Reframing Perspective

June 29th, 2011

The artist Picasso was asked in an interview why he didn’t paint pictures of people “the way they really are.” Picasso asked the man what he meant by “the way they really are,” and the man pulled a snapshot of his wife out of his wallet. “Like this,” he said. Picasso responded: “Isn’t she rather small and flat?”

Picasso understood the fundamental idea that is also expressed in the Anais Nin quote, “we don’t see things as they are. We see them as WE are.” The way things are is for the most part a creation of our minds. Life is made up of a series of events and experiences, some of them as abstract and confusing as a Picasso painting. The meaning is all in the frame. The frame can bring out the best in the experience like a frame can highlight the best in a painting. The challenge is to frame your life experience with beliefs that are optimistic and empowering.

Picasso pioneered some interesting developments in art that mirror human development.

  • Cubism- Cubist art breaks an image into pieces and puts it back together in abstract form. This creates space for the viewer to see the work from multiple perspectives. It’s not about the way things are. It’s about the way the viewer perceives the artwork.  The same is true with circumstances. Circumstances don’t define who you are. It’s the way you look at circumstances that defines the quality of your experience. Sometimes it’s helpful to break experiences down, and put them back together with the advantage of perspective.
  • Picasso went through a stage when he was fascinated by African culture and artifacts. It influenced his famous work “Les Demoisselles d’Avignon” which is a depiction of five nude prostitutes, some of them wearing African totem face masks. It’s a disturbing piece, but the most prominent feature is the way the women appear to be “looking” out from the scene. You can’t quite tell who is looking at who- the viewer of the painting or the women in the painting? This ability to own your own perspective is just as important in healthy relationships as it is in art.

Your perspective is your power. But it’s a power that needs to be claimed. Your brain wears its own set of eye glasses, which is your perspective, or your current beliefs. It sees what it sees through its meaning making grid. If your perspective becomes jaded like old glasses that are cracked and warped you may not even realize that you are approaching life with so much negativity. Your cracked glasses are stopping you from seeing the whole picture or the beauty of what is in front of you.

Think of it like framing a picture such as the Mona Lisa. Did you hear that Mona Lisa was charged with murder? It turned out that she’d been framed. I apologize if that didn’t raise a smile; maybe just a moan. Speaking of raised smiles, if you create a replica of Mona Lisa with down turned lips, the whole effect of the picture changes. If you take a painting of Mona Lisa but only frame a small part of the background, completely leaving out Mona Lisa, you are short changing your experience.

You need to check your perspective often and see if it needs updating. Are you seeing the present through yesterday’s beliefs? Are you expecting the past to replay itself in every moment? It might be time for a reframe. Even the famous Mona Lisa has been touched up and reframed in its 500 year history because of changing taste and also to protect her from ageing. In 1970 she was reframed with maple when they found insects in the beechwood. Then in 2004 she was reframed with sycamore to prevent further warping.  The point is that this masterpiece deserves the best frame.

It’s the same with your experience of life. Life is too short and too precious to waste it in negativity. You deserve the best frame, and if you aren’t offering yourself the most optimistic and empowered perspective, then consider a reframe. Don’t frame your life with cheap wood, or wood infested with bugs, and don’t let your frame warp your perspective. Frame your life with the finest materials that include strength, forgiveness, and possibility- whatever qualities you value most highly.

Reframing Beyond Ego

There is also the danger of framing your life with the ego driven concerns of the small self. This may bring short term gain, but won’t bring you enduring joy. There was a funny episode of Seinfeld when George inadvertently killed his fiancée Susan with poisonous wedding invitations. He was secretly relieved because he was terrified of commitment. Then he discovered that he could pick up women by telling them that he was a widower? He started carrying a photo of Susan around with him to pick up women. He framed his conversations with a snapshot of his dead fiancé. It worked like a charm…at first. As you can imagine, one lie led to another and he ended up in a giant mess.

When you frame your life with lies or deception or delusion, you will end up suffering unnecessarily. It is far healthier to frame your life with a broad perspective that gets you beyond the narrow confines of small concerns. There is a Japanese story that makes this point about perspective beautifully. The Japanese tea master Rikyu built a teahouse on the side of a hill overlooking the sea. Three guests arrived, expecting to see an amazing ocean panorama. When they arrived, they were disappointed to find that the view was completely blocked by trees. They stopped at the entrance to wash at the traditional water basin. They bent down to draw water with a bamboo ladle, when they noticed an opening in the trees that could only be seen from the stooped position. In the humble posture of the bow, with water flowing from ladle to hands, they were greeted by the most spectacular view of the ocean. In gratitude and humility, they celebrated the connection between the basin water and the ocean. They knew they were not separate. They bowed for several moments, lost in the wonder of the connection.

