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Mindset & Motivation, Podcast Articles   |   Sep 25, 2022

How to reframe a negative situation when you just can’t move on

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

How to reframe a negative situation when you just can’t move on

By Angela Watson

We’ve all had hurtful or upsetting incidents with colleagues, parents, and students that we can’t seem to move past.

How do you change your thinking in order to move on?

How do you stop carrying around the weight of what happened?

Folks in our Truth for Teachers Podcast Community were invited to submit their situations anonymously and tell me about the stuff that they just can’t move past.

And now in this episode, I’m sharing some thought work practices that can help you get over negative situations that have happened in the past, so you no longer feel as anxious or upset.

Keep in mind this episode is about mental reframing. My advice will center on how to *change your thinking about the problem* so that it no longer feels like you’re carrying such a heavy weight.

We begin with some simpler scenarios and solutions, and move into advanced-level thought work at the end.

Read or listen in for some practical tools for reframing problems and letting go of pain and trauma from the past.

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Scenario 1: A parent yells at you on the phone and says you’re calling their child a liar by accusing them of something they didn’t do.

Again, we are focusing on the thought work here, not on what to say or do with the parent, or how to prevent these types of situations in the future. Those elements are also important, but advice about communicating with parents is pretty abundant on the Internet and is the simpler problem to resolve. Not replaying the incident over and over in your mind, not feeling differently about the child, and not holding onto bitterness and a constant low-grade anxiety about the parent is much more difficult.

We’re dealing with a confrontation that is now in the past. It’s already happened, the teacher has already dealt with it however they handled it, and it’s over. But in the teacher’s mind, it’s still going on.

Each time we replay stressful situations, we are re-creating the stressful emotions in our body. If you tell someone the story about a negative interaction you had with a parent, chances are good that your blood pressure is going to rise and you’re going to get heated just recalling it.

From a thought work perspective, this is creating unnecessary stress. All thoughts are optional. A thought can come into your head about how a parent called you a liar, and you can choose not to engage with that thought. You can choose to just let that thought pass right on by.

You can also counter that thought with another, or distract yourself by thinking and doing something that’s more pleasant. It is your choice whether to keep thinking about this accusation from the parent or not.

For me, it’s helpful to think of a good reframing for the situation that I can repeat to myself anytime unwanted thoughts come up. So in this case, if I am watching TV or doing dishes and suddenly I start thinking about this parent, I might tell myself something like this:

“That situation is over. I handled it the best way that I could at the moment. Since then, I’ve thought carefully about ways to rebuild the relationship with that parent and do what I could to prevent more problems from occurring. It is not helpful or productive for me to think about this parent right now when I need to be relaxing and unwinding from my work day. I choose not to mentally replay conflicts from the past. It is over and there is no conflict at this moment. Everything at this moment is fine, so I choose to stay present here now.”

Scenario 2: “I have a couple of students whose emotions are volatile. I find myself anxious whenever I know their class is coming. Sometimes they are completely fine, but other days they are totally disruptive.”

I think what’s happening here is “anticipating problems.” Your brain is trying to predict all the things that could go wrong in order to keep you safe. That’s how our brains are designed to work: we focus on the negative and the things that could be dangerous to us because it’s self-protective. Evolutionarily speaking, focusing on the positive and believing the best about people is not an optimal strategy from a survival standpoint.

So to me, this is about moving out of your lizard brain and activating a wiser part of yourself that realizes you are not actually in danger and don’t need to always focus on potential harm.

That can be as simple as thinking about this with a more conscious reframing, and realizing you are anticipating problems. You are not in any actual danger: your brain is just imagining things that could go wrong.

That’s great when the potential threat is a saber-tooth tiger, but when it’s a class of students, it’s counterproductive. Your body can’t tell the difference between the physical threat and the emotional threat. This is unfortunate because you will be better prepared to handle any emotional volatility from your students if you are not already on edge.

When you are anticipating problems, the moment that a child breathes wrong, you will immediately go into fight-or-flight mode. That will cause you to have an escalated response to the situation and possibly overreact.

So you want to start off class each day in a more calm, neutral emotional state so that you can respond to kids in ways that are healthy and commiserate with what they’re giving you. This will allow you to act rather than react. It’s convincing your brain you are not in danger so you don’t immediately go into defensive, reactive mode.

The reframing here could be, “Each day is a fresh start. What happened in the past is not necessarily what’s going to happen today. Whatever happens today, I trust that I am capable of handling it. I will know what to do when the time comes. I can stay calm and neutral, and respond to kids from the wisest part of myself.”

It could be as simple as just practicing that reframing every day until it becomes your new mental habit.

