The Psychology of Perspective
Henry David Thoreau put it well: “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see”.
A favourite childhood activity for my brothers and me was building our pirate ship in the lounge room. A mattress became the deck, a broom became the mast, and multiple sheets fastened to various furniture pieces were the sails. The anchor was a dustpan tied to a skipping rope. With strewn blankets and cushions (stormy seas) as our surrounds, we’d plunder the kitchen for provisions (cordial and crackers) or loot the TV cabinet for buried treasure (Mum and Dad’s sports trophies).
To anyone else, the scene was a haphazard wreckage of bedding, but to us it was “The Mutinous Sea Raider” – the greatest pirate ship to ever sail the ocean (or rather, the Seven Seas).
Imaginative play can teach us a lot about perspective. My brothers and I weren’t deluded about the materials we used to construct our pirate game. We just chose to see them differently.
Interpreting our experiences is one of our primary mental tasks. We interpret our experiences using frames. A frame is a mental structure that contains any combination of our expectations, our assumptions, and our beliefs. We apply frames to our experiences so that we can make meaning from them. The function of meaning-making is to create our perspectives.
However, our frames aren’t always helpful. Most of us have frames that developed largely through unconscious processing of experiences we had as children. During childhood, the part of the brain that categorises, evaluates and filters information is underdeveloped.
Because of this, children can take in information and assume it to be true, rather than thinking objectively about it. So, the boy who is bullied and told he is stupid and unlikeable assumes he is stupid and unlikeable. The girl whose parents neglected her assumes she is unwanted and unlovable. Without a trustworthy adult with a mature brain to provide guidance and correction, these negatively biased experiences can become negatively biased frames in adulthood.
Thankfully, the frames that we develop in childhood don’t have to be the ones we continue to use as adults. The process of exchanging old frames for new ones is called reframing.
Reframing involves a conscious shift in perspective. It requires a change in our assumptions, expectations and beliefs. Because our thoughts influence our emotions, reframing often involves altering our emotional outlook too.
Reframing does not change the facts or evidence of a situation. It is therefore not denial or ignorance or fantasy. Rather, it is a willingness to challenge our existing thoughts about a situation, recognising that our current perspective is not the only perspective. The purpose of reframing is to change the meaning that we make from our situation by choosing to see it differently. A reframe is always ‘up’; that is to say, the meaning that the new frame provides is more hopeful and helpful than the old frame.
Here are some common reframing examples:
· A difficult problem becomes an opportunity to learn.
· A disappointment becomes spark for renewed determination.
· A weakness becomes potential for growth.
· A significant delay becomes a lesson in patience.
Reframing is both courageous and radical. Old frames, whilst they may be dysfunctional, are also familiar. Reframing takes effort. But it is also essential. We arrive in adulthood with biases in our thinking. Left unchecked, these biases can significantly alter the way we view what happens to us. These biases can also strengthen our negative views of ourselves and others. None of this is helpful for our mental health.
Here are some suggestions for how to reframe:
Consider your frames. These are the perspectives you automatically and habitually use to view your experiences. Identify the assumptions, expectations and beliefs that are active within this frame. Pay particular attention to whether they are negatively biased. Not all frames are negatively biased – but sometimes even the more positive ones can benefit from a reframe.
Challenge your frames. Recall a recent situation that you viewed using one of your frames. What was the meaning that you drew from the situation based on the frame? Is there another perspective you could take that would be more helpful?
Establish your new frames. Choose to see your situation in another way. You can do this by challenging the negatively biased thinking process of the old frame. Other helpful ways of establishing your new frame is to think about how you might advise a friend to consider the situation, or how the wisest person you know might view it.
Knowledge and instruction about reframing means that you can start developing new perspectives right away. How heartening to know that we can change the way we think. Research in the field of neuroscience supports this with evidence that the brain is adaptable across the lifespan. It’s never too late to reframe your experiences and adopt more hopeful, helpful perspectives that will add encouragement and resilience to your life.