In my last post I asked where thoughts came from, and introduced the concept of what I called ‘MetaThinking’ – the process of thinking about your thinking.
I also talked about the fact that “…our thoughts drive our actions – for better or worse”.
What I want to ask in this post is…
…wouldn’t it be better if it was for better?
The field of Positive Psychology has overwhelmingly shown us that, not only are we driven by our thoughts, but we see things through the filter of our thoughts. You have probably heard the phrase ‘Perception is Reality’ – and reality, like beauty, is very much in the eye of the beholder. I found a great quote that sums this up…
We do not see things as they are – we see them as we are
Attrib: Anaïs Nin, (1903-1977) author, journaler
Steven Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People makes the same point – though at greater length
“Each of us tends to think we see things as they are, that we are objective. But this is not the case. We see the world, not as it is, but as we are, or, as we are conditioned to see it. When we open our mouths to describe what we see, we in effect describe ourselves, our perceptions, our paradigms.”
While it is certainly true that our actions arise from our thoughts, what Positive Psychology has shown us is that our thoughts – at least the ones we become aware of – are capable of being changed. Perhaps it would be clearer to say that you can change the way you ‘receive’ those thoughts – the way you react to those thoughts. One approach to MetaThinking, therefore is to change (‘reframe’) the way you respond to a situation.
How can this be? How can people look at the same information, experience the same events, and come up with completely different interpretations? Then, how can we take our initial (sometimes very strong) reaction and, with practice, dramatically change how we think about it? Despite this almost seeming to defy belief – there is a very logical, neurological explanation!
Perceptions of ‘reality’ differ so widely because our brain doesn’t work like a video camera that faithfully records and plays back on demand: it is constantly, unceasingly interpreting and processing incoming information. By some estimates your brain receives ~11 million bits of information every second from your environment – but can only process ~40 bits per second! To handle all this information the brain becomes, according to author Shawn Achor in ‘The Happiness Advantage’, a kind of supercharged Spam Filter. It chooses what 40 bits of information it is going to pay attention to, and what 10,999,960 bits of information it is just going to ignore!
How does your brain decide which bits to choose? We don’t really know to be honest, but it probably has something to do with the sum total of our lived experiences and that germinating, marinating ‘undermind’ I mentioned in my last post. However I’m less concerned here about ‘the answer’ than I am about ‘the process’
Ignoring the multi-million math for a moment, what this really means is that your ‘reality’ or – you could even say, your ‘truth’ – is a choice. So, what you choose to focus on shapes your perception and interpretation of the world. Another way of saying this is that, for each of us, there are many ‘realities that are real’ and many ‘truths that are true’. It all depends on which particular ’40 bits of information’ you choose to focus on! Reframing is so powerful because it enables us to choose an interpretation of ‘reality’ that is more positive than negative. Here’s why this is a good idea…
”…The better your brain is at using its energy to focus on the positives, the greater will be your chances of success”
Shawn Achor, author Before Happiness
As an aside to this quote, Shawn Achor is a researcher, author and speaker known for his advocacy of Positive Psychology. I will be writing more about this exciting area of research in future posts but, briefly, what Positive Psychology has shown us is that people who take a positive view of life have many more advantages than people who take a negative view. You can learn more about this by linking to Shawn Achor’s TED talk The Happiness Advantage.
Ok – so what does this reframing look like in real life? There are many examples and situations where reframing can work – and I’ll be working my way through these in future posts. To get us started however, I’ll tell you about a very powerful reframing example I have used in my own programs.
A few years ago I facilitated a number of Lifestyle Change programs at the Virginia Piper Center in Scottsdale AZ. The participants were cancer survivors, mainly women, who all understood the importance of a healthy lifestyle. Not only was their oncologist telling them this, but they were also telling themselves – with little success. Time and again they started a new exercise or diet or stress reduction program only to ‘fail’ after a few weeks. In fact, many of the group told me that their main experience of goal setting had been failing to meet those goals!
As part of my program (Called Life 2.0) they learned to reframe the kind of question they asked themselves when thinking about goals. Instead of asking what they usually asked “Why didn’t I make my goal?” or, more likely, “Why did I screw up again?!), they asked a completely different kind of question.
“What did I learn (from not making my goal) that I can use to set my
Do you see the power of that reframing? A choice between Failure and Learning: a choice between Positive and Negative: a choice between Motivation and Resignation.
If you choose ‘Learning’ (“I didn’t make my goal – what did I learn from this?”), you are far more likely to ultimately achieve your goal than if you choose ‘Failure’ (“I didn’t make my goal – Why the #$%@ do I always screw up?”).
Here’s an actual quote from one of the participants that perfectly illustrates this point
“I learned to put myself first and not beat myself up for all the things I ‘should’ have done. To think about what I learned, rather than where I ‘failed’”.
All that ‘beating themselves up’ they were used to doing, simply beat them down – and they were, essentially, and repeatedly learning how to ‘fail’!
Of course there was – and still is – far more to Life 2.0 than just that one focus on reframing. However, overwhelmingly, participants reported this particular skill as the most powerful ‘learning’ they took away from the program. In fact, many of them told me they actually felt ‘relieved’ at being able to ask themselves “What did I learn” instead of the “Why did I screw up?” question they they had been used to asking for so long. They also said it was the skill that they were most likely to continue to use after the program had ended.
While the “What did I Learn?” reframing question is a powerful stand-alone skill, in a group setting it can go to a whole new level of power – for two reasons.
- Individual members share their asking and answering with the group, so that the positivity is communal – and absorbed by all.
- Individual members ask and answer this same question whether they ‘made’ their goal or not. So…
You didn’t make your goal?
What did you learn?
You did make your goal?
What did you learn?
It’s all positive!
Think about it
QUESTION: How will you think when you ask “What did I learn?”
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