Things happen. Our lives are filled with interactions and occurrences, both big and small. How we interpret all those happenings has a huge impact on how we experience our lives.
Our understanding of what happened is an interpretation. We are meaning seeking creatures. When something happens, our minds want to know what it means about us, about the other person, and about the world around us.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but, especially for those of us who tend to try to assess whether other people are pleased with us, it’s important to remember that the meaning we assign to a given interaction or situation is not the objective reality.
Believing the Stories we make up without question or awareness that there might be other possible interpretations can lead to misunderstanding. Separating the facts of a situation from the meanings and emotions we are associating with those facts is a helpful exercise.
Let’s look at an example:
- I texted a friend, I miss you and would love to catch up. Is there a day that works to get coffee?
- I receive a response three days later.
- My friend replies, Life is super busy right now. Maybe next month?
My friend thinks I’m annoying and doesn’t want to spend time with me, but is too nice to tell me so. By asking her to get together, I’m putting her in an awkward position.
My friend has so many responsibilities. I’m being selfish when I ask her to spend time with me. Instead, I should offer to run some errands for her or take care of her kids so she has time to relax.
My friend is so selfish. She expects me to do all the work in this relationship. She only does the things she wants to do, never caring what I want or need.
Yeah, she’s probably too busy spending time with all her other friends. I bet they’re talking about how needy and annoying I am.
I’m glad she felt comfortable telling me this isn’t a good time instead of feeling obligated to cram one more thing into her schedule. I’m disappointed, but I understand. Let me see if there is anything I can do to support her and I’ll put a reminder in my calendar to ask again next month.
I imagine you can think of even more ways to interpret this brief set of facts.
As this example shows, there are many meanings we can assign to a situation. Some of these Stories would not feel good to believe and could cause damage to a friendship.
The Story we believe impacts our emotional experience and influences our response.
The Story I choose to believe could lead me to view myself as an annoying person no one wants to be around. If I believe that extending invitations is just obligating others into doing things they don’t want to do, I might keep to myself and wait for others to choose me.
Believing a different Story might lead me to look for bad qualities in my friend to make myself feel better and end up being resentful and unkind…
If I remember that the meaning I assign to this interaction is only one possible interpretation, then I’m more able to see other possibilities, assume the best, and notice what other information I might need to understand the situation more fully.
Give this exercise a try. Think of an interaction you’ve had that left you feeling less than great about yourself or another person.
Write down the facts of what happened. Just the facts.
Then write out the full Story. What happened? How did it make you feel? What do you think it means?
What do you notice?
Then, try writing out another possible interpretation. Write it from a different perspective. Make it more generous…or more fearful…
How does it feel to consider that what happened might mean something different than you’d originally thought?
I’ve created a worksheet to help you try this exercise. Sign up below to get your worksheet and gain access to the resource library.