July 27, 2011

What's the Meaning of This!? Part 2

Last week, I shared the concept that we are all meaning making machines. Today, as promised, I’ll share the four steps for challenging the interpretations you come up with in response to something someone does or says. But, 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 – 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. 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. Ellis, recall his Rational Emotive Theory I mentioned last week, 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.

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