What do we tell ourselves when we have an experience that we don’t want – losing a job, discovering a health issue, ending a relationship, or other changes that feel bad to us? Do we tell ourselves we deserved it? That we have no power in our circumstances? That there is nothing we can do, and we have no other choice? What if what was happening was for us and not against us? How would we feel then? How might that transform our experiences?
When we change the meaning of our experience, we can change the feelings we have about it. Instead of thinking that we are a victim, the situation/person is the villain, and that there is nothing we can do about it, we can remember that we are creating the meaning in our circumstances.
This means that we really do have a choice about what we feel. We exercise that choice by paying attention to and challenging and changing the meaning that we give our experiences.
When we see or hear something (have an experience), we tell ourselves a story about what it means. Then we feel the feelings that go with that story and we act on those feelings. Most of us are unaware of the story that is generating the feelings in the first place. Becoming aware of and challenging the story is a critical place where we can intervene on our own behalf. While we each have empowering stories (I can do anything I put my mind to), we also have limiting stories (I can’t rock the boat, or I’ll lose it all). The limiting stories are the ones that have us stay stuck in our old patterns. These stories were created by our egos when we were very young to keep us safe from feeling more pain than we could handle as children.
Most of the stories are no longer true, yet they have gone underground in our consciousness and can drive and color much of our experience. Becoming aware of the story we tell ourselves, and challenging it if it is true, is the first step to changing it. Victor Frankel was able to tell himself a different story about what was happening to him and all others in the concentration camps in WWII. His ability to create a different meaning than others around him allowed him to not only survive but to feel deep gratitude whereas others felt powerlessness. It also allowed him to expand his consciousness and compassion for his fellow man while sharing his insights to heal others later in his life.
One way we can change the story we make up is to look at a specific situation from several different points of view.
First, start with the facts – not assumptions, or interpretation – just what actually happened.
Next, we can ask ourselves what role we might have played in the situation – even if it was to do nothing instead of speaking up for what we wanted. Then, we can reconsider the behavior of the other person by asking why a decent, rational, caring person would do/act/say what they did. With these two new points of view available to us, we can open up our minds and determine if the meaning we first gave the situation was really true versus the old interpretation/story from the past. With a less polarized perspective, we can find a middle ground to acknowledge how it is for us, how it might be for others, and begin to take action on our own behalf. By widening our perspective from our initial reaction, we can change the meaning of an event, and with new meaning, we can change the way we feel.
A client of mine was having a hard time dating and felt very uncomfortable with the whole dating scene. He felt like a failure. He felt ignorant, left out, and that women were stringing him along waiting for something better to come along. Once he uncovered the story he was telling himself, he stopped to see what role he was playing in the situation. He immediately realized that he had very little experience dating online and felt like everyone knew that and he looked stupid. It was easier to blame the dating app or the shallowness of the women he was meeting rather than owning his role in it. He also realized that the women on the app were competing with each other and valued appearances over getting to know people on a deeper level. This allowed him to stop making it about him and change his story about what was going on. With this new perspective in mind, he found a dating site/approach that felt more in alignment with his experience and interest. By changing the meaning of the situation, he regained his confidence and took action on what was best for him.
What new meaning can you make from your experience today?