The Light Switch: A Simple Exercise in Re-Framing

Today I want to encourage you to try a simple exercise. I want you to imagine a light switch. See it in your mind, freeze it there. Got it?

Now, this light switch represents one of the most profound abilities in life: the power to transform your patterns of thought.  We are going to use it as a tool; and the more we use it, the easier and more powerful it will become.

In an earlier post, I referenced an individual who I named ‘Melissa’ to protect their anonymity. Melissa was experiencing a prolonged period of what she identified as depression. One evening she was watching a funny movie and started to laugh. But almost before she could enjoy the moment a little voice inside her head reminded her that she was supposed to be upset, and that moment of happiness was lost.

You might be surprised to know that this is very common behaviour, and not just with people who are experiencing depression or crisis. An easy way to understand it is to imagine an elite level athlete like an Olympic judoka, or a professional tennis player. They practice the same movement or series of movements countless times, until this activity becomes second nature to them. The tennis player hits the ball at the right racquet speed, with just enough top spin, and with the same movement of feet and hips and waist that she has done ten thousand times before. To move in this way has become in some ways the path of least resistance. The muscle memory is strong because the action has been repeated so consistently over the years.

Well, the same is true of our patterns of thinking and behaviour. This can be both a good thing (as with the tennis player) and a bad thing (as in the case of Melissa). Kamal Sarma, in his book ‘Mental Resilience’, describes it this way:

“Imagine you have an ongoing problem and, in the course of your day, you think about it over and over. In doing so, you create a neural pathway in your brain, and by repeating the thought, you follow the same pathway over and over again.”

How an individual reacts to crisis and stress can become very predictable. We all know people who we think of as ‘steady’ or we might describe as ‘a rock’. We can probably also think of people in our lives who we believe do not handle stress very well at all! These people are sometimes labelled with unfortunate monikers like ‘scattered’, ‘stress-case’ or ‘weak’.

Here’s the good news: we can train ourselves to perceive the world in the way that is best for us. Like the athlete training countless hours to develop muscle memory, this work is not easy, but it is extremely rewarding.

Let’s begin this way: take a moment to think of a difficult issue or situation that has been causing you pain or stress in the last year then follow these six steps.

Step One: Identify the problem. Try to clarify the problem and reduce it to its simplest form. Make sure you are identifying the real issue.

Example 1:  you might think to yourself that you ‘can’t get along with your sister’. This is vague, and it is important to be specific as to the nature of the issue, and if possible its cause. Ask yourself:

What does it look like?  Answer: We argue when we are together; I always feel a tension between us; we disagree about parenting all the time.

How is it affecting you? Answer: I’m sad that we can’t get along; I wish things could be like they used to be because it is stressful to see her; what’s wrong with me that I can’t get along with my own sister?

Example 2: I’m always struggling financially and can’t get ahead. My friends are all stable so why do I have no luck?

What does it look like? Answer: I never have any wiggle room and I can’t even think about buying a house or going on a trip. It’s constantly on my mind, to the point where I find myself hiding from it like an ostrich with my head in the sand.

How is it affecting you? Answer: The stress of living pay-cheque to pay-cheque every month is killing me! Why is it so easy for my friends and so hard for me? I can’t get a better job because I don’t have the education, and I can’t get the education because I don’t have a better job.

Example 3:  I’m single, in my 50s, and I don’t think I’ll ever find a partner.

What does it look like: Answer: I had a long-term relationship that ended and now I’m too old to find someone I could love. Maybe I could find someone if I was famous or rich, but what chance does an average person like me have?

How is it affecting you? Answer: I’m lonely, a little scared. I’m sometimes very envious of my friends who have stable relationships.  I know I shouldn’t think this way, and that makes me feel even worse about myself. Maybe I just don’t have enough to offer someone?

Step Two: Identify your assumptions about the issue.

Assumptions from Example 1 above: there’s something wrong with me that I can’t get along with my own sister; there is such tension between us; we disagree about parenting all the time.

 Assumptions from Example 2: my friends are all stable and have it so easy; I have no luck; I could never go on a trip or buy a house; I’m a loser; I’m stuck – I’ll never get a better job.

Assumptions from Example 3: I’m too old; I need to be rich or famous to find someone I’d like at my age; I’m a terrible person for feeling jealous about my friends’ relationships; I don’t have enough to offer someone special.

Step Three: Ask yourself how these assumptions make you feel. This is a pretty obvious question but it’s important to acknowledge these feelings openly. These kinds of thoughts (which are really assumptions) can make you feel pretty lousy!

