What else could it mean?
There are many things that happen to us in life which we wouldn’t choose if it was up to us. The reality is that sometimes stressful things happen. The choice we do have at these times is in how we respond to those things, and our response is often impacted largely by the meaning we put on these events.
Let’s look at an example. Let’s say you call a friend one day and realise that while your friend is talking to you, she doesn’t seem fully engaged in the conversation. She forces a laugh, doesn’t ask how you are, and then gives an excuse as to why she needs to go which just doesn’t ring true. You could get off the phone really upset, thinking she doesn’t like you, or that she doesn’t enjoy talking to you, and that you are really just an imposition to her. Or you could do something quite different. You could get off the phone feeling ok in yourself, but with a little concern for her. Perhaps she’s had an argument with her partner. Perhaps her child has been up sick all night and she hasn’t had much sleep. Or perhaps she’s just received a large bill at a time she was already worried about money. You resolve to give her a couple of days then invite her round for a coffee so you can see if there’s any way you can help, and then move on with your day.
These two approaches are quite different, and the way we end up feeling at the end of the call is determined by the meaning we put on what happened. Of course, we don’t know the actual reason as to what was going on for her, all we can do is take an educated guess. However giving the event a meaning that helps us move on in the best possible way means we have a much better day and makes it far more likely that we can be our best selves.
A couple of years ago I taught this concept to a group in a workshop and we discussed the idea of a car overtaking you in a place they shouldn’t and then cutting in so quickly they just about take the corner off your car, and what might be going on for this driver (apart from just being a complete idiot). We had a good laugh about the possibility that that the car was actually full of monkeys that had just escaped from the zoo and should therefore be avoided at all costs, or that the driver’s wife was laying on the back seat, puffing and panting and clearly about to give birth, which is why he was driving so erratically, trying to get her to the hospital in time.
A couple of weeks later, I was driving to Hanmer Springs when exactly that situation occurred – someone passing me where they shouldn’t and cutting in way too finely as a consequence. My immediate reaction was a mini explosion at his stupidity. This was quickly followed by an image of a poor woman laid out in the back seat about to give birth. This image changed my state immediately, and I happily waved the car on, wishing them all the best.
Naturally, the chances of the car actually containing a woman who was giving birth are extremely low, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I was able to let go of my anger within about half a second, something that would not have affected the other driver in any way, but which would have been pretty unpleasant for me.
So next time you react negatively to a situation, pause for a moment to consider the meaning that you’re putting on that event. And ask yourself instead, “What else could it mean?”