Upgrading Your Reference Frames

Conscious reframing is one of the most accessible self-development skills because it aligns with how your brain works internally. Your brain already performs this task for you. And just as you can consciously control your breathing, you can also learn to consciously control your reference frames.

A reference frame is a context upon which other thinking and behaviors are layered. It’s essentially an assignment of meaning.

We don’t think in terms of how reality works. We think in terms of how we’re modeling reality internally. Our brains are constantly building and refining models (or frames).

For example, during a conversation you might use the frame that you’re on a romantic date, or maybe it’s a job interview, or perhaps it’s a coaching session. The frame you use will determine the decisions you make and the thoughts that bubble up from your mind. If you frame a conversation as a date, your mind will try to generate thoughts consistent with that frame. If you frame that same conversation as an interview, your mind will generate different thoughts.

Change the reference frames you use, and you can significantly change the flow of actions and the results you get.

Many people don’t even realize that they can consciously choose to use different frames. They get latched onto a frame and mistake it for the only reality they can access, even though there are countless other framing options that remain accessible. Another name for this is limiting beliefs. What many people don’t see is that every reference frame is inherently limiting. Every belief limits you. But there is freedom to be found in flexing the variety of frames you can access.

Motivating Frames

It’s been powerful to challenge the default reference frames I learned when I was younger and to gradually upgrade them (sometimes just from desperation).

For instance, I don’t normally use reference frames like jobs or salaries or income to think about work. I use reference frames like opportunities, invitations, creative explorations, fun, and mutual appreciation. My old reference frames (that sucked) were so damned mental and fenced in. My preferred reference frames are much more emotionally stimulating, and they align way better with what actually motivates me.

When I was broke, I used reference frames that made money feel scarce, limited, and difficult to earn in sufficient quantities. I kept focusing on trying to increase my income. I thought a lot about the reference frames of rent and bills and how the heck I was going to cover them. I often framed my financial life as a flow of income and expenses.

These were demotivating and stressful frames to use, so no wonder they didn’t invite my best creativity to solve my financial problems. Does that framing work any better for you?

One of the biggest upgrades was to shift to using frames that increased motivation and creative flow – especially frames of fun, creativity, service, and sharing. These frames still work nicely today. They take care of the bills without having to focus on the bills.

One of the most crucial shifts was to dump the reference frame of feeling like I had to prove myself – that one was such a bottomless pit. The reference frame of having nothing to prove was a lot more effective. Then I could pick projects based on exploration, growth, learning, discovery, connection, fun, opportunities, etc. It’s more motivating to follow my curiosity instead of seeking validation.

When I was in my 20s, I also used very short-term reference frames for time, mostly thinking about how to make it through the next few weeks or the next month. I ran so much of my life based on cycles of bills and rent. These days I prefer to think in terms of multi-year investments and long-term threads of action. My current reference frames are more patient and abundant with respect to time. In the past I wanted everything faster and sooner. Now I enjoy a more relaxed pacing most of the time, but I actually get more done and finished this way. Even when I go for a more intense experience, it’s very manageable because I don’t invest to the point of getting burnt out or frazzled.

Socially I also dropped some frames that kept me stuck, like loyalty to family and long-term friends, regardless of glaring incompatibilities. When I stopped tolerating so many mismatches and began moving towards people that I genuinely liked and appreciated, that made such a wonderful difference. Another improvement was to be loyal to truth ahead of any loyalty to individuals. There’s a huge opportunity cost that comes with investing in mismatches and partial matches, and we pay a big motivational price when we let ourselves become socially stuck.

I’d say the single most powerful framing upgrade was to pay attention to my relationship with life itself (or with reality). I began noticing which decisions hurt that relationship by making it more tense and stressful… or more boring and disengaged. I started noticing which decisions made that relationship better and added some nice sparkle and beauty to that relationship, leaving me feeling appreciative and centered. Then I kept striving to make decisions to honor this relationship instead of trashing it. That was hugely beneficial, leading to so many positive ripples. I grew happier and more satisfied with life over time. I felt way more supported too.

