How to Gain Perspective
For example, because Frankl knew how to gain perspective, he was able to help an elderly and severely depressed man who came to him for therapy. The man’s wife had died and she had meant more to him than anything in the world.
How could Frankl help this man gain some perspective on such a tragic event? “What would have happened,” Frankl asked the man, “if you had died first, and your wife would have survived you?”
The man answered: “Oh, for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” The man was beginning to gain a new perspective, wasn’t he?
“You see,” said Frankl, “such a suffering has been spared her, and it is you who have spared her this suffering; but now, you have to pay for it by surviving and mourning her.”
The man didn’t say anything. He shook Dr. Frankl’s hand and calmly left. He’d gained an entirely different perspective on his situation in an instant.
Frankl wrote, “Suffering ceases to be suffering in some way at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”
Frankl changed the man’s perspective, and it had a profound affect on the man’s feelings. When you know how to gain perspective, you know how to change the meaning of a circumstance. Your new perspective changes the meaning of the event, which changes the feelings you have in response, which changes what actions you take.
Here’s how to gain perspective in the simplest and most direct way: When something happens, ask yourself, “What perspective would help right now?”
My wife just went on a 12-day trip. I couldn’t go. And I was sad about this. I miss her when she’s gone. But I asked myself, “What perspective would help right now?”
I realized I would be alone and entirely uninterrupted by any consideration of another person, and this is, of course, potentially useful for a writer, and I thought I should take full advantage of it.
The question shifted my attention in a new direction, totally changing my feelings about the upcoming event. Ask yourself the question. That’s how to gain perspective quickly and easily. My wife has been gone four days now and I’ve been doing some great writing. I’m able to really concentrate and organize more complex material than usual. All this attention to my work has also kept my mind from dwelling on my loneliness.
When you’re facing an upcoming event you really don’t want to happen, try asking yourself, “What perspective would help right now?” If no answer comes immediately to mind, that’s not the end of it. Ask the question over and over. Or sit down and write out a list of ten answers to the question.
The question works for events that WILL happen, and it also works for events that have already happened. For example, right after I self-published my first book, I called bookstores to ask if I could fax them a blurb on my new book, and about a third of the people I called had a negative reaction. They were probably bombarded by ads, which wasted their fax machine’s paper (this was before fax machines could receive the fax without printing), and besides, I may have interrupted the person with my phone call.
For whatever reason, I got some negative reactions, and when I did, it brought me down. When I had several negative reactions in a row, I felt dejected and I thought negative things like, “This is hopeless.”
But I asked myself, “What perspective would help right now?” Almost immediately I thought, “The world needs this book!” The negativity I heard on the other end of the phone line didn’t make these people happy or healthy or more successful. Their negativity was the result of the four negative biases, and they needed help! I couldn’t give up now.
With this new perspective, I shifted from dejected to determined and motivated — a nice shift. I went back at it with renewed resolve.
You don’t have to ask this particular question. Other questions could work just as well. For example, I once had an appointment with the dentist for the following day, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. So I asked, “What do I want to feel?” Of course, my answer was: I wanted to be glad I was going to the dentist, or at least no longer feel dread.
My next question was, “What would I have to think that would make me feel good in these circumstances?”
One of my answers was, “I would have to think I was grateful that I live in a time and place that has dentists to take care of my teeth.” I thought about the fact that during all of human history prior to the development of dentistry, people got painful cavities, lost their teeth, and suffered tremendous agony, and here I was ungratefully wishing I didn’t have to go.
And the truth is, I didn't have to go. It was my privilege to be able to go. With this new perspective, I felt genuinely glad about going, and no longer dreaded it.
I changed my perspective without asking “What perspective would help right now?” but the two questions I asked essentially produced the same result.
In fact, many of the most effective techniques for self-improvement help you gain a new perspective without using the word “perspective.” The three biggest ones are comparison reframes, gratitude, and setting goals.
Comparison reframes take advantage of the fact that your mind naturally and automatically compares your situation to something else. Usually to something better, so it makes you feel bad.
But you can, of course, deliberately compare your situation to something worse, and feel better.
Gratitude is another way to gain a new perspective. And this simple act can make you measurably happy. In one study, spending a mere five minutes a day writing in a journal, answering the question, “What am I grateful for?” made people happier. Even after they stopped doing it, they were still measurably happier for some time after.
And setting a goal can automatically change your perspective on events. It casts the event in a new light. For example, Nelson Mandela had been in prison for much of his life. He was fighting for the end of apartheid in South Africa and the government had locked him up. He still had his goal, though.
One day they moved him to a new area of the prison, away from the people he knew. He was now isolated. He was in a dark, damp cell instead of the sunnier cell he used to have. All of this made him feel bad at first.
But then he started thinking this might be a good time to begin negotiations with the government — away from the eyes of his fellow political prisoners (many of whom would have tried to dissuade him from negotiating). because of his goal, he had a different perspective on his new circumstance. In a sense, the goal changed his perspective.
Use comparison reframes, gratitude, and your own goals to gain a new perspective on an upcoming event, on the past, or on a situation you’re dealing with right in the present.
Or you can simply ask, “What perspective would help right now?” And start coming up with answers. A mastery of perspective can reliably, authentically, and dramatically change your life.
Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.