Humility is part of the frame that helps you to see life with openness and gratitude. From this perspective, you can live with the frame of your highest concerns for the good of many, and spread joy in the world. With a humble perspective, you will see the beauty for the trees and the horizon beyond.

Reframing Persistent Challenge

How do you frame your life when difficult circumstances persist? What do you do when all your best efforts at thinking positively and reframing fail to shift your perspective? A man wrote to the department of agriculture to find out how to cope with the crabgrass that was ruining his lawn. The department responded with a number of suggestions. The man tried them all, but couldn’t beat the crabgrass. Exasperated, he wrote once again, telling them that every method they had suggested had failed. His yard was still riddled with crabgrass. He got back a short reply: ‘We suggest you learn to love it.’

There are times in life when you can’t beat the crabgrass that feels like its strangling the color and joy out of your existence. If you’ve really tried everything, at least for now, learn to love it. Your time for change will come. For now, learn to love what is. If you can’t change the circumstances, change your perspective on the circumstances.

What do you do about nagging negativity? Woody Allen once ended a stand up routine by saying, “I wish I could think of a positive thought to leave you with. Will you take two negative thoughts instead?”

What do you do with persistent negative thoughts? Think positive thoughts about them. Love them into submission. Reframing is not about suppression. You WILL face challenge and you WILL have negative thoughts. Some of them will be poor visibility from a cracked lens. Some of them will be appropriate and be the exact motivation you need to make a change in your life. Affirm even the negative thoughts, and the difference will become clear. Which thoughts are serving you, and which thoughts are locking you into self destructive patterns?

Pioneering psychologist Milton H. Erickson, was a master at reframing. When someone came to him to talk about a problem with procrastination, Erickson immediately congratulated him for being an expert on procrastination. He would then ask the person to teach him how to become a master Procrastinator. By reframing what was perceived as a lifelong liability into a skill, Erickson helped him see that it could be used for good in the appropriate contexts such as when delaying rage if angry or sleeping on a difficult decision before acting.  Learn to love your inner procrastinator, and liberate it to serve you without being defined by it.

Reframing will help you to turn wounds into wisdom, pain into purpose, sadness into strength, and crisis into compassion. If you find yourself “in hell” keep going and give it a lick of paint on the way as the saying goes. Words like “maybe” and “partially” are helpful words in transitioning from absolute negativity, to possibility, on the way to optimism.

What if your life simply feels out of control? Anne Lamott offered a beautiful reframe in Travelling Mercies

When a lot of things start going wrong all at once, it is to protect something big and lovely that is trying to get itself born — and this something needs for you to be distracted so that it can be born as perfectly as possible.

You have to believe that there is emerging order in the chaos of your life, like the pieces of an abstract painting. Stay with it, and the order will become clear. Help it along with as many positive, or even just open ended questions as possible.

It’s about deciding which animal you want to feed. Feed the thoughts that serve you. Practice thoughts that help you to see the world with greater love and possibility. Reframing offers you a way to state reality as if it’s already true and in so doing you reset your brain’s meaning making machine. Set the intention that you are lovable and loved, that your life has purpose and that you are an agent of kindness and so it will be. Reframing helps you to believe in your amazing essence and brings many of your deepest intentions into reality. They bring enormous positive change into your life.

Most importantly, reframing helps you to see your power and purpose in life. One of my favorite films is The King’s Speech. King George struggled with his stutter at a time when he needed to inspire the masses.

The following is an excerpt from a conversation with his speech therapist, Lionel, whose ultimate gift to the King was the ability to reframe his context:

King George- Listen to me. Listen to me.

Lionel- Why should I waste my time listening to you?

King George- Because I have a voice!

Lionel- Yes, you do.”

Like the King, you have a voice. You have perspective. You have the ability to see the world with generosity and grace, starting with yourself. You have the ability to claim your power and take responsibility for your beliefs. You can’t always control your circumstances, but you can always control your perspective on circumstances.

Examples of Reframing

Here are 10 examples of reframing, ranging from the ultra practical to high level perception.

1. I have too much to do today. Reframe- I can do a lot today, and do more tomorrow.

2. This is the worst outcome. Reframe– I feel anxious now, but won’t feel this way forever.

3. My life is out of control. Reframe– There are many things in life I can control.

4. I feel so much pressure to be what others want me to be. Reframe– I don’t have to be what others expect me to be.

4. There is no end to this problem. Reframe– Solutions will become clear in time.

5. My dreams are impossible. Reframe– My dreams are getting closer every day.

6. I feel shame having to ask for help. Reframe– I am strong enough to admit the need for help.

7. My partner is not expressive. Reframe– My partner offers me solid, quiet support.

8. So and so is ruthless and stubborn. Reframe- So and so has amazing ambition and drive.

9. My family set too many restrictions on my life. Reframe- My family cares enough to help me set healthy boundaries.

10. Ian messed up his top ten numbering system. Reframe– Ian chose a creative numbering system to see who’s paying attention.