Testing New Frames

What reference frames have you been using that no longer be serve you? Any thoughts on which reference frames it may be time to dump?

What other reference frames seem tempting? You could at least test them.

One meta-level frame that I found especially helpful is that I can test frames without having to believe them. A frame isn’t a truth. It’s just a perspective, so no belief is necessary. This makes it easier to experiment since you don’t have to convince yourself of anything. You can just dive in and see what the results are if you use different frames. Let the results convince you to keep using a frame (or not).

I keep using certain reference frames since I like the results. I dumped the frames which created dismal results. I also get to witness other people’s long-term use of different frames and the results they get from those frames.

Due to how the brain works, it’s tough to get better results with your actions if you don’t also change your default reference frames. That’s because decisions and actions flow from these frames – and therefore so do results.

I got the most stuck when I tried to upgrade my decisions and actions while clinging to my old reference frames. When I had real breakthroughs, they generally began with a shift in reference frames, and that caused meaningful shifts in my thoughts, actions, and behaviors.

One especially powerful shift happened when I challenged the old frame that I had to gain some level of financial abundance before I could do much to serve or help people. That frame got me nowhere, so I opted to test what would happen if I started volunteering and just trying to be of service for free, even though I wasn’t doing well financially at the time. That got me into writing articles and doing a little speaking, which led to a stream of positive ripples. It helped me to align my intentions with mutual appreciation, not at some future point but in the present reality.

Curiosity Is Enough

I seriously doubted that a service-based frame would work when I was broke. I had no belief that it would improve my life. I just had curiosity. That was enough.

You may have been taught from other self-development sources that belief is what matters. Well, they’re wrong. You don’t need belief. Curiosity is sufficient.

Holding a strong belief about anything is always going to be a mixed bag. A belief that can help you excel in one experience may savagely hurt you in a similar endeavor.

Frames are useful tools for solving problems. Some tools are better in some situations than others. Just as you don’t want to be dogmatic about your tools, it’s wise to remain flexible with your frames too. You’ll always have your tried-and-true favorites, but keep in mind that you can always put them down and try different frames when the situation warrants.

Be curious by asking yourself which frames might shed light on a current problem or challenge, thereby making it easier to solve. A transactional frame kept me financially stuck. A service-based frame was a super helpful change. A fun-based frame was another. Instead of fussing over rent and bills, I finally made progress by focusing on how to serve people in a motivating and enjoyable way. Those frames have been working well for more than two decades now, but I remain willing to test other frames too.

Some Favorite Frames

Some other favorite frames include:

  • Thoughts and behaviors are essentially software, so they can be changed.
  • My brain will naturally improve its framing more easily if I help it grasp the relationships between frames and results, such as by dialoging with it more often about such connections. When I get stuck, I delve into how my mind is modeling a situation, and I invite my mind to consider alternative models.
  • There’s no need to take what my brain does personally. It has many different regions doing different kinds of computations and assessments, and it’s trained by experience, so it’s going to make plenty of mistakes, which is to be expected. Mistakes are learning experiences.
  • Fussing over self-esteem issues is a waste of life. It’s like chastising a device for not being better. It makes way more sense to test and work with the capabilities of one’s mind and seek to play to its strengths. Self-esteem is irrelevant. Just use whatever interface you’ve got.
  • Notice what works, and do more of it. Notice what doesn’t work, and do less of it.
  • Every passing year adds more lifetime memories. Will I appreciate the memories that I’m gaining this year – for the rest of my life?

If your actions and results aren’t flowing as well as you think they could, don’t just push yourself to try to take more action. That’s like smashing a pipe with a hammer – only harder. Maybe try a wrench instead.

Reframing is built into your physical brain. Your neural circuits are fabulous at performing reframing operations, and you automatically do this many times each day. Be aware that the default behavior of your mind doesn’t always serve you optimally. Sometimes it’s wise to consciously take control of this mental ability, so you can elevate your results beyond the default settings.

Steve Pavlina

Steve Pavlina is an American self-help author, motivational speaker and entrepreneur. He is the author of the web site stevepavlina.com and the book Personal Development for Smart People.

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