Step Four: Challenge your assumptions! The fourth stage is tricky. This is the stage that is sometimes the most difficult for people to grasp, at least in the beginning. It is here that you must try to identify your pattern of thinking and spot holes in your assumptions. You have to act like a prosecutor questioning a witness (you!).  Some people find it more helpful to imagine what they would say to a friend experiencing the same problems.

Let’s take our assumptions above and challenge them a little:

Assumptions from Example 1:

Assumption                                                        Challenge

There’s something wrong with me that I can’t get along with my own sister Sibling conflict is very common, but it does not have to ruin a relationship.
There is so much tension between us. Are you sure you both feel the same way? Have you discussed it with your sister? Is this tension really as strong for her as it seems for you?

Family tension is normal; but we must do what we can to ensure this tension does not go on indefinitely.

We disagree about parenting all the time. Who doesn’t? Why let that affect your relationship? Your sister is not your spouse.

Assumptions from Example 2:

My friends are all stable and have it so easy Never assume you know what is going on inside a family. Things are rarely as easy as they seem. It’s how we perceive and respond to life’s challenges that makes all the difference. Strive for resiliency, and wish your friends the same.
I have no luck This is a very typical feeling for those locked in a self-defeating cycle. Ask yourself, are you sure your situation is the result of some mystical quality called luck? Might there be other explanations? Also, are there things in your life you can be thankful for?
I could never go on a trip or buy a house One of the most admirable traits of resilient people is that they tend to see problems as challenges that are not permanent or all-encompassing. For those locked in patterns of negative thought the opposite holds true.
I’m a loser By what standards are you judging? Are you a loser because you are single? Are you a loser because you don’t make enough money to afford all the things you want? Is there a different way to look at your life? Is there a different way to evaluate success?
I’m stuck – I’ll never get a better job Another example of the same self-defeating thinking patterns, where a person sees no way around the obstacles or challenges in front of them. How have you conducted your job search? Have you made use of career services? Are there opportunities for you to enhance your education?

Assumptions from Example 3:

I’m too old to find a spouse In Canada, the number of people getting married for the first time in their 30s or 40s has grown in the last 10-15 years; and the numbers of those remarrying remains strong in this age range. ***
I need to be rich to attract someone special Do you know people who are not rich and famous who have successful relationships? Do you know an average person with a spouse you find attractive and admirable? The answer is probably yes.
I’m a terrible person for feeling jealous of my friends’ relationships These feelings are normal and feeling them does NOT make you a bad person. However, to dwell on these feelings is not healthy, and is a sign that you have developed a negative thought pattern. Don’t worry! You can break these cycles with resilience training!
I don’t have enough to offer someone special There may be truth in this statement, but only as it pertains to your current mindset. If you are bogged down with negative thoughts and self-doubts, you are not going to offer someone special what they want and deserve: laughter, happiness, interesting conversation, a positive outlook, and confidence.

When you begin to change your thought patterns, the world opens up. What once seemed beyond your grasp is now within it, and you can feel good about what you bring to any relationship!

One of the reasons this stage is so challenging is because people are often locked in self-defeating thought cycles. To perceive a thought as an assumption, as opposed to a truth, is very difficult for someone who has locked themselves into a pattern of defeat. If you are experiencing this it is vital that you break this cycle, question your assumptions, and shift your perspective.

***See statscan:

Step Five: Generate alternatives to your assumptions, and brainstorm possible solutions. If we agree that not all (or in some cases any) of these assumptions are true, what other options or ways of looking at things might there be? Input these alternatives, vet them, try them out. Do any of them ring true?

This is the stage when we apply the imagery of the light switch. When you are faced with a problem imagine the light switch (or whatever image works for you). Re-frame your initial assumptions about the challenge facing you, and brainstorm solutions. Think outside the box!  Be aware of old patterns of thinking creeping in, and continue to flip that mental switch. Remember, our patterns of thought may have been there for a long time (in some cases since childhood). You are trying to start a new habit, and it takes diligence and practice to make it stick.

Let’s refer back to Example 3 and come up with some different ways of looking at our assumptions and generating possible solutions.

I’m too old to find a spouse I know a couple of people my age and older who are single and dating. I should ask them where they meet people.

I’ve heard of dating sites devoted to older singles. Maybe I should give that a try?

I’ve started a new exercise routine to give me more energy. I already feel a little more hope for better things.

I need to be rich to attract someone special The world is full of happy couples, and certainly not all of them are wealthy. Maybe I should stop waiting for my perfect partner to fall from the sky. I think I’ll join a dating website.

Also I always see that man in the library and I’ve been dying to talk to him. Who knows, maybe I’ll actually say hi next time?

