July 20, 2011

What's the Meaning of This!? Part 1

“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.


Discover the 3 Stages of Recovery from Childhood Abuse

The road to recovery is much easier when you know what stage you're in and what to do next. Find out exactly where you are in your healing journey and what kind of support you need right now. 
This FREE 9-page guide will give you the answers you've been seeking.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for that informative blog. In Somatic Experiencing trauma work, the ultimate goal is to discharge the energy from the neural pathways that were laid down by the body's reaction to a traumatic event and to look for a new meaning that often arises when the pathways are cleared. This reconnects the neocortex with the brain stem, the limbic system, and the body. I have more on this in my blogs at http://helphealingtrauma.com


Sign up for my free guide so you can stop spinning your wheels and instead navigate your way through each stage of recovery with ease and clarity. Get the support you need today