MEANING MAKING MACHINES
BY: Troy Murphy | June 2016
We are meaning making machines. When Susan doesn’t respond to a text, with no other credible information, our wheels churn, creating meaning: “She’s mad at me.” We seek meaning, we are driven. We are not satisfied with knowing we received no return text—we want to know why. The meanings we create influence emotion; the more meaningful an event, the more emotional the memory. It rarely occurs to us that an emotional arousal—fear, anger, disgust or simple joy-- could be reacting to a wrong assessment. But meaning may be very wrong: Susan’s driving or dropped her phone in the bathtub. Subsequent events are tainted as well. The faulty assessments bias future encounters. A new event may provoke greater arousal than it deserves. Emotional distortions create distorted interpretations compounding on the original misjudgments.
Impoverished childhoods and traumatic experiences interfere with accurate assessments in adulthood. Past hurts spill into the present encouraging self-protecting behaviors. These behaviors limit opportunities, spoil relationships, and create more pain. The habitual responses flow so naturally and feel so justified that we fail to see the self-sabotaging behaviors.
High emotions take their toll, creeping into all aspects of our lives, closing doors, cheating futures. The pain from past hurt continues forward, interfering with trust, bonds and intimacy. When we are threatened, mundane events appear ferocious. We misinterpret the casual word as an attack. We automatically—and unconsciously—respond with shame, anger, emotional withdrawal or spiteful revenge. The response is understandable given the past. We attach deep meaning to the current interaction, frightened and cornered, survival instincts jump to action; we puff our chests with strong words. The accusatory reaction doesn’t resolve the problem—often creates a divide, shaking safety for both partners.
We need a safety zone. Healthy relationships provide shelter from fearful futures. We know we are loved because we feel it. An un-tempered word from a partner is softened because we know their heart. The safety zone of a relationship deteriorates with unpredictability. When fights create the drama of possible abandonment, we find no security. The drama of on and off relationships damages the soul. We live in a world of unpredictable acceptance. Love is spoiled by the conditional offering—I love you when you do what I say. Both partners feel the lack of security, no secure base for retreat when life becomes stressful. Outside stressors create strong relationships when the relationship provides relief. But insecure relationships add to the stress. Our expressions of hurt, sorrow or anger generate too many emotions for the relationship to manage—outside stressors overwhelm the fragile connections. When one partner seeks solace from outside pressures and is rebuffed, the failure to accept in times of trouble erodes trust, intimacy is destroyed, and partners become guarded.
We can fight the emotional tendencies that undermine connection. With mindful attentiveness, and professional guidance, partners can recognize when the past is intruding on the present. By recognizing unreasonable reactions to triggering event creates space and a chance to intercede before the automatic response. We intervene in the destructive cycle of communication. An enlightened partner examines the accuracy of assigned meanings that influence the emotions and considers alternate explanations. This process isn’t fool proof; emotional reactions occur beneath the veil of consciousness. But we can expand awareness. We can catch influencers that previously evaded detection.
We cheat wisdom through habitual processes. Remember:
We must acknowledge the imperfectness of assigned meanings—whether those meanings are explicit or not. If we believe we transcend this aberration of the mind, we are more susceptible to the ills. Cognitive sureties must be challenged. Without thought, we simply feel, react and then justify, while maintaining automatic reaction. Unfortunately the easy path, sticking to the past, has a high price—stagnation. We may fine tune explanations, seemingly smoothing our reactions but in reality we keep doing the same darn things that destroy us and our relationships. We must challenge the behavior, not fine tune our justifications. We sacrifice the false purity of self by acknowledging the errors but gain the security of stronger relationships. The lack of security cruelly deprives the insecure of behaviors that build security.
Emotions can get the best of us. When highly aroused, emotions limit our ability to effectively reason. If mindfulness is a new experience, we must grant sufficient time for aroused emotions to settle before responding. Trying to force emotionally aroused partners into calm submission heightens resistance, and reinforces emotional divides. Navigating the intricate maze of interpersonal relations during heighten arousal obscures options, evokes frustration, and ultimately destroys bonds; first recover, and then reengage, remembering to disengage if emotions begin to intrude. Over time, we develop the skills to soothe our aroused system without frequent escapes.
A mindful approach creates a safe zone in relationships where intimacy develops, hope is inspired and unbreakable bonds forged.