How to Reframe Your Difficult Stories: 5 Part Workshop Series: Step 4– Changing Lenses
A farmer stood with his dog overlooking his fields. Behind them in the grasses peered a small brown rabbit, and above flew a lark. The farmer looked across the field and saw cows, milk, provisions for his family, a new car. The dog saw frustration because wild things could so easily hide and escape his chase. The rabbit saw security. To the lark flying overhead, the field was home.
While we may all be looking at the same thing, standing in the same story, the lenses we look through to interpret that story are vastly different for everyone. Join us today as we discuss the fourth step in reframing your story – understanding lenses, and being willing to swap them out every now and again.
Stories are our lives in language. Welcome to the Love Your Story podcast. I’m Lori Lee, and I’m excited for our future together of telling stories, evaluating our own stories, and lifting ourselves and others to greater places because of our control over our stories. This podcast is about empowerment and giving you, the listener, ideas to work with in making your stories work for you. Story power serves you best when you know how to use it.
Today we are on the 4th podcast episode in a 5-part series: The 5 Steps to Reframing a Difficult Life Story. Welcome to Step #4 – A discussion about the lenses you look through and how they determine what you see, and considering the lenses others look through as well. You’ve heard of putting on rose colored glasses, because it changes the way you see things, makes the world look a little brighter. The way you see the world is certainly affected by different tinted glasses. Well, today we are discussing first of all, the fact that we metaphorically wear lenses and that these lenses form how we interpret what goes on around us, and second of all understanding that we can swap lenses if we need to. Choose a lens, any lens, the lens you look through determines what you see, how you interpret, and often whether you are happy with the story you are creating, or the story you have lived. Understand this concept and you begin to realize that your story CAN change.
Like magic, we conjure our stories from the ether of thought. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves form from numerous things, one of which is a set of criteria and lenses that we have adopted, usually as fact – right and wrong– from our culture and family, from our religion and the things expected of us because of our gender, our economic status, our social standing, our race, education or political beliefs, sexual experience, sexual preference, and moral codes. There are any number of these lenses that we each, individually look through when we engage in any situation. Picture if you will a pair of glasses with maybe a dozen lenses stacked on top of one other for us to look through. Everyone has a pair of these glasses that they are wearing. These are the lenses through which we see right and wrong, through which we judge our own stories, through which we judge the stories of others. Everyone around us is also wearing a set of these thick glasses, only a different set, with different lenses.
An example of a lens – Brock Dethier, in his book 21 Genres, points out that because of his age (older than draft age) and his education (University professor, so he has enough education to compare wars from history to current situations) BOTH OF THESE ARE LENSES – his education and his age, he is bound to think differently about war than perhaps an uneducated 19-year-old man.
Lynn Langer Meeks and Carol Jewkes Austin, in their book, Literacy in the Secondary English Classroom, call these lenses the “Cultural Eye.” These beliefs, or ways of seeing the world start solidifying themselves from the time we are children, learning and interpreting our world. It’s important to realize that we wear these lenses and that everyone around us has on a different set of lenses. Next, it’s important to recognize that not only do we wear these lenses, but also how our lenses create our stories – the ones we tell to others and the ones we tell to ourselves. Because then we can start to recognize that there are perspectives beyond our own, and create possibility beyond one way of seeing things.
Let me share an example of two cultural lenses. A friend sent me an article called Two world views: romantic and classical. The article starts out with a description of what romanticism is – “a movement of art and ideas that began in Europe in the mid eighteenth century and has now taken over the world. It’s hard to go far on almost any issue without encountering a dominant Romantic position,” it starts out.
I bring this up in conjunction with the cultural eye, because Romanticism and Classicism are schools of thought created by cultural lenses and adopted as ways of approaching life. The power of these approaches is hard to overestimate because they create the very basis for which we make our life decisions and thus create our stories. Let me explain.
“Romanticism,” it says, is at its core a willingness to trust in feelings and instinct as supreme guides to life – and a corresponding suspicion of reason and analysis.” It points out how we expect that in relation to love the romantics believe that “passionate emotions will reliably guide us to a partner who can provide us with 50 years or so of intimate happiness.” This belief alone can influence life choices away from possibly suitable mates unless the passionate chemistry and euphoric infatuation is present. These are major life choices made not on reason but on the heart and the chemicals that cause the feelings of passion to flare. This belief changes life trajectories.
