What's the Meaning of This?
“We are all meaning making machines”
I first heard this description of how we humans work years ago at a workshop I was attending. Recently, when I Googled it, I got over 5 million results! Clearly this is an idea that has been floating around and changing the way people interact with each other and frame their experiences for some time. This certainly was the case for me, so let’s break it down and figure out exactly what being a “meaning making machine” means.
We are wired to automatically assign a meaning or interpretation to each experience we have. Whether in response to something someone does or says, we have a craving to explain why things have gone the way they have. This happens without a conscious effort on our part, but takes root and influences the way we feel and react before we even know what meaning we’ve come up with.
Albert Ellis, a psychologist, developed his theory of Rational Emotive Behavior in 1955. According to his theory, we develop irrational beliefs during childhood that influence our feelings and behavior then and later in life. On a neurological level, the “meanings” are often the same in many situations because an old pathway that was wired long ago is “lit up.” For example, perhaps a teacher chastised you for a wrong answer in front of the class when you were younger. Ellis would call this the “actual or activating event.” As a way to explain why that happened, you make it mean or develop the irrational belief, “I’m not smart.” Years later, a boss criticizes your ideas and the meaning you assign is – you got it – “I’m not smart.” As a result, you may feel inferior, inept, lose confidence or avoid taking on new projects (the emotional and behavioral consequences are in full swing!).
We do need interpretations in order to navigate the world and our experiences. However, more often than not, our first interpretation or meaning has much more to do with our own history, baggage, fears, and false beliefs than with what is actually going on. As we have learned, the mind likes to reinforce the pathways that are already wired and resists creating new ones. So, when we find ourselves experiencing something that is familiar, the mind likes to go straight to the interpretation that is already wired rather than make an effort to do something different.
So, how do you turn off the meaning making machine instead of greasing the wheels? Well, the bad news is you can’t – we are wired this way. However, you can decrease the frequency with which your negative meanings get first priority and decrease how long you stay “stuck” in a meaning once you notice that’s what you’re up to.
Before we get to the how, let’s spend a little time on the why? The first reason to begin challenging our initial meanings is because, more often than not, we are reinforcing old neuronal pathways rather than accurately interpreting the situation. This keeps us locked in patterns of thought that prevent us from connecting with others or experiencing new things. Secondly, when we solely trust our interpretation, we are not only deciding for ourselves but for the other person as well what is going on. This stifles connection and communication – no good.
Okay, on to the good stuff…
A client of mine recently shared with her husband that she wanted to travel more. The husband responded by saying he needed to do some research before he could make a decision. Immediately, my client made it mean that he wasn’t willing to change or make sacrifices for her, which reinforced one of her other false beliefs, “I have to do everything on my own.” Uh oh! She’s fallen into meaning making, reinforced a false belief, and now, created a frame with which she’ll return to the conversation with him about traveling (in other words, next time the topic comes up, she’ll already be set to interpret what he does/says as further evidence that he won’t make changes or sacrifices for her). So, now comes the work of challenging the meaning.
The first step is to identify the bare bone facts of what happened (sound familiar?) – strip away emotions, interpretations. So, in the example above, what happened is, “He said he needed to do more research.” Period, end of story. This is a critical first step because it forces you to step away from your meanings and play close attention to just what was done or said. As Joe Friday would say, “Just the facts, ma’am.”
The next step is to figure out what you made it mean (the story). Usually, being quiet for less than a minute will allow the false belief to bubble up to the surface. The meaning in this story was, “He’s not willing to change or sacrifice for me.” Often times, the meaning we come up with in one situation shows up in lots of circumstances. So, more globally, my client has a general false belief that “People won’t change or sacrifice for me.” If it’s important to you, spending some time reflecting to identify the first time you had this thought will give you some insight as to when this particular meaning was “born”, but it’s not a necessary step.
Now it’s time to challenge the initial interpretation by looking for other possible explanations. Recall Ellis’s Rational Emotive Theory I mentioned in the last chapter. He would describe this as “disputing the belief.” In this example, my client and I brainstormed some other possibilities – “He needs more information before he can make a decision – after all, his personality type is such that he does look for facts and details before making decisions”, “He’s nervous about traveling more since it’s not as comfortable for him, so he needs to read more to feel solid about his decision”, “He was watching football and just wanted to get me out of the way.” You see, there are a ton of different interpretations – all of which are possible (and, by the way, her initial interpretation is also a possibility). What’s important to notice at this step is that the initial interpretation is not the end all, be all interpretation, which creates room for the false belief to be challenged. In doing so, by challenging the initial false belief, you are actually weakening the neuronal connection rather than reinforcing it! This opens the door to new behavioral and emotional consequences (the final step in Ellis’ theory).
With this understanding about what you were making the other person’s words or actions mean, it’s time to get into a conversation about it. By going to her husband and sharing what she had made his response mean, she is giving him the opportunity to share more about what’s really going on for him and to get on the same page. This step is often the hardest, because we are revealing a bit of ourselves. Additionally, it’s within the realm of possibility that her husband could say that she’s right, he doesn’t want to change for her. Well, him saying it out loud will be much harder to deal with than to just have the thought running around in her mind, right? Actually, if your goal is to lead an authentic, fully expressed life, being clear about what the people who you are closely connected to want is crucial!
Disclaimer: I’m not advising you to ignore or completely distrust your interpretations. I am advising you to hit the pause button and check in with yourself. For example, if someone says they are going to call and they don’t – you may initially make it mean something like, “I’m not worth their time.” In that moment, do the steps to shut down the meaning making machine. If it’s the fifth time that the person has failed to follow through, well now, it’s time to notice that you’re initial interpretation might not be so far off the mark. The only way to find out though is, again, to have a conversation. You may find that they have indeed been avoiding calling you because they’re not so interested in continuing the relationship or you might find they’ve lost their job and so are avoiding any social interactions. It’s very important that, if it is the former, you don’t globalize the experience to mean “I’m not worth anyone’s time.” That’s a false belief that will cause lots of trouble if allowed to take root.
So, the next time someone says or does something – particularly if you have a high emotional response to it – pause, take a moment to do the steps outlined above and see if there is a meaning you’re making that needs to be challenged.
Oh, and the bad news is…
In case you’re wondering if there is any way to just permanently shut down your meaning making machine or stop yourself from “getting into story,” let me save you the time and effort you’d put into researching that and just say right now – there isn’t.
Yes, this even includes me!
But, the good news is…
You can decrease the frequency with which your stories pop up (by weakening the neuronal pathways so that they are not so easily lit up) and you can decrease the duration or length of time that you are caught up by the meaning making/story (by becoming aware of and more easily recognizing when you are doing this and using the skills you are learning to pull yourself out).
Yes, this even includes me – my stories still pop up from time to time, but not nearly as often as they did at one time in my life. I use the steps outlined in this chapter to get out of story as quickly as possible. Some days, I’m quite successful; other days, not so much. Yet each time I do the work of challenging a story, I’m weakening the neuronal pathway and increasing the likelihood that I’ll catch myself sooner the next time.