Wayne Dyer passed away not long ago. He was the author of a chain of dozens of “self-help” books that began with YOUR ERRONEOUS ZONES, published in 1976 and which sold 35 million copies. He was an influential and effective motivational speaker, becoming known to many more millions through his frequent exhortations during PBS pledge drives. Because he has been a powerful influence on the way I view the world, and how I work with my clients, I wanted to pay tribute to him by elaborating on one of his most famous quotes:

“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change”

This is a fundamental tenet of psychology. In fact it might well be the most accurate one sentence description imaginable of the way psychology works. But before delving into psychology, let’s look at how this statement applies to the tangible, physical world. Many of you will have seen this drawing:

Depending on what you are focused on, this can either be a rendition of an elegant young woman wearing a white scarf over her hair whose head is turned away, or of an old “hag” in profile whose apparently toothless mouth and bony chin are buried in her coat. Both versions of this image are “correct,” but which one is seen at any given moment depends entirely on the observer.

A simpler version of this concept is captured in the classic “glass half full / glass half empty” duality. Each way of thinking about the glass is correct, but they are conceptually different. A pessimistic view might focus on the emptiness, whereas an optimist would focus on the fullness. Each would be looking at the exact same thing but assess it very differently. So by switching from the pessimistic to the optimistic view, or vice-versa, the glass would in fact appear to change. Of course the glass with the liquid in it did not actually change objectively, but it did subjectively, which is what counts.

Moving from the very specific – how one looks at a glass – to how one looks at the state of the world, the same dynamics can be seen. Satisfaction with the direction of the country, or optimism about the world’s future, varies dramatically over relatively short periods of time. This variance rests much more on the news that people read/hear rather than on actual changes in their personal circumstances, and on which news sources they tune in to. Viewers of Fox News have a decidedly more bleak view of the future than do viewers of MSNBC. Realizing this, the stations pitch their stories to the public in ways that will most appeal to their audiences, which then reinforces the pre-existing views, and so on in the vicious cycle.

“Changing the way you look at things” applies of course to personal situations as well. In the field of psychology reframing is a way to change the meaning of things occurring in ones past and present. For example, getting fired need not be interpreted as resulting from ones weaknesses;* rather it can be a manifestation of a mismatch in values or personality between employer and employee. As such, getting fired opens up the opportunity to find a work situation in which one fits more comfortably.

For most people though, their ability to effectively reframe on their own is very difficult because they are used to a pattern of thought that leads to predictable conclusions. An outsider (particularly one trained in using reframing, like a therapist or coach) can find reframes that feel genuine and that therefore resonate.

I’ll close today’s post with a saying from the Talmud that expresses the issue I’ve discussed above somewhat differently:

“We see the world not as it is, but as we are.”

* What’s most important about any dramatic career, or life, development is to analyze it carefully to determine what lesson(s) can be learned to apply to the future.