Traumatic events test the foundation your life is built on. They might even pummel you to the ground. If you get beaten down, how do you find the courage and strength to pull yourself together and keep going? One solution may be by learning how to reframe negatives into motivating positives.

Sunsets remind me that tomorrow is another day. Reframe negatives into motivating positives.
Sunsets remind me that tomorrow is another day. I’m learning how to reframe negatives into motivating positives.

How Reframing Works

Last week I introduced the concept of the five-minute action. A trick I explored this week is looking at negative or stressful events in a new way. Before you say, “I don’t want to read about dread, worry, anxiety, and bad habits. Just teach me how to get unstuck!” consider this: what if we look at them as coping strategies that are simply trying to help us?

To reframe something means to look at it in a different, more positive way. When you have a bad experience, try asking yourself open-ended questions to find the “silver lining.” Perhaps you learned something new about yourself. Or you met someone kind and helpful you might not have otherwise met. Maybe you learned how imperative it is to never have that same experience again.

An “open-ended question” is one that cannot be answered with simple one-word responses such as “yes, no, or maybe.” Such questions require deliberate thought, usually phrased with words like who, what, where, when, and how. Some examples might include, “How might you view that experience in a way that doesn’t increase anxiety?” or “What takeaway lesson did you learn about yourself or others that might help you in the future?”

My favorite canine hiking companion, basking in the sun on the cover of our hot tub. We're taking it easy right now partly so he can rest his right front leg.
My favorite canine hiking companion, basking in the sun on the cover of our hot tub. We’re taking it easy right now, partly so he can rest his right front leg.

Reframe Negatives: A Snowstorm’s Silver Lining

The most memorable example I can share is about returning to Seattle from a holiday visit in North Carolina years ago. My family got caught in bad weather in the middle of the United States. Our connecting flight had been overbooked while others were getting rescheduled for the next day. Staying overnight was not an option for us, as hotels were all booked. The airline attendant helped find an earlier flight for my husband connecting through Denver, while my daughter and I waited for a direct flight that would take off for Seattle an hour later.

The silver lining — and what I remember most about what could have been a major headache — was flying first-class with my daughter. We landed at SeaTac Airport just a few minutes after my husband, due to more flight delays. We did not have to camp out in an airport like many people across the midwest, nor did we have to travel separated in economy class. Conditions that could have ruined our trip actually left us with pleasant memories. The bonus? Our bags somehow made it home before we did!

A mural on a retaining wall at one of the local houses during an exploration walk with Ajax. I've pounded the pavement in our neighborhood some 7100 hours during the past 6.5 years and I continue to see something new every single day.
A mural on a retaining wall at one of the local houses during an exploration walk with Ajax. I’ve pounded the pavement in our neighborhood some 7100 hours during the past 6.5 years and I continue to find something new every single day.

What Do Bad Habits Say That’s Positive About You?

Similarly, try reframing any bad habits you want to change. What’s good about that habit? If you spend a few hours watching a movie with your spouse, dog, and kids, think about what such a choice might say about you besides “I know better. I’m too lazy and I never get enough sleep.”

Maybe it means that you’re doing your best to spend time with your family. It might mean that you’re giving yourself some much-needed downtime following a stressful day of work. Perhaps you value doing things together instead of isolating on cell phones. Watching a documentary and discussing what you’ve seen could also educate and inspire younger family members. Not to mention it allows you to keep tabs on everyone when being out and about might be considered unsafe.

My daughter with a wide assortment of ribbons. I used to worry about becoming a "helicopter parent" until I learned how to loosen the reins and let her make mistakes -- and learn from them.
My daughter with a wide assortment of ribbons. I veered away from becoming a “helicopter parent” and learned how to let my daughter make her own mistakes — and learn from them.

Identify What May Be More Helpful

If it is still a habit you really want to change, what habit might you put in its place? If you want to stop drinking every evening, perhaps you could try replacing alcohol with seltzer and lime. Maybe you could unwind by taking an after-dinner stroll or easy bike ride. If you still want to watch TV, consider setting a timer or alarm clock at a specific time to remind you when to turn off screens and shift gears into preparing for sleep.

Bad habits do not make you a bad person, just like traumatic events don’t define you. Try reframing your habits and seeking the silver lining in the negative events. Then share your experiences in the comments below. And if you need help making changes, I would love to start a dialog with you about how coaching can help you do so.

Published by Courtenay Schurman

Co-author of The Outdoor Athlete (2009) and Train to Climb Mt. Rainier or Any High Peak DVD (2002), author of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills/conditioning chapter 4 (3 editions), and Peak Performance column for the Mountaineers Mag (2014-present). Member of PNWA, SCBWI, EPIC. Served on the steering committee for WOTS (2019-present). Completed UW Certificate program for Children's Literature and Memoir. Co-owner of Body Results, Inc. in Seattle. Climb leader with Seattle Mountaineers for over 15 years. Volunteer at Woodland Park Zoo since 2014.