But if that does not work, it could be that you have witnessed really extreme behaviors in the classroom, and you may have a form of PTSD. If you don’t know much about Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, you may assume that’s something only soldiers have after returning home from war, but PTSD can occur after ANY situation that any human finds traumatic, often without them consciously regarding it as such.

Your central nervous system may be triggered and you may have a heightened response in your body regardless of what your mind is thinking. When trauma is stored in the body, you’re going to have a physiological reaction in triggering situations. It’s a body memory, not just a memory in the mind.

You will need to heal that trauma which a lot of folks — myself included — believe is stored in your body on a cellular level. That’s something that you can work via counseling, psychotherapy, meditation, breath work, energy work, and energy healing, or a whole host of other options in addition to doing thought work. If you are carrying your students’ trauma or the weight of witnessing the effects of their trauma, do seek out tools specifically designed to help with that.

Scenario 3: I’m so overwhelmed with class size, students with IEPs that need so much extra support but get little, etc. that I end up snapping at various students during the day. Often they are sweet kids who just want my attention, want me to look at what they made, and so on but I snap at them. Then I feel sorry, ashamed, guilty, and beat myself up the rest of the day.

These situations which seem really minor can actually have a huge impact on how we feel, and getting in touch with that is super important so we don’t find ourselves caught in a shame spiral. You’re never going to be the teacher your kids need when you’re mentally beating yourself up and thinking about what a terrible person you are. That’s just not helpful in any way.

I find it really useful in those situations to get out of my head and drop into the body to notice what impact the situation is having on me. Notice the reaction you’re having in your body, because as I shared, sometimes we mentally deal with situations and think we’ve moved on but the pain is still being stored in the body and needs to be healed.

When I am rude to students — anyone for that matter — or impatient or snappy, and I don’t make things right, I will often feel tension in my body. However, I have had to practice noticing this and not just staying stuck in a whirlwind of thoughts about the situation.

I have to do a quick check-in: how am I feeling physically right now? I’ll sometimes notice a lump in my throat, or a pit in my stomach, or sometimes tension in my upper or lower back, sometimes around my shoulder area because I’m hunched up.

Those physiological symptoms are all evidence that this is not just about replaying past conflicts, or needing to dismiss unhelpful thoughts and mentally move on. When you start feeling the stress in your body, it’s gonna take a little more to deal with it.

When that happens, there are two ways that I find I can clear tension in my body, and these two approaches go hand-in-hand.

One is breathing through it. So doing deep inhales and deep exhales to get that tension out. Breath is life. Breath is energy. You don’t want unresolved pain trapped inside you, and breathing is a powerful way to release it on an energetic level. So when you exhale, envision all of the bottled-up emotions and shame and guilt leaving your body. Don’t allow it to stay stuck in there, because that’s what leads to more pain and other physical symptoms.

The other approach is to repair the harm that I’ve done. So sometimes I need to breathe through it first and get myself together before talking to the person, and sometimes the first thing I need to do is go apologize and own what I did, and then breathe out that tension. When you stop thinking all those negative thoughts and drop down into your body, you will know which step to take first.

At some point after you snap at your kids, acknowledge it. Tell them, “I’m sorry I lost my temper with you this morning. I didn’t like the way I spoke to you. It didn’t feel good, and I want you to know that I want to always speak to you with kindness and respect. Sometimes I mess up because I am human. But I want to tell you that I am sorry I was mean, and I want to know if you will give me a fresh start so that we can have a better afternoon together.” This kind of simple, honest, direct talk can be used with little ones, teens, and adults alike.

The really nice thing about owning your stuff with your students is that you will feel so much more empowered to let them know how you’re feeling when you’re frustrated. We snap at our kids because we’re out of self-control and our willpower has been depleted.

But the next time you feel like snapping and you remember how it’s going to create tension in your back and a pit in your stomach and you’re gonna have to apologize afterward, it’s going to make you think twice. And you’ll be able to say to the kids at the moment, “I’m getting really frustrated that so many people are not following directions right now. I’m working very hard to speak to you in a kind and respectful tone. I need you to show the same respect back to me and listen carefully to what I’m about to tell you for the directions for this next activity.”

The awesome thing about that approach is that it’s also training kids to understand how their behavior makes other people feel. Children are naturally self-absorbed until we train them explicitly in how not to be considerate of others, and how to be mindful of how their choices impact people around them. So this really opens the door for healthy communication, causes you to think twice about saying and doing things you’d be embarrassed about, and also gives kids a model for what they can do when they are frustrated and about to go off on someone.

But from a thought work perspective — which is our focus for this episode — do not bottle in the shame and guilt. Breathe through it and get it out of your body, and repair the harm you’ve done so you can move on. Shame comes from feeling like you did something terribly wrong and you would be embarrassed if anyone ever found out so you need to hide it and pretend it didn’t happen. When you admit to your students that you mistreated them and you tell them you’re sorry, it helps clear the shame and prevent the problem from happening again.