As it applies to work, the romantic mindset is one that suggests that all people will feel a pull toward a specific and meaningful vocation, holding a passion for something they must follow. When I read this section it was almost a relief to accept the opposing and classical view that not all should look to their instincts to solve the problem of what one should be doing with their life on a productive basis, rather it accepts the understanding that all work will have moments of tedium and frustration, and that the idea of an “ideal” job is folly. Like most things, I usually come down somewhere in the middle of these topics – I most certainly believe that some people are very much driven by a clear vision of what they want to do—they feel destiny tug and must follow, and many most certainly build their dream jobs through the sheer determination of their own vision and persistence. I’ve seen it happen, I’ve done it. I personally know a great many coaches and people who believe in the romantic approach to the story of life. It’s often taught that we must follow our dreams, and shoot for the stars. Follow your heart is a common refrain. In fact, it’s become part of the American Dream. But, it must also be said that I know just as many who are desperately seeking to find that “passion” for a vocation, that intuition that will lead them to their greatness, that clarity of purpose toward the perfect job, because culturally this romantic approach to vocation is espoused so strongly that to not find it is, for many, to interpret failure. People in their 40’s still not certain what they were supposed to be when they grew up. People desperately trying to figure out what their passion in life is, and having no idea, but feeling that they somehow missed the boat because they never felt completely driven toward a particular vision or vocation. Just this past week a woman in a Facebook group that I am a part of, was bemoaning the fact that she needed to take time off work to find her direction, to find her passion, and she just wasn’t sure she could find it. The reason the classic train of thought felt liberating, was that it gave all those who have never felt a singled, focused, passionate longing toward a specific vocation a get-out-of romantic jail free card. Good news – not every life story need be crafted around the romantic idea of a foreordained purpose – that’s just one lens. If you’re not feeling it, the classic lens allows for great meaning and honor in all walks of life. Life, from a classic perspective isn’t about constant thrill and passion, but fulfillment in and an appreciation for the slow and messy process of life rather than the sudden impulses of emotion.
Stories can be told from the romantic perspective – stories of intuition, of love solving all, but also it can create unreal hopes that blind us to the dangers of feeling that we must obey instincts in love, work, and life rather than considering such classic traditions as the idea of the intense frailties of our human nature, and that our emotions often overpower our better judgment. In love classicism councils “a gracious acceptance of the madness inside each partner. It knows that ecstasy cannot last, and that the basis of all good relationships must be tolerance and mutual sympathy.” Classicism regards domestic life and chores as deeply worthy of care and effort. It suggests that financial considerations in choosing a marriage partner are not unworthy and unromantic, but necessary consideration as it plays a role in the “good life.”
The article is much more detailed and it’s fascinating to compare the two different life approaches. Your lenses will lead you toward one side or the other, or maybe you’ll be sitting somewhere in the middle with me. Depending upon your other lenses the breakout of how much romanticism and how much classicism you agree with is an individual creation.
Our stories, the most powerful ones, are the ones we create in our own heads. Ryan Clarkin said, “The quality of your life is determined by the quality of the conversations going on in your own mind.” That is a powerful statement. The stories going on in our minds are stories based upon our cultural eye, based upon learned or adopted attitudes, like romanticism’s idea that we should follow our instincts, or classicisms deep mistrust of instinct and the missteps of the human mind. What you believe gives you the framework for how you position your story, which often then creates a space of judgment about the success or failure of your story. Then that judgment gets replayed over and over in our minds.
Let me share some short examples:
If you have been raised in a culture where eating dogs is considered normal dinner fare, then your interpretation of a dog barbeque festival may not raise your eyebrows. On the other hand, if you are from a culture where dogs are considered beloved pets and family members then eating a dog might not only seem like vomit worthy discussion, but anyone who would eat a dog may be considered to be cruel and disgusting as you look through your own cultural lenses. If you come from a family where everyone went to an Ivy League school and only the highest levels of education will do, to choose a trade school may feel like a failure because of familial expectations, and your judgments of yourself and others will most likely be tainted by those lenses and expectations, when in reality the labels you place on such a situation can only make you feel inferior or superior if you assign them and buy into that value assignment. If you come from a family where modesty is strictly adhered and taught as a must-do, then you are likely to have judgments about people or families who do not adopt your same dress code. These concepts get pulled into the stories we create about other people and into the stories we create about ourselves. Often providing labels of “good” or “bad,” “right” or “wrong,” but all are created due to the lenses we look through.
I want to propose, as I have done before, that our stories are not fact, but a fluid interpretation based on fluid concepts that can be reframed. If you’ve often felt like a failure because you could not find a particular job that knocked your socks off, the romantic notions provide that you’ve missed something. The classic notion provides that you have not missed anything, on the contrary, if you have found meaning in honest work that has good days and bad days, that you’re pretty normal. I don’t provide this as an excuse for those who know they have a dream and are dancing around the fear of moving forward. I provide this concept for those who genuinely do not feel drawn to a passionate purpose in their choice of profession. If you need permission to be okay with that, Classicism gives it to you. Tell your tale from a classic perspective, because truly you are creating your own reality. If one lens makes you feel inadequate or shameful, there are other lenses through which to view your story so that you can see it in a healthy way.
So, how does this help you in reframing your story? The fourth step in the process of reframing a story, after accepting your story, being able to tell it, and finding the meaning in the things you experienced (the first three steps in this process that we’ve discussed the past 3 weeks), is to start to take it apart with the realization that the power you have assigned to the events in your story is determined by your lenses.