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  1. Shortly after getting my membership card to the Golden Age Fellowship, I realized that a great deal of efforts was in order to reframe many of the pictures I had hung on the walls of my carefully appointed life; I better come to terms with being neither immortal nor invincible. And the two things you and Silvie Marie call out quickly became apparent: it is not easy!!… and it is essential. Just like these muscles that scream at me when I work them out… my mind digs in its heels (!) when I try to make it look at things a different way than the one it has resorted to automatically and effortlessly for so many years. An endless cohort of BUTs is standing at the ready to defend the “party line”: but it’s too hard, but it’s unfair, but it won’t change what happened, but it won’t work, etc. A lot of these might be true, whatever “true” means in that context; it is also true that they do not help me get past, around, over “the problem”. For me, they just keep pointing BACK at some expectations I had and that I don’t want to let go of (I have a huge “expectations problem”… I know exactly how I want things to happen in front of me, all the time). Reframing, when I succeed, allows me to revise/re-invent expectations after streamlining the ‘stages of grief’ following the loss of the defunct ones. In other words, I must remind myself that “dwelling” won’t help past the necessary grieving period; after that, reframing absolutely does. Here’s one example where I was successful (I won’t mention the many where I wasn’t….yet). Following my hip surgery, I lost the ability to run (more precisely, it is highly recommended that I don’t). I loved jogging. How can I live without jogging?? It seems that my mind was expecting me to happily jog right into my coffin at the end of days… Enter reframing, hard and accompanied by a bottomless sense of loss. I have progressively developed a “trick” that seems to work wonders: I laugh at myself (yes, Silvie Marie mentioned that too and I find it strangely powerful). Basically, my laugh is shorthand for “What was I thinking? That this could never happen to me? Why? Life is, in part, about very unwelcome things happening to us. The universe is truly completely indifferent to ME, how truly silly was I thinking otherwise”. That laugh helps letting go of the old expectations, opening the way for the reframing and creation of brand-new expectations. In the “hip case”, it went that like this…(1) let’s be grateful for the MANY years I could jog, (2) there was a time, not so long ago, when hip replacements did not exist – I would be in a wheelchair, (3) the new hip would not impact my hiking; in fact, it made it a lot better (no more pain in that joint) — within 6 months I was climbing half-dome in Yosemite, (6) as hiking still works, let do more of it.. which lead me to long-distance hiking, doing things I thought I was incapable of, and more importantly (4) I can now act as a know-it-all when family members are contemplating the same hip surgery. I now practice this “laugh and reframe” almost every time I am on the trail; the trail is never just as I expected it would be (metaphor for life itself?) and, when I encounter a significant obstacle — jumble of blowdowns, super steep sections, bloated stream, etc. — I stop a second and take a snapshot of my state of mind moments prior (yeah, sure enough I was visualizing a smooth and level trail… Ha! Ha!); then I take the obstacle ahead as a playful challenge the universe threw in front of me to snap me out of my “cruise control” reverie so that I would be fully present in the moment.

    1. Another wonderful share, Gerard. Yes, humor is truly some of the best medicine.

      Many years ago I was told that my foot (fractured six weeks before our trip to climb Kilimanjaro) wouldn’t be ready for the trek. We went anyway, and though it was definitely harder than it otherwise would have been, I spit into the wind at those doctors back home who said “No, you can’t.” Similarly, when I was given a recent diagnosis, I denied its possibility. Can’t possibly be true. Not me.

      We can’t let others define us or tell us what we can or cannot do, or we’re sunk. I think for those of us who have high expectations (realistic or not) the reality sometimes smacks us in the face and catches us off guard. When we can turn the bad news or situation around, and LOOK FOR / FIND ANOTHER WAY to what we want (just like you did with your long-distance hiking, bravo!) and keep our sense of humor, grace, self-valuation, and compassion, I think we can face just about anything, better. I love “laugh and reframe.” Another word for struggle is “Gamify” — which may be a future Blog topic — how can you turn the drudgery into something fun so that you’re more likely to ENJOY yourself and get it over faster? Always thought-provoking. Thanks so much for your comment.

  2. Not always easy to do, reframing negatives into positives, but it is very powerful. I also like using laugh as it can help to see a situation from another point of view. Stop blaming somebody else, but try to look at the situation from another angle. This helps. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Just go for walk and inhale fresh air. And go back to your problem, sometimes it helps and sometimes it doesn’t….and somedays theses things are harder to put in practice. Anyhow, it is good to keep trying.🥰

    1. You are correct, Silvie Marie, it is NOT easy. But it is a skill we can develop with time and practice. And sometimes it is VERY hard to see the silver lining. If a woman has a miscarriage, for example, in the moment it seems like the cruelest, most horrible loss in the world. But when the same woman has a successful term pregnancy, it makes it all the sweeter to hold that precious baby in her arms. If someone has a hospital stay, it totally sucks, but perhaps having one kind nurse who provides humor and gentle faith makes it that much more tolerable. And if a student gets a failing grade, sometimes that shock can provide the stimulus to make sure it never happens again. So, search for the silver lining. What can you learn from this experience? What’s GOOD about it? What might it teach us? Then, be gentle with yourself, know that (from Buddhism) suffering is universal, and pull yourself up and try again. You got this!

      Thanks, as ever, for your readership and comments!