Meaning Making Machines
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | June 2016
Our minds work to sort and make sense of the array of data soaked in from experience. We sort, we order and then we explain.
We are meaning making machines. When Susan doesn’t respond to a text, with no other credible information, our wheels churn, giving her absence meaning: “She’s mad at me.” We are driven to seek meaning. We are not satisfied with the simple facts—we want to know why. The meanings are more than a bundle of words floating through our minds; the meanings 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 may be driving or dropped her phone in the bathtub. But the impact of meaning doesn’t stop with a single event, subsequent events are also tainted. The faulty assessments bias future encounters. A new event may provoke greater arousal than it deserves. Emotional distortions create distorted interpretations compounding with each encounter.
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 overlook 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 infraction, frightened and cornered, survival instincts jump to action; we puff our chests and attack. The accusatory reaction doesn’t resolve the problem—often creates a divide, shaking safety for both partners. Our adaptation is counter-productive, creating more of what we do not like.
We need a safety zone. Healthy relationships provide shelter from fearful futures. We know we are loved because we feel it. An ill-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 is present for retreat when life becomes stressful. Outside stressors create stronger 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 provide safety in times of trouble erodes trust, intimacy is destroyed, and partners become guarded.
"The pain from past hurt continues forward, interfering with trust, bonds and intimacy. When we are threatened, mundane events appear ferocious."
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, created by the mind and influencing emotions and then step back to consider alternate explanations. This process isn’t fool proof; emotional reactions occur beneath the veil of consciousness. But we can expand awareness, catching previously unseen influencers that evaded detection.
We cheat the opportunity to gain wisdom through by blindly following habitual processes:
To improve, we must acknowledge the imperfectness of assigned meanings—whether those meanings are explicit or not. If we accept unconditionally this aberration of the mind, we are more susceptible to the ills. Supposed cognitive sureties must be challenged. Without thought, we simply feel, react and then justify. Our automatic reaction goes unchallenged and often destroy our lives. Unfortunately, the easy path of sticking to past practices has a high price—stagnation. We may fine tune explanations, seemingly giving legitimacy to reactions but keep doing the same darn things that destroy us and our relationships. We don’t need more articulate reasons; we need better action. We must challenge the behavior, not fine tune the justifications. We sacrifice the sanctity of a perfect self but gain the security of stronger relationships. The lack of security that inflicts too many cruelly deprives them of moving into the vulnerability that ultimately builds security.
Emotions can get the best of us and get lost in silly explanations. When highly aroused, emotions limit effective reasoning. If using mindfulness is a new experience, grant sufficient time for aroused emotions to settle before responding. Trying to force emotionally aroused partners or ourselves 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 the frequent need for escapes.
A mindful approach creates a safe zone in relationships where intimacy develops, hope is inspired, and unbreakable bonds forged. We still will have active minds, giving meaning to the events; but when the emotions are soothed, we open the mind for more practical and less emotionally fused reasons. Our meaning-making machines will still live but will more effectively serve our long-term goals of stronger relationships.
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