My friends are always inviting me out and I turn them down because I’m single. Maybe that’s the wrong approach? I should get out there more – you never know who I might meet!

I’m a terrible person because I feel jealous of my friends’ relationships I have to be willing to forgive myself for my less admirable random thoughts. I know they are not worthy of me. I think when I have those thoughts I’ll turn them around and focus on positive thoughts for my friends and their families.

Thinking good thoughts, and helping people makes me feel good and makes me feel connected.

I’m going to ask Dave and Aini the secret to their marital bliss! Maybe I’ll learn something!

I don’t have enough to offer someone special My friends always tell me I’m very thoughtful and insightful. They say I’m someone that they instinctively trust. Maybe I should start listening to them?

I haven’t played my guitar in ages but I think I’m going to start. I always feel more connected to people when I play.

I know what I want in a relationship now. And when I find it I’m going to cherish it. I will appreciate every moment, and I think that will shine through.

Step Six: Practice Re-framing your thoughts.  You have to retrain your brain’s muscle memory. That means, every time you reach a negative closed-loop conclusion, flick the light switch and reset your perspective. Like everything else, it gets much easier with practice. And much like the tennis swing, the judoka’s throw, the boxer’s punch, the more you do it, the more powerful it becomes.

Consider this truism (again from Kamal Sarma):

As you tackle the tribulations of life, insight helps you refrain from taking yourself, your challenges, and life itself too seriously, because you know that no matter what situation you are in, good or bad, it will change.

Remember that some people tend to see major challenges in their life as crises that are permanent, personal and all-pervasive. Resilient people tend to see life’s challenges as a normal part of life; they perceive them as isolated events that can be overcome and seek creative ways to solve their problems within a new context.

The Overcoming (part 2)

In an earlier post I quoted Helen Keller who wisely stated:

Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it”

The significance of this statement can be easily overlooked. And yet, this quote gets to the very heart of personal resiliency, particularly within the context of deep suffering such as an illness, serious injury or loss of a loved one.

I think most of us have at one time or another been moved by a story of great tragedy overcome. We are always sad for those who suffer, but for those who suffer and find a way to emerge happy and strong we have different emotions. We feel for their suffering, but we admire their courage. What’s more, sometimes we feel uplifted and inspired by their story. Hey, if they can deal with what they went through and live a full life, so can I! This is one of the great dichotomy’s of life: without evil and hardship, how would we know kindness and courage? Isn’t one partially defined and made possible by the other? In some ways, these stories of great courage help define the human experience.

A common reference point in this regard are veterans of WWI and WWII who knew suffering and loss in a way we (who did not live it) can never hope to understand. And yet, these wars defined their lives in a very real way. It is well documented* how some veterans expressed a sense of loss when the war was over. They did not want to return to the battlefield necessarily, but they missed the sense of ultimate purpose and comradery that they experienced in the trenches. Again, their courage and bonds of friendship were in some ways made possible by the horror of their experience.

Please let me be clear: I am not in favour of war and suffering! LOL Nor do I intend to in anyway diminish the suffering and repercussions of the lives they led after such terrible physical and emotional trauma. I ask your forgiveness as I try to bring life to an extremely elusive and difficult concept.  I am merely trying to illustrate that even within the greatest of tragedies (and sometimes because of them) we have an opportunity to redefine our relationship with the world; to find courage; to help and inspire others. I ask you, is this not beautiful?

When you are facing great hardships in your life, it is essential (let me stress this: essential), that you approach it as an opportunity to shine, to grow, to be proud of who you are and who you will become. Fortunately, we have countless examples of brave souls from every place and culture who have faced great hardship and chose courage and strength over despair. Use these as inspiration; use these as proof that as human beings we can overcome almost anything.

The challenge most of us have is consistency, and determination. We are inspired to overcome, but after a while we fall back into old habits, old ways of thinking. Why? Because it’s hard!!! It is much like the New Year’s resolution we make in good faith, but give up on a few months (or weeks!) later. As always, the key is to change our way of thinking. I know from my own experience over the last few years, that this can be a daily struggle, or even one we face moment to moment.

I recently learned that I have two permanent conditions that will be with me for the rest of my life. One is very physically painful and makes it difficult to do even the most basic daily activities. As of this moment, I have no ability to play any of the sports or exercises that I love so much, or even play with my daughters in the backyard. This is hard, and it makes me incredibly sad, frustrated and angry all at the same time. What is more, the pain is sharp, intense and constant. This is very tiring and wears on me. The other is a constant sensation of falling, and a dizziness when I try to read, write or type. The feelings of frustration and loss can be intense, and believe me when I tell you I feel them often.

