How you Make Sense of the World Affects your Outlook, your Relationships, and You
Making sense of our experiences is a creative process that establishes and maintains our understanding of our world. Our ability to be “meaning-makers,” has an enormous impact on every aspect of our daily lives. What we make of everyday events is an inventive and adaptive quality that enlivens and deepens our experiences.
At the same time, however, it can stymie, confuse, and confound us. Meaning-making can lead to misunderstandings, conflict, and failed relationships. Once you harness this ability, you may find it very helpful in navigating your world.
The Meaning of Everyday Meaning
When we can’t explain something fully, it’s like seeing the figure “o” with part of it missing, so that it looks like this: ?. We use our creative minds to fill in the gap, and we assume it’s a circle because we want to be certain about what it is.
However, meaning-making may have to do more with our past than our present experiences. Helen Grebow said, “When we’re small, we learn about ourselves by the people around us.” As highly impressionable children, we organized our experiences based on the way our parents and others perceived us. This organization provides a template (a filter) through which we understand our experiences as adults.
Additionally, when something happens, we look at the current experience as proof of what we already know. Conversely, we tend to ignore, dismiss, or minimize disconfirming evidence because it doesn’t complete the ? in a way that makes sense.
Understanding how meaning-making can help you to liberate yourself from your preconceived notions and confirmation bias. Challenging assumptions in the following illustrations can facilitate that process and expand the various meanings that you take for granted.
I’d like to first mention when I completed a circle in a therapy session in the wrong way and learned a big lesson. A patient told me that her grandmother died. I replied, “I’m sorry.” That’s my mistake, and I’m going to reveal why it was a mistake at the end of the article. In the meantime, as you continue reading, see if you can figure out where I erred.
We may think that we’re having a shared experience in terms of the trials and tribulations of living in the age of Covid-19, but the responses are more varied than you might think. We’re all on a spectrum of stressed to non-stressed, feeling trapped to feeling free, and experiencing misery to – yes – happiness and contentment.
At one end of the spectrum, pre-Covid, one young man used to work from home, get high, and order in his meals. With shelter-in-place, he reports being happy. Although he still works from home, gets high, and orders in, he no longer feels guilty for living his life the way he does. Others like having no responsibility, and they are not looking forward to a return to normal.
It’s a common belief that the Number One reason for conflict between spouses is money. However, money is a powerful symbol unique to each person. It can symbolize power, control, comfort, safety, a weapon, and even an albatross, among others.
Money usually has more than one meaning for us, but to illustrate, let’s say you believe that money symbolizes freedom. You may be planning your next vacation, looking for a new car, or excitedly telling your partner about what you bought. For some people, seeing money as freedom necessarily means worrying less about the future. If you max out your credit cards or quit your job, you’d think, “Where’s the problem?”
If you view money as comfort and security, however, hearing about those things are most likely going to arouse anxiety (another concept that has many meanings), and any resulting disagreement is going to be about two very distinct symbolizations. Neither of you are going to feel heard because while you’re talking about “money,” you’re actually referring to two very different things! You view money as a way to ride out a financial downturn and prepare for a comfortable retirement and your partner sees it as a ticket to freedom.
For those who see money as power, it provides access to people and places that ordinary citizens don’t have. It means first-class treatment, from the private lounge at the airport to staying at five-star hotels, hiring private tour guides, etc. Friends and relatives may have a difficult time saying “no” to you, so the power of money also means getting what you want.
We all agree with what conflict means, right? Well… not exactly. In fact, I think as a culture we’ve gotten it wrong. That’s why when patients say, “I’m afraid of conflict,” I will attempt to clarify what really mean. Every time I have explored this, it has led to a new understanding as to what the fear is really about.
The prevailing view is that conflict involves a back-and-forth exchange between two people. However, conflict starts before the first word is spoken. For example, let’s say that your partner wants to have another child but you do not. Your partner isn’t concerned about the financial impact (it will work itself out) but you are very concerned.
The conflict – although unspoken – has already developed in the minds of the two of you. However, neither of you know it’s a conflict – yet. One evening, your partner says that it’s time to think about having (or adopting) another baby.
Wishing to “avoid conflict”, if you say nothing and appear to nod in agreement (while silently disagreeing), you’re actually holding the conflict inside, and if your tendency is to hold conflicts inside, you can develop the idea that you never get your way or that you’re a victim of circumstance. But these notions may be in actuality perpetuating a sense of victimhood, which – if you take a look – may be confirmation bias and saying more about your past than your present situation.
Meaning and Mentalization
Researchers Gopnik and Astington wanted to learn what children think others know and how it relates to what they know. They showed children under the age of 4 a closed box which looked like the sweet treat “Smarties.” They asked each child what was inside, and the child would logically say “Smarties!” But when he or she opened the box, there were pencils inside.
Next, the researchers told them, “We’re going to show this box to your teacher (who was in another room). When I show him or her the closed box, what do you think they’re going to guess is inside the box?” Most of the children said – without a trace of hesitation – “Pencils! The term for this is “psychic equivalence,” which means “everybody knows what I know.”
The opposite of psychic equivalence is mentalization, which occurs as we mature. We can understand the contents of another person’s mind, even if it differs from ours. It’s a lifelong process to master more sophisticated forms of mentalization, as we’re never fully able to succeed in every situation. (Please note, mentaliization differs from empathy, which is understanding how others feel).
We close the circle by ascribing a motive in order to alleviate our anxiety. You derive an explanation that makes sense to you – you close the ?. Because prior experiences provide a filter through which you see your current situations, instead consider the realm of possibilities. You’ll need to live with uncertainty, which isn’t always easy.
Misattribution of Meaning
A therapist asked her 5-year-old patient, whose mother flew into rages, “Why does your Mommy yell at you?” He answered, “Because sometimes Mommy is bad!”
The boy properly identified his mother as having the problem, whereas others –most of us at that age – would blame ourselves, as we would have misattributed the meaning of her behavior as a reflection on us. And that creates the template for future relationships.
Perhaps you feel less than, not good enough, or that something is wrong with you. If you do, you’d dismiss any countering ideas because you’d be in psychic equivalence mode: It’s an irrefutable “fact.”
One patient abused by his parents, was not when he visited his grandparents. He concluded that because they didn’t live with him, they didn’t really know him. And if they did, they would treat him the same way, believing he deserved it.
Even if you outgrow this kind of belief, you may never fully outgrow the misattributed feeling that it’s about you. A realistic goal is to live with uncomfortable feelings, tolerate them, and recognize that just because it makes sense doesn’t mean it’s true.
At the beginning of the article I mentioned that I made a mistake by saying “I’m sorry” when a patient told me her grandmother died. Ordinarily, “I’m sorry” is a welcomed response. But in the session, when I said “I’m sorry,” the patient replied, “I’m not! My grandmother was a bitch!”
About the Author
Jeffrey Chernin, Ph.D., MFT has three books and several articles for therapists and the general public. He has been practicing psychotherapist for 28 years in private practice and community health settings, taught adjunct psychology and counseling courses and Antioch and Chapman University and has provided workshops and issues relating to stress management, addiction, grief, and depression, among other subjects.