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  1. Debbie Lass says:

    Oh my gosh, Ian!  This is exactly what I needed to read, right now!  I love the “art” metaphors, of course, but the true meaning of what you express, about approaching difficulties from another perspective, is so very powerful and can be life-changing.  Thank you, thank you!  Debbie

  2. ian says:

    Awesome Debbie. I was thinking of you, and a few of our common friends in the art world, when I wrote this piece.

  3. Classic NYer says:

    This was certainly a helpful read as I sit here shirking my duties taking a well-deserved rest. 🙂

  4. ian says:

    🙂 recharding your batteries so you can fulfil your duties even more

  5. Thank you, Ian, for this excellent article on reframing one’s perspective. Endurance runners and walkers will especially appreciate examples 1, 4, and 5.

  6. ian says:

    Awesome Kirk. I love the way you offer inspiration to runners. Its such a big part of many people’s lives. I dont run a long way, but try to run most days and find it very spiritual. Your site and articles affirm my experience. Very glad to have connected with you. Maybe I will write about my experience of running some time.

  7. bonnie says:


  8. What a great post.  Thank you.  Excellent examples and explanation of thought reframing.   I especially like:
    ‎”Reframing will help you to turn wounds into wisdom, pain into purpose, sadness into strength, and crisis into compassion.”
    I know that our “power is in our perspective.”  It allows us to be the creators of our realities.  So empowering.  

    Four years ago, I tried to commit suicide resulting in a serious brain injury.  Through practices such as thought reframing, meditation, visualization and more, I am fully recovered and happier than ever.  I still talk funny and have manual dexterity and some memory issues, but life is great.
    Over time, through neuroplasticity, thought reframing actually changes your brain physically making news connections and pathways so that this way of thinking becomes the default.  Our own magic wand!  Jeffrey Schwartz, has several books on OCD in which he outlines a specific process to challenge and reframe thoughts which physically changes the brain.  It is scientifically confirmed.  It works!

  9. ian says:

    hi Debbie, what an inspiring story. Thank you for sharing it. I will check out Jeffrey Schwartz.

  10. I was referred to this page by a friend. I came with a twisted frame and I´m changing it. God bless you.

  11. Maite says:

    Hi Ian,
    I really liked your post. Very interesting, I share your view, thanks for sharing it with us!

    Greetings from Barcelona!

  12. ian says:

    Thanks Maite- very glad you liked it and thank you for commenting.

  13. shereen says:

    This is exactly what I needed to read right now at this minute,, thank you Ian.

  14. Mel says:

    What a beautifully written post Ian.  I love how synchronicity shows itself to me in that here I am currently working on these very issues you speak of in this article, which I “stumbled” across by way of twitter 🙂  Many of these concepts are not new to me, however, you gave new “perspectives” to them – loved all the metaphors and stories to further expand or explain the concepts.  I will be following your blog more often now – what a gift you have given us.

  15. ian says:

    thanks Mel- glad to be in contact with you. Keep in touch

  16. This is wonderful. I love the idea of reframing–it’s all about choices. We always have choices. Thank you.

  17. Cathy says:

    This is exactly what I needed today and I will try my best to hold on to this reframing concept. Beautifully put and well worth the read

  18. Anne-Marie says:

    Wow, Ian – you have no idea what perfect timing the re-release of this article is for me… thank you for re-sharing it – and demonstrating through your excellent examples and explanations what it means to reframe ourselves and our lives… your creatively numbered section at the end is quite helpful in getting the ball rolling on how things reframed might look from a new perspective.

    All great stuff — thank you!

    Virtually Yours,

  19. Rebecca says:

    What a fantastic post! One of those “Everyone should read this!” articles. And the comments are priceless, as well. You certainly know the true hearts and minds of people, Ian, and have a wonderful gift in making interesting cultural references in your writing. Thank you for bringing such helpful and positive wisdom and ideas to the masses!

  20. Kim Jarrett says:

    Thank you! Great post. That quote from Anne Lamott is beautifully brilliant. Oh, and nice list. I especially like number 4. 😉

  21. David says:

    Thank you for the fresh air. Loving and acceptance is so hard for me.

  22. Sharmila says:

    Thanks Ian! Reading your post couldn’t have come at a better time for me.

  23. Kim says:

    Saving this so I can refer to it often! So glad to find this. Coming from a very negative family, my son and I are challenging ourselves to improve our attitudes each day. Boy, is it much more challenging than you would think, but it is worth everything we are putting into it! Can’t express how much we appreciate this guide! A little help just when we need it. Thanks Ian!! 🙂

  24. 9freshmangos says:

    As often be-fore; how timely n apt. thanx so much Ian. Thank you n yours . . .  

  25. Kris says:

    Lovely post, but I’d suggest not using Woody Allen as an example for anything.  If nothing else…it’s polarizing.

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