Here are a few questions to help you consider this idea:
Look at your story – what lenses have you been looking through that have defined that part of your life story? Where did you get those lenses? Is there a possibility that the thing you are absolutely sure is fact, isn’t really fact if you shift the lens? How does your story change if you looked through someone else’s lens or lenses? How do the unfulfilled life expectations programmed into you by your culture, religion, gender, family, etc affect your current self perception? What would happen if the expectations didn’t exist? What would your life feel like without them? Would it feel better or worse? How would your self perception change? How would your life story change? Were the people involved in your story doing the best they could at the time? Considering their lenses, how might they have seen the situation? (that’s a hard one because we have no way of truly understanding another’s lenses.) If you had been in their shoes would you have behaved as they did? What do you feel for the other parties in your story – hate? Anger? Empathy? Nothing? Fear? Understanding? Sadness? Forgiveness? Do those feelings serve you? Does feeling that way about them hurt them, or you?
Go back and write down those questions and spend some time finding your answers.
Let’s look at the breakdown of my lenses in my story. The lenses I wear include a staunch religious upbringing involving strong ethics, morals, and family values. As a member of the LDS church, family is of predominant import. We don’t marry until death do you part, we marry in a special ceremony that seals us to our spouse for all eternity. We believe in family, in morality, in love and service. With this lens there are a great many right and wrongs. My family lens is one that is strongly based in these same principals. My grandparents stayed married, my parents stayed married, most of my siblings, cousins and aunts and uncles are still with their original spouses. (I’m directly addressing these lenses as they have to do with my issues of my divorces – of course there are other aspects of all of these lenses). So, with these two lenses, and living in a community in which these same values are espoused, the decision for my first divorce was gigantic. The decision for my second divorce was mortifying. The dissolution of my third marriage filled me with almost a hands-in-the-air holy-shit there is no way to recover from the shame. Everyone will think I am so broken.
Now, we’ve been discussing how we assign value to our life stories according to our lenses. What at first felt like shame and failure I was sure never to recover from, when I stopped and took time to consider the perspective or lens shift that allows for growth and learning through these experiences, rather than a fear of being seen as a failure, fear of judgment and disgrace in my own culture, I removed my own feelings of victimhood, shame and fear of what others think of me ( I still struggle with that one occasionally, if I’m completely honest). I have no control of the lenses of others, but I do have the ability to realize that while my life trajectory was not ideal in my culture, it did not and does not have anything to do with my self-worth. I fully realize that this was my story, my issue and we all have our own stories around our stories, but it is these that we need to make peace with. Because they are our own stories around the events in our lives, we are the creators, and so we can recreate the ones that make us feel small, fearful, ashamed, or unhappy.
I knew the inside scoop about what had happened in my marriages. I knew I had stood up against abuse, that I had stood back up after abandonment, that I had made brave choices not to stay in situations that didn’t make me happy. I knew I had fought hard to work out every relationship, that I had tried to love well. The reality of my story was one of strength and courage. It was one of trying hard, of making mistakes sometime, but always of doing my best with whatever I was dealing with at the time. None of those things are shameful – they are things to be celebrated. And I also got to accept the mistakes I made as learning experiences. I figured out that the feelings of shame I was feeling came from cultural, religious and familial expectation within those realms, but I was creating a story of self consciousness over my life trajectory which created massive self doubt.
Here’s the key, because I know these lenses are mine due to nurture, not fact, there is a fluidity to interpretation that allows for me to take the lenses off for a moment and allow myself to see my story with less judgment. Now, let me be clear, there were not people in my culture or religion or family telling me I was a loser. It was my own self consciousness and the stories of failure and fear of judgment I created within my own mind. But this is where shame resides – in our own minds.
Another example, which I shared in the first step of this workshop series, is the different lenses between the Native Americans and those who were moving in to the new land conquering and developing it. The differences in attitudes toward nature between Native Americans and the settlers were opposites. While one culture held great reverence for the land and the circle of life involved in the natural system, the other considered a good life to be one of taming the land, expanding and clearing the land, building edifices to call sacred, rather than finding the sacred in the mountain or the wildlife. Depending upon which culture you were born in, a “good life” meant something very different. Two different sets of cultural lenses defined a completely different way of approaching a situation. Each felt strongly that their way was correct. What if you had been a Native American who favored expansion and conquering? You may have been exiled from your tribe. But did your approach diminish your self worth? Not to the settlers and expantionists. What if you had arrived on a ship from England and aligned more strongly with the ways of the Native Americans and their deep respect for the land, and the needless slaughtering of millions of bison turned your stomach. Did that make you a bad person? Not to the Native Americans. It’s all a matter of perspective and lenses.
This process of considering, honestly, the lenses you wear, allowing for the lenses the others in your story may