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Get unstuck: the power of the reframe

Updated: Mar 15, 2023

Have you ever felt stuck in something or overwhelmed by it? (Yes, of course! Haven't we all?) Maybe there's a rock in your stomach, a holding of breath, a tightness across the shoulders. You know you need to get past it, through it to be able to succeed with less angst, more ease.

When it comes down to it, what’s in your control is you. What you think, feel, do. Many of us know this and it can be hard and it can feel impossible.

Rooted in our beliefs is how we look at things. Our beliefs and views are our choice to change, as impossible as it can seem. I’m not talking about extremes outside our control, or really anything totally out of our control. I’m talking about what’s in our control, starting with exploring how we choose to view a situation.

“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.” ~Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

I was stuck and at a loss on how to unstuck. My coach and I drilled down and discovered we were actually looking at a long-held belief of mine. It skewed my perspective, the stories in my head, my anxiety around the topic. My coach asked me, “how could you reframe this as a positive?”

I stifled a snort, a scoff of sorts. Flummoxed, I said to myself, “It can’t be done”. She softly asked again, then paused – as coaches do. Silence stretched. I reflect my brain was attracted to the idea of a positive in what had seemed so bleak. I pondered.

How on earth could this be reframed? I imagine various synapses sparked. Lo and behold, a positive statement was born firing a chemical cocktail in my brain. Before, I couldn’t see how else to look at the situation, my beliefs were entrenched over years, maybe even to childhood. Then, the aha – or as I like to call it – the gamma moment!

Science and psychological research support the validity of the reframe's power.

Science supports the power of the Aha! We are hearing increasingly more about neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to change throughout our lives (not solely in our formative years as was once believed). Modern brain studies, using fMRI and EEG technologies, find bursts of gamma waves fire with a moment of insight. This creates links across the brain and engages the area responsible for perceiving and complex processing leading to creation of new connections (superior temporal gyrus I think, but don’t quote me). These connections can stimulate our thinking to overcome the brain’s previously established resistance to change, such as from beliefs that do not serve us.

Please know, the gamma moment cannot do it alone. For stickiness, we must “make a deliberate effort to hardwire an insight by paying it repeated attention.”1 What small action can we take to keep a new belief front of mind? My positive reframe lives as a printout on my wall. For weeks, I read it out loud most days – paying repeated attention – hardwiring. Now I use it only as a reminder if needed, continuing to deepen that new connection. Tomorrow, I will take my reframe off my wall. I've got this! I chose a different attitude and I've shifted. I am, in thought, behaviour and brain wiring, now different.

Psychological research supports the power of reframing and that it is vital for improving performance. In one study (Autin and Croizet 2012), a subset of students trying to overcome a difficult challenge were coached “to reframe the struggle as a normal sign of learning.”2 In another study (Jamieson et al. 2010), some students facing an important exam were coached to reframe “anxiety as an aid to performance.”2 Compared to the students where there was no intervention, measuring task completion and scores respectively, those coached had improved performance.

That day with my coach I got unstuck by dismantling and replacing a long-standing belief. First, we explored to uncover that belief (an important step). Then, through asking this simple positive reframe question, my mind opened to new possibilities in how I could choose to view the situation in a way that got me moving forward. This potential richness from her appreciative (vs. issue focused) approach is also based in neuroscience, by the way (another story – maybe next time).

I've used the reframe with my clients many, many times. Each time, it feels like a flyer. "How on earth will he reframe this?" pops into my head AND absolute faith, "I know he can do it". Time and again, I lean into the pause and marvel at what brilliance sparks and how it unsticks and allows us to move forward.

Where are you stuck? What is the real challenge for you there? AND how might you reframe it as a positive? How might you be different? What possibilities might open for you as a result?

Author: Toni Crow, CEC PCC PQC, Toni Crow Leadership Coaching


1 D Rock, J Schwartz; The Neuroscience of Leadership, Leadership, Issue 43, May 30, 2006 (originally published by Booz & Company)

2 LG Bolman, TE Deal; Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, p15; John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2017

Image: Pixabay, Gerd Altmann

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