“We are all meaning making machines”
I first heard this description of how we humans work six years ago at a workshop I was attending. Today, 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, false beliefs than with what is actually going on. As I’ve written about before, 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. But how?
Next week, I’ll share the four steps to challenging the meaning making machine (now, don’t go making the delay mean I don’t care enough to share it now or that I’m just teasing you into returning!). Between now and then, you can get started by noting the meanings you make in different situations. I encourage you to jot them down. Most of us have a few top meanings – our go-to meanings – that will show up over and over again. Creating a list of meanings that keep popping up will help you hone in on the main false beliefs that have taken root and that will require the most work to challenge.
If you’d like to learn more about how coaching can support you in shutting down your meaning making machine, I encourage you to schedule a free 30 minute Discovery Session!
P.S. I'm still running my "4 Free Sessions" deal for all new clients. If we decide to work together, your first four sessions are free - no strings attached! This offer ENDS AUGUST 1st – so don’t miss this opportunity to sign up or share coaching with someone you know.