What is a (Mental) Reframe?

Published October 6, 2009 in Psychology and Mind Hacks - 4 Comments
Mental Reframe

Original Image by D. Sharon Pruitt

It occurred to me recently that I have already mentioned “reframes” in past articles (most recently in this one about procrastination), but never explained what meaning of the term I was referring to. In this post, I will briefly explain what a mental reframe is and show you how reframes can be helpful as well as dangerous.

A reframe is basically a shift in perception. When you experience a reframe, the objective reality around you does not change, but the way you see it, the way you feel about it and the way you deal with it change.
You’ve probably encountered this quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

What Hamlet is referring to here is the basis of every reframe. Everything we experience as “real” is actually constructed inside our heads, is actually a product of our perception. Different ways of interpreting any given situation can dramatically change your experience of it. Let’s look at a concrete example:

Say you don’t have a dish-washer and thus have to wash all your dishes by hand. You would probably experience this as a terrible chore and a waste of your time. With a different frame of mind, however, you might look at the task of washing the dishes as a chance to disconnect and step back from your demanding, fast-moving everyday life. You can enjoy just letting your thoughts drift as your hands go through the motions all by themselves. While you are washing the dishes, it’s easier to allow yourself to be unavailable and disconnected, since it’s an important task you’re doing (you might have trouble with meditating because it’s “just sitting there”).

Note that this is purely a reframe because the given situation (having to wash the dishes) has not been changed and neither did you take any outward action like listening to music while doing the dishes. Also note that a successful reframe is one that truly changes your mind. Not every reframe works and if, in the above example, you tried to convince yourself of the benefits of washing the dishes, but still hated it, you’d have to try something different. In other words, a reframe is not something you have to force. If it works, it will change your perception all by itself.

The Dark Side

By now, it should be fairly obvious how reframes can be very beneficial. If you can reframe situations for yourself, you can become more motivated to complete important tasks, you can feel happier without needing to change external circumstances, you can become grateful for things you used to take for granted… the list goes on.

Of course, reframes can also work against you. With the wrong mindset, anything can become torturous or boring, you can feel deflated and powerless. It’s bad enough when this happens “by itself” i.e. when you are the originator of your own negative mind-frames. It’s worse when others try to shape your mind using reframes.

Now, I can’t and don’t mean to condemn every attempt of someone to reframe someone else’s mind, but it becomes problematic when reframes are used to induce negative feelings like fear (usually followed by a sales-pitch). In advertisements for pharmaceuticals or security-accessories like door-locks, you will usually see many attempts at negative reframes. The pharmaceutical ads want you to believe that you are in danger of contracting some condition or other unless you go see your doctor and have a few pills subscribed. The security-company ads want you to feel that strangers are hostile and that every unsecured door or window is a hazard to your family’s safety.

Mental reframes are a very basic conversational tool and most people use them casually, without thinking about it. I want to make it clear that reframes are not by themselves positive or negative – it depends entirely on how they are applied. If you would like to learn more about the application of reframes, I recommend looking into NLP (neuro-linguistic programming). Just give it a search, there’s a ton of material on the subject to be found online and reframes are one of the common tools for NLP’ers. Also, let me know what you think and ask any questions you still have in the comments-section below.

  • Interesting. Do you think would purposely move to worse mental reframes than they currently have? One could argue that when people adopt a fundamental religious mind frame this is the case. Any other situations where one might reframe to be worse off?

  • Well, if someone is in a depressed mood, they are prone to self-destructive behaviour and that might include negative reframes. Hopefully, it would not be a permanent reframe but something that passes with the negative mood.
    I can imagine that permanent negative reframes account, in part, for chronic depression.

  • Hi Shane

    I think you sum it up nicely when you quote Hamlet.

    A saying that one of my NLP trainers used to use was a probably a modern version of it was “whether you think you can, or whether you think you can’t – you’re probably right!”

    • Hi Sean,

      Yes, I’ve heard that version as well. I think I saw it attributed to Henry Ford, but I don’t know if he’s really the originator. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, I really appreciate it! 🙂