Scenario 4: The state in which I live and teach had a teacher strike 2 years in a row. It was a very emotional journey. Support from family, friends, and the community was mixed. I still feel like my profession is under attack and it has caused a lot of anxiety.

One approach to the situation is to question the thought that the profession is under attack. Byron Katie has a process she calls “The Work” which allows us to create distance between ourselves and the thoughts that are causing us stress. She teaches that our thoughts about a situation create suffering, and by questioning our thoughts, we can relieve that suffering.

As much evidence as there is that the profession is under attack — and that’s actually a thought that I have believed myself many, many times — from a thought work perspective, we have to remember that all thoughts are optional.

You can choose the thoughts you want to think. If I thought it was not helpful for you, you do not have to dwell on it. One way to avoid dwelling on it is by questioning it.

We often get very attached to our thoughts, attached to the point of even identifying with them and believing they are part of us and our identity. But you are not your thoughts. When you question your thoughts, that allows you to distinguish between yourself and your thoughts so you can examine them with curiosity and not feel so deeply attached to beliefs that are creating pain and suffering.

So there are 4 questions that Byron Katie asks which are part of The Work. The first is, “Is that really true?” The answer is either yes or no. Not a “yes, and” or a “yes, but”. Just yes or no. And if it’s a yes, then you ask yourself, “Can I really know that it’s true?”

The point of asking those questions is only to allow you to examine your thoughts. There is no correct answer, and in fact, it doesn’t really matter what the answer is, and whether the thought is true or not. The Work is in question.

So if you can sincerely ask yourself, “Is it really true that our profession is under attack?” you’re already on the path to relieving that anxiety because you’re no longer automatically believing your own thoughts and assuming all of your thoughts are true and accurate. That’s a headspace most folks never get to, so you’re doing great if you’re willing to even entertain the question of whether your thought is true.

Questioning if it’s true leaves space to consider other opinions, thoughts, beliefs, and facts. Is it really true that the profession is under attack? Is that an actual fact that is beyond debate? Is there any evidence that the profession is not under attack? Because if there is any shred of doubt there — if there’s any possibility that someone could hold a different belief than yours — then you’ve now disassociated yourself from the thought that the profession is under attack, and now the thought has less power over you.

Byron Katie then asks you to look for ways to turn that thought around. Instead of “the profession is under attack”— which you’ve just examined and tried to find evidence for — what if you turned it around and looked for evidence of another perspective? “The profession is not under attack?” Is there any evidence at all for that thought to be true?

Another turnaround: ”I am attacking the profession.” Could that be true in any capacity, and can you find evidence for that thought?

How about this one: “My profession should be under attack.” That could be another turnaround. Can you find evidence for that?

Keep looking at the thought from lots of different angles. What else might you think about the situation? What else might be true that you haven’t considered yet? Could the situation be more complex and have more gray areas than what you initially assumed, which is that your thought is correct and the immutable truth?

The third question to ask yourself when doing “The Work” from Byron Katie is, “How do I react when I believe that thought?”

I’ll answer that here for myself. When I believe the thought that the profession is under attack, I feel helpless, frustrated, unhappy, discouraged, and unmotivated. So answering this question gives me insight into the way my choice to believe this thought is creating suffering in myself.

The fourth and final question is, “Who or what would you be without the thought?” When I am not believing the thought that our profession is under attack, I feel less overwhelmed by all of the problems in education. Without that thought, I feel empowered to do something about the problems.  Without that thought, I am a person who feels hopeful about the future.

Now “The Work” is a profound mindset change for all of us when we first hear it, and you may have some confusion or resistance to it. However, it’s a useful tool for all kinds of other questions that were submitted to me for this episode. There was one about a principal who devalued the teacher’s work and creates all kinds of self-doubt; one about a colleague who said very hurtful things and destroyed the trust and camaraderie, and so on.

If you have a situation that you are not over and can’t let go of, try doing The Work here. Ask yourself, “Is that thought really true, that this relationship is irreparable, or I’ve been betrayed, or I can’t move on from this. Is that really true? Can you really know it to be true? Think of ways you can turn those thoughts around and examine the evidence for different points of view. Then ask, “How do I react when I believe that thought?” and “Who am I without that thought?

If you go to thework.com, you can find Byron Katie‘s resources, which are all completely free, including something she calls the Judge Your Neighbor worksheet which you can fill out anytime you want to question your thoughts.

Remember: Your thoughts are optional. You can choose which thoughts you think and which thoughts you believe. Even if a thought is true, if it is not serving you well, you have the option to choose a different thought.

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela is a National Board Certified educator with 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach. She started this website in 2003, and now serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Truth for Teachers...
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