Reframing Your Life, or Why Language Matters

December 16, 2015


Most of us recognize that our emotions shape how the world appears to us. When we are happy, our lives seem great; when we are sad, our lives take on a dull grey hue.  But many of us don't pay as much attention to how our words and thoughts generate the emotions that paint our world with a certain patina. Our choice of words can often determine what emotions will follow.


A powerful mindfulness practice is to learn to choose our words carefully.  This is obviously true when it comes to how we speak to other people.  We choose to be diplomatic by selecting our vocabulary and topics so as not to offend or hurt other people.  But what about how we describe our lives, including our thoughts to ourselves?  Many of us choose words that simply make ourselves feel worse about a situation.


Let's take a simple example that was given to me by someone else.  Many people, when asked how they're doing, describe themselves as "stressed."  Or, you might think to yourself, "I'm stressed. I'm busy."  Rather than bemoaning your situation, one way to practice mindfulness is to just reframe those thoughts in a different way.  For example, for "stressed," you might say, "This task requires me to work quickly" or "This task demands my full attention."  For "busyness," you could try "My work is asking me to devote myself fully to it." 


These sentences might sound foreign or corny, but they adopt a descriptive tone. They simply capture what is happening factually with a given situation, without judgment.  You can employ this mindfulness technique with any situation in your life.  


For example, if you're struggling with finances, rather than complain or berate yourself, try adopting a more neutral outlook.  Instead of "This sucks. I have no money," try "My bank accounts are asking me to find more ways to replenish them" or "Money is currently coming to me in amounts that do not match my needs" or even "My financial situation is presenting me with an opportunity to be more creative and find new ways of generating income."  


As much as possible, try to reframe in a way that presents what is happening in either an entirely neutral manner or, as in the last example, in a more positive mindset.  If you have to choose between judgment and corny or convoluted forms of positivity, you might as well try the latter.  How well has blaming yourself or complaining about a situation worked for you?  Have those tirades done much to improve the situation?  


The same practice can be done with relationships of all kinds.  When someone "annoys" you, try reframing the issue in a manner that moves away from your emotional response and focuses instead on what is being asked of you:  "My friend's behavior is asking me to practice patience or compassion."  "My boss's demands are asking me to draw a healthy boundary or to stand up for myself." "My partner's behavior is teaching me to be more giving and loving."  


Reframing your world is like putting on a different set of glasses; they give the world a different tint or hue.  It's the same material, but viewed through a new perspective.   Whatever the situation is, you can reframe it by asking what this situation is teaching you. This way, you to learn to relate in a way that is not about giving in to your baseline, habitual patterns, most of which don't serve you well. With practice, you'll learn to view any situation with equanimity, and respond to it in a way that empties out judgment, negativity, and strife.  


To be sure, this is not meant to empty your entire life of all enjoyment or emotion, as if you were a robot.  Feel the emotions and recognize that they are a part of being human.  But then practice reframing what is occurring before you respond from anger or sadness. Over time, you will learn to respond to what happens in your life from a place of peace, when your normal habit is to respond in a manner that compounds your sense of frustration. 

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