I was speaking recently to a client who is struggling intensely with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on her life. The changes she’s been forced to make have been extremely difficult to navigate, and include needing to refocus so much of her time to help her three young children with their remote schooling and managing their time, while struggling in her chaotic, high-pressure job. This job has become unsustainable given her company’s poor leadership and lack of organization and a systematized work flow. On top of all that, she is facing the fear and trauma of trying to support her 89-year-old father who now has Covid-19 but is many states away and all alone.
In times like these, our mental capabilities and the strength we possess internally, become far more apparent. When crisis hits, and when we’re faced with deep challenges that we haven’t been trained to deal with, how well do we do?
Do we fall into a deep depression, unable to get out of bed, or are we able to face the challenges head on, with strength, positivity, and resilience? For most of us, it’s almost always somewhere in between—we might have good days when the sun is shining, things are looking up and we feel we’re able to tackle what’s in front of us. But on other days, we find ourselves slipping into despair and hopelessness.
Years ago, after leaving a very unhappy corporate life behind, I embarked on a three-year training process as a marriage and family therapist, and later co-founded a therapeutic practice. When I look back on that training and experience, what I learned and how it changed my life, I’m forever grateful for all the challenges that led me to leave my corporate identity behind, and make that change, although at times it was very tough.
Of all the therapeutic concepts and strategies I learned during that time, there have been several approaches that have been true game-changers for me and now my clients. One approach that stands out as particularly helpful in fear-inducing and challenging times is the positive reframe.
The positive reframe
Simply put, the positive reframe is a way to look at the experiences and situations of your life in a realistic way that fits the facts well, while at the same time allowing yourself to see greater possibility, positivity, hope, control and expansion in what is happening and what has transpired.
The reframe shifts your “frame” of reference and helps you see your current situation differently so that you can recognize—and act on—new positive opportunities and changes that are possible. And it focuses on what you can control, not everything that is outside of your sphere of influence. Instead of doubling down only on the dark and terrible about what has transpired, and what you’ve lost, the positive reframe lets you recognize—and believe in—the potential future benefits from what has happened. And it helps you focus on what you can take action on that makes you feel less powerless.
As an example, another client of mine who recently reached out for career change help, shared that she has been mistreated and disrespected in her job for many years, but the pace of the job was such that she felt that she could never carve out the time to do the work of getting a better job or changing her career.
Despite the challenges that this new remote work situation has created for her, and a heap more mistreatment she’s getting, she finds that working from home and reducing her daily commute by 2 hours has given her a brand new perspective on life. She has more positive energy and critical breathing room (and additional control over her own time and how she manages that time) so she can finally engage in the necessary steps to pivot her career to leverage her talents to do more meaningful work with people she respects. She has reframed her thinking about this difficult time, and embraced the potential positive—the concept that she can finally now take the reins on her career, and commit to doing something proactive to change her situation.
Other examples of positive reframes that can change your perspective and trajectory:
Pervasive negative thought: My teen son had such a great summer trip planned that he was so looking forward to. Now it’s all canceled and he is completely derailed and lost.
Positive Reframe: Even though Dan’s summer plans have had to be canceled, perhaps there’s a summer internship that he can do online that would move him forward in an exciting way, that might even be better for him. I’m going to help him with the process of exploring that.
Pervasive negative thought: I hate my job but with the pandemic there’s no way I can look for a new job now. I’m too scared about losing my paycheck.
Positive Reframe: Even though the pandemic has changed the face of employment for many people, others ARE landing great new jobs, and are expanding their networks online and finding great mentors and sponsors that can help them find terrific new roles, now or in the future. I’m going to start doing that today.
Pervasive negative thought: I feel so isolated and alone right now. I hate this! I miss my friends and my days just go on endlessly.
Positive Reframe: While I can’t physically see my friends as I used to, or do the social activities like singing or going to the gym together that made me so happy, there have to be things I can do that would fill my day with more meaning and joy. Where can I help out, connect with others, and offer my talents and abilities to people who are in need? What new ways can I be of help?
Pervasive negative thought: I’ve interviewed for 10 jobs and I don’t move forward to the next round. I’m obviously a loser—I don’t have anything going for me.
Positive Reframe: Do I actually, really, want these jobs? Or am I pursuing them only because I think I have to? Maybe I’m not getting these because in my heart I don’t want to do this kind of work anymore and it would be more wasted time in my life if I got them? If that were true, what type of work do I really want to pursue at this stage in my life? Let me do some work now to figure that out.
The key steps to achieving and acting on the positive reframe are:
Gain greater awareness of what exactly is stressing and upsetting you most now and where you feel helpless (the “cost” of this situation)
Understand and recognize what you feel you’ve lost and why you are so upset. What is causing you the most distress? And how is this situation making you feel “less than” or unable to cope? How is it making you feel that you don’t have what it takes to thrive? What have you lost?
Be open to seeing the potential “benefits” of the situation
OK, so you’re clear on the negatives of this situation. What are the potential benefits? Perhaps you’ve been longing to write that memoir or start your blog or podcast. Could now be the perfect time? Perhaps your child lost her chance to go away to summer camp— could it be possible that something better is waiting in the wings for her? Perhaps those jobs in marketing that you’ve interviewed for and didn’t get are exactly the jobs you don’t want and wouldn’t thrive in. What roles call to you now to pursue?
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
When we feel helpless, out of control and hopeless, we falter, and life because extremely hard to endure. But when we shift our attitude and consciously “choose our own way,” mustering the bravery and power to take the reins and say, “There IS something I can do here, to better my situation, to improve my attitude,” our lives transform.
Decide how you want to feel, then do the things that generate those feelings
My daughter recently shared with me the powerful Isolation Journals—a daily creativity project to help us make sense of challenging times, from Suleika Jaouad (watch her amazing TED talk What Almost Dying Taught Me About Living, for powerful inspiration). One of the journal exercises — Day 51 — was to write a “To Feel” list rather than a “To Do” list. The idea is to name your deepest yearnings and aspirations. Then take time with each of them, “teasing out the nuances of what each contains with depth and specificity…” Then review your list again.
“Are your priorities, habits, and rituals serving these feelings? What steps can you take to honor the items on your “to-feel” list.”
What do you want to feel in your life, and how can you reframe the way you are perceiving your challenges so you can recognize the potential positive and do something different that uplifts and enlivens you? What can you do today to take the control back on your life, and help yourself feel better, stronger and more powerful, even in the face of what you’ve lost?
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