Have you ever changed your mind about something? Maybe you gave cursory thought to an idea and suddenly that day something you’d held onto your entire life seemed trivial or silly and you just let it go. It’s as if you had changed a consistent thought pattern.
Framing refers to the creation and modification of a narrative context in which you evaluate or judge actions, events, decisions, or circumstances.
One way we make sense of the world is comparing hypothetical alternatives to what we are experiencing. Shawn Achor in the Happiness Advantage book (there’s also an audiobook available) discusses such “counter-examples” in his book through a bank robbery story.
The Bank Robbery
Let’s pretend that the situation described below is *not* hypothetical. Let’s assume this actually happened and you are shot in the arm. The word hypothetical will be used to describe situations other than this truth of being shot in the arm.
You go to the bank to deposit a cheque. Armed robbery happens while you are there. Through no fault of your own, you get shot in the arm while the robber is being arrested. Is this a good or bad event? Are you fortunate or unfortunate?
A common framing for this event is that it is bad: both that the robbery occurred at all, and that you got shot in the arm. In fact some go on to talk about lost wages, damaged social commitments, etc. They fantasize about the catastrophe. They even get hung up on the unfairness of reality. Why did it have to happen while I was there? Of all of the people in the bank, why did I have to be the one to get shot? Some go so far as to obsess about the past, dwelling on every little detail they might have changed if they could have seen the future. If I had just got to work instead… If I had arrived ten minutes later… if I had just gone tomorrow… If I had skipped breakfast… If I had had breakfast…
This framing can produce feelings of regret, sadness, anger, frustration, guilt, and many more – even violation that it happened at all. These feelings can escalate and amplify while you continue to dwell on the past and consider new damages that will happen (since I missed work, I almost lost my job – and it wasn’t even my fault).
This destructive cycle can lead to thoughts of fury, indignation, melancholy, and depression. When we perceive unjust happenings, we can socially isolate ourselves and stop trusting people who might similarly wrong us. We can feel alienated from our communities and social support networks. This is the danger of experiencing trauma. It threatens to undermine all that makes us socially and mentally well. This too is the danger of catastrophizing, framing things as violating experiences.
Please understand: this entire mindset is based in the comparison between being shot in the arm (what happened) and not being shot in the arm (fiction). However if you were shot in the arm, thinking about alternatives to the past is fantasy used for judgment. That means you can change your judgment by changing your fantasy.
It’s not uncommon for people to frame this situation as good: that a certain number of robberies happen per year; that we cannot control them; that only one bullet got fired; that of that bullet only one person was hurt; that you were only shot in the arm and will likely make a full recovery; that the robber was caught and will not rob while imprisoned; that not a single person got killed or seriously injured; that people took care of you; that you live in a city with access to healthcare; (if you’re Canadian or many kinds of European) that you live in a country where the hospital portion was free; that you have time off to focus on catching up with social relationships and me-time.
The second framing can produce feelings of hope, gratitude, well-being, love, luck (to have access), confidence (to recover from crises), and more. It is based on the comparison of being shot in the arm to even worse outcomes.
That is the importance of selecting your comparative fictions well, the importance of framing after something has happened.
Preparedness versus Positive Thinking
Some people find the notion of positive thinking empowering. Others find it naïve. There’s a power to imagining reality as the worst case scenario. That power is combing through every detail to find ones that could have gone better empowering you to change your future by taking preventative measures. This type of analysis though, carries an enormous emotional cost, especially if done all the time or if done on traumatic events. Use this with extreme caution or you might find yourself with anxiety and a low quality of life.
When approaching events that could re-occur (bank robberies and lightning strikes almost exclusively call for a hopeful, positive framing to be healthier and happier), it might be useful to search for things that could have gone differently; however, don’t beat yourself up about these things. It is okay to just take a positive approach.
Having said that, if you do decide to broach the awful series of events that led to things going seriously wrong for you, remember to look at them with a very neutral, compassionate, forgiving overtone. You-from-the-past didn’t know what You-in-the-present knows. It’s totally unfair to judge that person based on things they didn’t know instead asserting they “should” have known. That’s bullshit. There is no should about knowledge. There is only the past as it occurred, and what you can do now moving forward. There is no blame no matter how ludicrous what you or others did may seem now in hindsight.
Victim shaming needs to be mentioned here: when something traumatic occurs like being beaten up, shot, sexually assaulted, or raped, the obvious conclusion is someone should not have been beaten up, shot, sexually assaulted, or raped.
It is completely normal and still inappropriate always to tell yourself (or someone else) what they could have done differently. Not only are you inventing a hurtful fiction and beating them over the head with it, you’re damaging their ability to trust themselves and others, and trust is the underpinning to intimacy. Don’t do anything to damage the ability to trust and love oneself in yourself or others. It’s bad news bears.
Try to give people resources more than you give advice (writes the blogger offering advice) – so if you do give advice, give a lot of resources as well. If you’re upset with yourself, pursue resources to improve and please do so as much as possible without judgment. My friend Mel says frequently that “there is enough judgment in the world already – so stop judging yourself!” She also has a blog full of amazing consent and relationship resources you might want to look at.