How To Reframe Difficult Thoughts Into Something More Constructive

A painting that looks hideous in one frame might look sublime in another. In art gallery terms, then, an optimist is someone who customarily places life’s paintings into frames that make them look beautiful, and a pessimist is someone who places them into ugly frames.

William B Irvine, The Stoic Challenge

The above quote from William B Irvine comes from a chapter in his book The Stoic Challenge called “Playing The Frame Game.”

In the chapter, he describes a technique employed by the ancient Stoics whereby they sought to find new perspectives on setbacks they faced to prevent these setbacks from disrupting their tranquility.

The technique is commonly known today as reframing.

Simply put, by choosing another frame, another (more constructive) way of looking at the issues we face, we can undermine the instinctive temptation to get frustrated, angry, or otherwise upset.

This ultimately helps us focus on our response and makes us more likely to overcome such challenges.

The following note to himself by Leonardo da Vinci applies as much to how we frame life’s events as it does to the art of painting:

If the painter wishes to see beauties that charm him, it lies within his power to create them; and if he wishes to see monstrosities that are frightful, buffoonish, or ridiculous, or pitiable, he can be lord thereof.

To demonstrate the technique with some everyday examples, here are five simple Stoic reframes.

Five Simple Stoic Reframes

This: “I face a new problem every day, I can’t cope.”

Can become this: “I can seek the value in whatever happens. I can’t choose when adversity strikes but I can choose how I react to it. I am more capable than I think.”

This: “Someone criticized me and now I feel useless.”

Can become this: “Criticism is just another opinion. I can calmly examine what has been said. If it’s constructive, I can use it to improve. If not, I can laugh at it and move on.”

This: “I have worked hard to get what I have. I’m terrified of losing it.”

Can become this: “I appreciate what I have but accept it is on loan from the universe. I have more freedom to enjoy what I have when I drop my inflexible attachments.”

This: “My friend upset me and I can’t stop thinking about it.”

Can become this: “If I am upset, the upset is in me – therefore I have the power to remove it. I am not disturbed by events, people, things. I am only disturbed by the views I take of them.”

This: “I wish I could control more in my life.”

Can become this: “I’m lucky I only control my own thoughts & actions, or my responsibilities would be endless. I control my opinion, intention, desire/aversion. In other words, whatever is my own doing.”