Reframing negatives as positives
Every cloud has a silver lining may well be a cliché, but that does not mean that the idea does not contain more than an element of truth. Of course, it would be an exaggeration to argue that every negative (cloud) has within it a positive (a silver lining) of some description, but it is certainly the case that negative events will often also bring some degree of positivity.
In a sense, this is a reflection of the complexity of life. There is a very common tendency to want to simplify things as much as possible, and that often leads to an oversimplification, a distortion of reality – a situation has to be either good or bad; it can’t be a mixture of both. Proverbs and slogans will often fall into this category. What we are dealing with, then, is the need to recognise that the complexity of life means that a high proportion of the situations we encounter will have both positive and negative elements – both light and shade. It can be helpful to be aware of this when engaged in situations seen predominantly as negative. If we are not careful, we can allow the negative impact of a situation to blind us to any positive elements.
Much of this has to do with perception. It is very easy to perceive a situation that has a strong negative element to it in purely negative terms and thereby lose sight of other aspects. We see what is in focus (the negatives) and disregard the blurry bits that are not in focus (the positives). This is understandable, as it reflects a defence mechanism – that is, our tendency to identify and focus on threats, aspects of a situation that pose a risk to us. That in itself, is a good thing, of course, but it needs to be balanced out by a more holistic view that sees the bigger picture, including the positives.
One important aspect of this is what is known as ‘reframing’. This can be a very useful tool. It involves redefining negative issues in positive terms – for example:
- I am disappointed I didn’t get that job -> I am glad that the tension over that job application is over now.
- Being ill recently has been a major inconvenience -> Being ill has made me realise that I need to take things easier and look after myself better.
- I was really annoyed that Sam let me down -> It is good to know that, apart from Sam, I have so many people in my life that I can rely on for help when I need it.
One note of caution, if you are trying to help someone else to reframe (that is, it isn’t just about reframing your own experiences), you need to be very sensitive and tactful in how you put things across. For example, if someone is feeling sad, annoyed, disappointed or angry, saying something like: ‘Never mind, look on the bright side’ can go down very badly, as it can so easily come across as you not being sensitive to their feelings. Considerable caution is called for!
Reframing can be important for motivation. If we focus on the negatives of a situation and lose sight of the positive elements, then it is very easy for us to become demotivated and lose heart. Having a more balanced approach to such matters gives us a much firmer basis for feeling motivated and therefore for being in a stronger position to achieve whatever it is we are trying to do.
Reframing is not about denying or minimising problems and difficulties; it is about seeing them as part of a wider picture, and that gives us more hope and a more balanced understanding.