Reframe it to the positive
By Renee Goyeneche
I’m sure you’ve heard the suggestion that if you’re having difficulty solving a problem, you should try to “think outside the box.” Meaning, of course, that you should put aside traditional thinking and take a new and creative approach to overcoming a challenge. It’s good advice, but easier said than done, because many times we don’t even realize that we’re “in the box.”
That’s because much of our decision-making and problem solving is done on a subconscious level, where our minds use learning mechanisms known as schemas. Schemas are thought patterns that provide context for new learning based on prior experiences. Our minds recognize familiar situations, then make logical leaps that help us problem-solve. We do this intuitively; schemas are saved to our unconscious mind and are retrieved and utilized as circumstance dictates. It’s a useful mechanism in everyday life because we’re able to approach challenges with a frame of reference rather than having to reinvent the wheel every time we problem-solve.
The downside of schemas is that they are prone to logical errors and may classify something inherently solvable as “impossible” simply because our prior frame of reference suggests that’s where it belongs. That negative categorization can create a mental stumbling block, undermining our efforts to find workable solutions and leading to a “this is hopeless” mindset.
Schemas most often negatively affect our problem-solving abilities when they’re founded on logical fallacies such as:
Personalization, when we hold the blame for things where we have no actual responsibility.
Example: I’m responsible for my friend’s unhappiness tonight because he/she didn’t like the movie I suggested we see.
Overgeneralizing, when we cast judgement in a specific way, dismissing the fact that every situation offers its own unique set of circumstances.
Example: I scored poorly on this test. My math skills are too weak to pursue an accounting degree.
Black and white reasoning (the “all or nothing” mindset), when we make an either/or judgement, with no opportunity for middle ground.
Example: This new recipe didn’t turn out the way I expected, so dinner is ruined.
Arbitrary inference, when we jump to conclusions based on a few data points, without a full understanding of the situation.
Example: I submitted three different job applications, but no one contacted me for interview. I must be unemployable.
Catastrophizing, when we magnify the importance of an issue. (It usually manifests in one of two ways: we either view a current situation as an unredeemable disaster or imagine a future full of hardships and futility.)
Example: I didn’t make this important sale. My business is destined for failure.
If we operate under any of these logical fallacies, a schema can become a self-imposed limiter that prevents us from recognizing the unique nature of each new challenge. It’s important to remember that although an issue may look or feel like something we’ve experienced in the past, it may differ in significant ways and require a completely different problem-solving technique.
Here are 3 practices that allow you to combat negative schemas and reframe a problem:
1. Brainstorm. Try to come up with at least 3 different alternatives that allow you to resolve an issue in different ways. For example, imagine that you want to attend a lecture but can’t because your childcare provider is not available during those hours. How might you still get that information?
Possible options might include trading favors with a friend so you can attend the lecture, asking someone else to record it for you, or watching a video of it online later. If your goal really is to hear that lecture, any of the three might prove a viable option, even if it’s not your first choice.
2. Break free of assumptions. Disregard your if/then beliefs and consider other factors. Doing poorly on a test or in a class doesn’t mean you’re “too stupid” to pursue that career you’ve always wanted. Take a good look at your learning environment and study schedule—have you set yourself up for success? There might be a study guide that would prove helpful, or perhaps working things through step by step with a tutor would help you retain information more effectively.
3. Remove yourself from the equation. Be objective. If you were giving problem-solving advice to a friend, what would you advise them to do? It can be difficult to separate yourself from an issue, so if you’re unable to see your options or take a creative approach, ask for some external feedback from your community. Then, be open-minded. Consider any proposed solutions carefully, even if they go against your natural impulse. When you’re stuck, those are exactly the type of suggestions you need.
“Thinking outside the box” means more than just being imaginative- it requires us to put aside negative associations and preconceived ideas. In doing so, we create a new schema- one that allows us to move forward with confidence in our own creativity and problem-solving abilities.