For me, mental agility is vital to my survival and happiness. I must continuously fight the urge to feel sorry for myself, and constantly reset my perspective. In other words, I remind myself that this is an opportunity to build my courage, my will, my mental agility, my resilience. There are times I feel like less of a ‘man’ because I face muscle loss, I am in many ways unable to protect my family, and these conditions have the potential to threaten my livelihood. So I reset. I commit myself to continually trying to grow as a person, father and husband. I spend time envisioning how I want to be perceived and what it looks like for me to overcome. I fail sometimes, but I never give up.

I am thankful that I have the opportunity to challenge myself, face hardship, and overcome in a positive and hopefully inspiring way. I can almost hear you saying: ‘Are you kidding me? You’re trying to tell me you are happy about this? Come on!” The honest answer is yes and no.  Sometimes I am frustrated, feel sorry for myself, and feel sad at what I have lost. However, I truly am thankful for the opportunity it presents me to grow and succeed. There are many varied ways to measure success. For me success means that I am happy, productive and full of laughter.

Please indulge me if I have spent too much time talking about my own struggles. I want to make it clear that I am not comparing my personal challenges with the terrible horrors suffered by so many others now and throughout history. I am simply sharing a part of my own story.  I debated for a long time whether to share this information for fear that it may seem preachy and self-aggrandizing. In the end I decided to go for it because I think it is helpful to know that there is real-life experience behind the words – hopefully you agree.  Life is wonderful. Try to live every moment with grace, love and laughter. You won’t always succeed, but even to strive in this endeavour is an immeasurable reward.

* Look no further than comments of the indomitable Louis Zamperini

Fake it till you Make it

Many of you have heard of the adage: ‘fake it till you make it’. For my late and very great grandmother this meant that you put on a smile and think happy thoughts even when you are down. She was convinced this worked, and as with so many things in life it turns out my grandmother – a woman who personified personal resiliency – was right!

In the book ‘Blink’, Malcolm Gladwell references several clinical studies that were conducted to map the relationship between emotions and facial expressions. The researchers knew that certain emotions such as anger or sadness generate common facial expressions such as thin lips or frowns. But what they discovered was that the reverse was also true. In other words, our facial expressions have a profound impact on our emotional state. So, for instance, if we were an actor who spent the day frowning or miming sadness, it would produce profoundly negative feelings or what the researchers described as “marked changes in the autonomic nervous system” (Gladwell, Blink, 2005, p. 206).

By contrast, the physical reproduction of a smile generates positive emotions in test subjects. We all know that physical exercise generates endorphins which elevate our emotional state. Though the science behind it is not as well understood, a smile has a similar effect in the human nervous system. Once again, science has managed to catch up to folk wisdom many years after the fact.. :)

Many of us have experienced a related truism: when we smile and approach the world with positive emotions, we tend to attract positive people and events. Which leads us to another common saying first penned by Stanley West: “smile and the world smiles with you…”.

So what do we take from all this? In practical terms my advice is simple: take advantage of every happy moment, especially when you are in the midst of despair. Sometimes when we are struggling our mind becomes our own worst enemy. Let me illustrate with a simple example. Melissa is facing depression and spends most of her time feeling downright horrible. She is watching a movie and before she realizes it she is lost in the moment. One of her favourite comedic actors does something funny and she starts to laugh. But before she can truly enjoy the moment a little voice inside her reminds her: ‘Hey wait! You’re supposed to be upset!’ The happy moment is squashed before it begins and Melissa’s cycle of depression deepens. This might seem simplistic but this is how it works for many people.

Once again, it is essential for those who wish to develop personal resiliency to be aware of this pattern and make a mental decision to break it. If we take the example of Melissa watching the movie, I would have advised her to pause, question that little voice inside her, reject it, and allow herself to laugh and enjoy the moment. Picture that little voice as the tiny devil on your shoulder as in the old Flintstone’s cartoons (oh my have I ever dated myself!). Don’t trust that guy! Instead, think of life as made up of millions of little moments for happiness. You can choose to embrace them, as my wonderful grandmother did, or not. One path leads to fulfillment and happiness; the other does not. For those individuals seeking personal resiliency and fulfillment, there is only one choice to make. Smile, my friends, whenever you can. :)

Lessons from the Storm

I’m in the storm; I seek shelter.

When I have the courage to turn and look back

I feel wind that brings change,

And rain that cleans.

Thunder bursting with might

Reminds me I sometimes hear, not listen,

And of the dark, also is light.