annoys does not need to ruin a life together. We can use it as a chance to become more aware of ourselves. Use the chance to see the actions of others differently. We have a choice to have less fatigue, less stress, and generally happier life when we become aware.
We have choices of how we react to the daily stuff. The choice is actually stark.
Either we are upset and anxious, or lucky and blessed. It is our choice to come into awareness of our unconscious reactions and to then even create our own happiness.
There is a famous example by Mark Twain in the story of Tom Sawyer of looking at it from another angle. Mark Twain’s hero was given the job of whitewashing a picket fence, which he did not want to do. To avoid this task, he enticed his friends to do it for him. His strategy was to reframe the activity as being fun rather than a chore. That they were lucky to do it.
He sold the fun so well that they got so keen to participate they actually paid him for the privilege. And while they worked, Tom relaxed under a tree. In this case, that reframing from work to play was for others but it cleverly demonstrates that we can look at the same things from different points of view.
There are certain questions that can help us to reframe situations:
“How else can I look at this?”
“How can I put this in a different perspective?”
“Are there any positives or benefits to this situation?”
“Is there anything I can learn from this?”
Sometimes it’s easier to reframe things for other people. So a helpful question would be, “What would I tell a friend in a similar situation?”
One of my clients practiced that well during the holidays. She shared “When my children were small, we planned a Thanksgiving weekend with my sister and her family. We were all looking forward to the trip when, at the last minute, one of the kids developed an ear infection and couldn’t fly. Unfortunately, the whole family had to cancel the fun trip and stay home. A mood of disappointment prevailed. I said, “All right, there’s nothing we can do about this. How can we reframe it?” My immediate thought was “That’s easy – we just saved $1,000.” Then we made a list of other great things. Other benefits, including taking in a play we would otherwise have missed.”
This holiday weekend story illustrates an important point: often we can’t choose what happens, but we can always choose how we think about what happens. This is the essence of reframing.
In 1988 I developed walking pneumonia. When the diagnosis was made (complete with a chest x-ray that looked like a snowstorm) I was put on antibiotics and sent home. I wasn’t thrilled with the situation at all but I quickly noticed an upside. There was a pile of books on my shelf that I’d been wanting to read for months. This time for rest was the perfect opportunity to read. Days with nothing else to do but hydrate, sleep and read. Right then and there I decided the situation wasn’t so bad after all. This sick time had at least one redeeming feature and that’s what I chose to focus on.
Here’s another example of the NLP technique of reframing. A friend of mine had been working 80 hours a week for years at a very demanding job and he finally reached a point of burnout. He had to be off work and go on medication. He said his leave-of-absence made him feel weak, that he couldn’t handle the pressure. I listened and said, “It’s interesting that you say that because I had exactly the opposite thought. What struck me was how strong you must have been to put up with that grueling schedule and pressure for as long as you did. Most people would have given up or wilted long ago. I think this demonstrates your strength, not weakness. There’s only so much any of us can put up with before our bodies say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ Your body is only now saying ‘that’s enough’.”
This made him feel much more comfortable. He replied with a phrase that told me the reframe was both credible and helpful: “Gee, I never thought of it that way.”
Again we see that how you look at things influences how you feel. Negative thoughts drain you. Positive thoughts energize you. And you have a choice. So in any difficult situation, look for the positives and focus on the benefits.