We are not disturbed by things but rather by the view we take of them. When we meet with troubles, become anxious or distressed, let us never blame anything but our opinions about things.
-Epictetus 55-135 AD
A tiny brown field mouse scuttled across the floor of my daughter’s classroom. She described the “adorable” little mouse to a fellow teacher who replied, “Oh no! Don’t say endearing things about it! You don’t want to develop an emotional bond!” So, during the course of the week, my daughter called the janitor on several occasions to remove “Adolf” and “Lucifer” and “Judas“. A mouse by another name isn’t nearly so cute. Calling them something else helped soften the blow as they were shoveled off, still struggling on glue traps.
The Weight of a Name
The labels we put on ourselves, others, and even our circumstances have everything to do with interpretation or perception. It is not what is happening but how we perceive what is happening that determines our reaction to it. Our perceptions are largely determined by subjective beliefs that usually come from parental, cultural, or peer influences.
What is stressful to one person may be perceived as an opportunity to another. What is terrifying to one might be seen as an opportunity to test one’s mettle to another. Mistakes might be seen as humiliating or an opportunity for growth.
I love classical music. I have a friend who likens classical music to nails on a chalk board. What is miserable and annoying to her is delightful to me.
Reframing is another name for changing our interpretation. Putting a new frame around a picture can change its entire look.
If I think someone is breaking into my home, I will naturally react with fear. But if I hear my son call out, “It’s just me…sorry I forgot to call (!)” I will eventually calm down and reinterpret the entire situation. Not only will my thoughts about the situation change, but also my physical and emotional reactions. I will relax and maybe even laugh about it…maybe.
When we reframe something in therapy, we look at it another way to remove the negative beliefs or feelings associated with it. We consider the possibility that there is another way to look at a person who has hurt us or a difficult and painful situation.
Mirror to Others
Let’s take our children for example. Most of us are able to grasp that a two-year-old tantrum is unpleasant but not unexpected. It is developmentally appropriate for toddlers to begin to assert themselves, show some resistance, and even fall apart from time to time. We tell ourselves, “he’s tired or hungry…or being a typical 2-year-old” and thus we reframe.
When our teenagers try to assert themselves and have opinions that differ from ours, how do we react? Do we take it personally and label them “rebellious” or “disrespectful”? Or do we consider that they are struggling to find themselves however clumsy that may be?
The labels we put on others have a powerful influence. We become what we believe about ourselves. And what we believe about ourselves is what has been mirrored to us first by parents and then by peers and others. What are we mirroring to others? What labels do we put on them?
Victim or Survivor?
An example of how powerful our self-talk is might be what we tell ourselves about failure. “I’m such a loser! What an idiot! What made me think I could succeed?” carries a different kind of energy to it than “Ouch! That really hurts, but I am a survivor and I will try again.” The first comment is full of shame and focused on the negative. With that internal criticism, I slap negative labels on myself, not to mention using all-or-nothing and over-generalized reasoning.
The second comment is honest but hopeful. Thinking of myself as a survivor as opposed to victim is really powerful. If I am laid off from a job do I see myself as a failure or view this as an opportunity to find something better? Again, we become what we believe about ourselves. What labels do we put on ourselves or our circumstances?
A while back I went to a conference on resiliency. Resiliency is the ability to bounce back after hardship. Resiliency has everything to do with reframing the negative into something truthful and reasonably hopeful. The speaker at this conference told us she travels around the country and she noted that there are two “scrappy”, tough cities that embody the spirit of resiliency: New Orleans and New York. Both cities were brought to their knees by tragedy—Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and 9-11—and both determined not just to survive but thrive.
Emotions and Energy
The entire conference was fascinating, but one story stood out. The speaker, Melissa Bradley, talked about the energy different emotions give off. She said, in a nut shell, that shame gives off the lowest frequency, the lowest level of energy. In this state it is hard to make changes. Love was among the highest vibration of energy. When we label others or ourselves or our circumstances with harsh, negative, shame-filled names, we lower the energy which can be used for positive change.
So next time, ask yourself, “How can I look at this -situation or person or myself-differently?”
Suzanne Jones, BSN, MA is a Licensed Professional Counselor. In addition to being a registered nurse with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, she holds certification as a National Certified Counselor (NCC). She is a member of the Louisiana Counseling Association and the American Mental Health Counseling Association.