Duck or Rabbit

Is this a duck or a rabbit ….. or both?

The ‘reframe’ is a well-known process in the world of therapy. It arises when I experience a sudden change in my perception of my world. Our perceptions are not the same as the sensations we experience.

Over the years our perceptions have altered according to the times in which we are living. Even our understanding of the emotions we feel change – generation by generation.

Here’s a fun example of what a ‘reframe’ (or Paradigm’ shift) is:

Butterflies have the same experience when they pupate!

Such an experience triggers a sudden shift in my perspective. This can arise when the information available to my brain is ambiguous, inconsistent or contradictory. I am forced to look out other explanations for things or to fill in gaps in order to establish some coherent meaning.

The contribution of Thomas Kuhn

Reframing is such an important human experience that it has been written about by sociologists, philosophers and scientists, not just psychologists. One of the most interesting sources, from my point of view, is an American Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) published by the University of Chicago Press.

For further discussion, visit Dr. Saul McLeod‘s essay based around Kuhn’s Cycle of Change in respect of models of change. At the risk of being patronising to you, my reader: you can translate that term ‘paradigm’ into ‘view of the world’.

I recognise the existence of the ‘reframe’ contradicts one of my own central points: that effective change depends on a series of small steps made up of small defeats and small victories. Kuhn criticises the practice of “development-by-accumulation”. To me, accumulation still happens between shifts in a world view.

Accumulation vs unexpected shifts in perspective

I would argue that it pays to take your time ‘accumulating’, and not to assume there will be a major shift in your perspective today, or tomorrow. To me, it could be a long wait for a conversion on the Road to Damascus. in addition, there is that risk of crossing the Grand Canyon by tight-rope, only to find yourself in the wrong place (see the bottom of this page).

Also, I do lay some emphasis on a scenic route, and that road does include some sudden and unexpected bends!

So a ‘reframe’ is one of sudden bends – from rabbit to duck – as seen in my header picture. It can lead to a large victory even though the initial shock might feel like a small defeat.

An example might be the experience of finding out that your partner has been cheating on you. An unhappy event, but might you – in time – be better off without him or her?

An experiment to get started

For another example, take a look at the experiment on this page. When you just notice the first illustration, you are likely to see a woman in the picture.

Make a brief note to describe her appearance, age and demeanour. After you have done this, return to the picture. Are you able to see a second woman with a different appearance, age and demeanour?

Once you can do this, you have completed a ‘reframe’ and you may even find it difficult to recover your first image.

The information available to you has not altered one tiny bit, but your view of the woman has changed markedly. It is difficult to see both women at one and the same time, but once the differences are noticed, they are rarely forgotten.

Most therapeutic reframes arise when we see our world differently – quite suddenly – and there is no going back. What we ‘see’ cannot be unseen.

It is not easy to do reframing under your own steam; you may be willing to do so, but ‘how’ to achieve one is not so easy. Our brain has odd ways to make sense of the world we live in. Even so, how can you and I know what needs ‘reframing’? It’s one thing to have ambiguous pictures; but what about our picture of the world upon which our sense of today’s normal depends? A ‘reframe’ creates a new normal, but in a less leisurely fashion. We are pushed and pushed, until change cannot be resisted any more – and then it comes on rather fast; like running down the other side of the hill we just climbed!

We will hold on to some perceptions of our world for dear life. This does not make that view ‘true’. In the Wizard of Oz it took Dorothy and the gang a long time to discover the Wizard’s ‘true’ nature.

In my world of psychology and therapy, I start with the other person’s vision of truth that helps them find ways to explore some other possibilities. My aim is not to convince them of my ‘truth’, but to consider other ways to relate to pain and heartache arising from their ‘truths’.

I say more about this when discussing the human talent for meaning-making. The page on discounting touches on this topic as well. It’s a feature that can promote safe experiments to falter.

There is a constant risk that I appear to want you to simply believe me. You’ve may have no reason to believe that a re-frame is useful to you. I could simply be after business from you!

So, if you want to take this further, consider some of these safe experiments:

  1. Anything that tempts you into ‘left field’ thinking and action. Brain-storming and conversations with others invite a crossed transaction. This is best done with other people as they can be your devil’s advocate. Even inviting conflict can help.

2. Time limits are useful when inviting such higher risk experiments. Special Time might be suitable to use before getting into anything more risky.

3. Using different forms of communication. I have little confidence in my own ability to use art and sculpture but this approach might work for you. There are some therapies that are good at finding alternatives to conventional ‘talking therapies’. Walking therapies and psychodrama offer two examples of doing it differently.

4. Inviting confusion: It’s not often we want confusion in our lives. Even so, there may be safe ways to invite it in a thought-out and managed fashion.

5. Confronting our Script. Our ability to re-frame is often held back by deep-seated elements in our own Script. There are times when it helps to tell a different story.

6. Going into therapy! You may find that you are your own worst enemy. If you can take the risk to enter into a professional relationship with another person yet without the close interests of family and friends might help things along.

Some further leads to consider

Designing safe experiments

The scenic route

Steps on the way

Limitations to action

An index of pages on Your Nudge