With that in mind, I'd like to share with you all today a lesson from my guidebook that addresses this very topic.
“We are all meaning making machines.”
I first heard this description of “how we humans work” years ago at a course 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. 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 to any given situation.
Psychologist Albert Ellis 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, imagine one of your teachers chastised you for a wrong answer in front of the class. Ellis would call this the “actual or activating event.” As a way to explain why that happened, you 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 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 will go straight to the interpretation that is already wired rather than make an effort to do something different.
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 took it to mean that he wasn’t willing to change or make sacrifices for her, which reinforced one of her other false beliefs, “I am on my own.” In that moment, she fell into meaning making, reinforced a false belief, and now, when she returns to the conversation with him about traveling, she will already be set to interpret what he does or says as further evidence that he will not make changes or sacrifices for her.
How do we turn off the meaning making machine instead of greasing the wheels? Well, the bad news is we can’t; we are wired this way. However, we can decrease the frequency with which our negative meanings get first priority and decrease how long we stay “stuck” in a meaning once we notice that is what we are up to by using the following steps.
The first step is to identify the bare bone facts of what happened, strip away emotions and interpretations. In the example above, what happened is the husband said, “I need to do more research.” Period, end of story. This is a critical first step because it forces us to step away from our meanings and pay close attention to just what was said or done. As Joe Friday would say, “Just the facts, ma’am.”
The next step is to determine what story we made up, what was our interpretation. 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.” Oftentimes, the meaning we come up with in one situation shows up in many circumstances. So, more globally, my client had a general false belief that “People won’t change or sacrifice for me.”
Now it is time to challenge the initial interpretation by looking for other possible explanations. Recall Ellis’s Rational Emotive Theory I mentioned in the last lesson. He would describe this as “disputing the belief.” In this example, my client and I brainstormed 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.” Or “He’s nervous about traveling more since it is not as comfortable for him, so he needs to read more to feel solid about his decision.” Or “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 is 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. By challenging the initial false belief, we 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’s theory).
With this understanding about how we are interpreting the other person’s words or actions, it is time to have a conversation. By going to her husband and sharing her interpretation, she is giving him the opportunity to share more about what is really going on for him so both parties are on the same page. This step is often the hardest, because we are revealing a bit of ourselves. Additionally, it is within the realm of possibility that her husband could say that he doesn’t want to change for her. This is one of the main reasons we avoid communicating. We think that hearing the person say something out loud will be much worse than just having the thought running around in our mind. However, if our goal is to lead an authentic, fully expressed life, understanding the needs and wants of the people who we are close to is crucial, even if it stings!
Disclaimer: I am not advising we ignore or completely distrust our interpretations. I am advising that we hit the pause button and check in with ourselves. For example, if someone says they are going to call and they don’t, we may initially make it mean something like “I’m not worth their time.” In that moment, do the above-mentioned steps to shut down the meaning making machine.
If it is the fifth time that the person has failed to follow through, well now, it is time to notice that our initial interpretation might not be so far off the mark. The only way to find out is to have a conversation. We may find that they have indeed been avoiding us because they are not interested in continuing the relationship or we might find they have lost their job and want to avoid any social interactions. It is very important that, if it is the former, we do not globalize the experience to mean “I’m not worth anyone’s time.” That is a false belief that will cause lots of trouble if allowed to take root.
By the way, determining the root cause or first time a particular false belief occurred may be helpful, but is not necessary when it comes to challenging the story. We can identify and challenge our stories in the present and transform our lives even if we never determine exactly where the false belief came from. The important thing is to identify the nagging false belief regardless of the instigating experience.
So, the next time someone says or does something that elicits a high emotional response, hit the pause button and take a moment to do the steps outlined above and see if there is a false belief that needs to be challenged.
In fact, why wait ... let’s try it now!
Write about an experience that left you feeling upset, agitated, disappointed, or frustrated. Identify what happened—just the facts!Example: No one came to check on me when I was crying.
Identify what you made it mean, your interpretation, your story.Example: I am on my own.
Explore other possible explanations.Example: My mother was too far away to hear me.
Would communicating with someone about this make sense? If so, what would you say to the person?Example: “Mom, when I was abused the first time, I ran to your bedroom and cried and cried. I know now that, because no one checked on me, I decided that I must just be on my own. I’ve been thinking a lot about how that false belief has been impacting me still.”
Now that we have practiced challenging the meanings that come up as a result of experiences, let’s take a look at what happens when we create meanings based on what people say.
In addition to the experiences of the abuse, we are often told things that are exceptionally powerful or hurtful and shift our meaning making machine into high gear.
Which of these have you heard (or use the blanks to list your own) (from Shelter from the Storm)?
- Why are you making such a big deal of this? You were very young at the time it happened.
- What did you do to make this happen?
- You’re the problem. You’re just using this as an excuse to get your way.
- Why didn’t you stop it from happening?
- You mean you didn’t tell anybody when it happened?
- Why can’t you just forget it?
- You should just forgive and forget.
- I don’t believe you were ever abused.
- What is past is past. Let’s just not bring it up again.
- Why can’t you hurry up and get over this?
- I’m so sick of hearing about your needs. What about my needs?
- You’re just feeling sorry for yourself.
- Can’t you just let go of it? Nothing is happening to you now.
- It couldn’t have been as bad as you say.
- Others? ___________________________
What meanings or interpretations did you create when these things were said to you?
As Cynthia Kubetin-Littlefield writes in Shelter from the Storm:
“Sometimes people make these statements because they have absolutely no understanding of abuse issues. Other times the speaker may be mentally exhausted with the survivor or the recovery process. Still other individuals simply may not wish to deal with this difficult situation, because it is threatening to them and consumes too much time.”
Practice challenging one of these meanings or interpretations:
Identify what happened—just the facts!
Example: My boyfriend said, “Why didn’t you stop it from happening?”
Identify what you made it mean, your interpretation, your story.Example: It’s my fault.
Explore other possible explanations.
Example: My boyfriend is confused and unsure how to support me.
Would communicating with someone about this make sense? If so, what would you say to the person?Example: “When you asked ‘Why didn’t you stop it from happening?’ I thought you meant it was my fault that the abuse continued.”
Oh, and the bad news is …In case you are wondering if there is any way to permanently shut down your meaning making machine or stop yourself from “getting into story,” let me save you the time and effort you would put into researching that and just say right now, there isn’t.
Yes, this even includes me. My five stories listed below are mine—all mine—and they aren’t going anywhere.
But, the good news is …We can decrease the frequency with which our stories pop up by weakening the neuronal pathways so that they are not so easily lit up. In addition, we can decrease the duration or length of time that we are caught up in meaning making and story by recognizing when we are doing this and using the skills we are learning to pull ourselves out.