As human beings, we attached meaning to everything – and not always in helpful or effective ways.
Take Carla for example. She was scheduled with an eye specialist six weeks in advance. Eager to be free of wearing glasses, she felt frustrated when, a week before her appointment, the clinic called to let her know that her doctor would be overseas longer than expected. The clinic asked Carla to push her appointment back two weeks.
Begrudgingly, Carla agreed, all the while imagining her doctor at some extravagant holiday resort. ‘Who does she think she is?’ Carla thought. ‘Does she think she can just extend holidays whenever she likes, causing patients to adjust all the plans they’ve had in place for weeks? Perhaps she should try living in the real world like the rest of us.’
Over the next few weeks, every time Carla thought of her doctor, she felt the tension of resentment. Several times, she almost cancelled her appointment because she thought she would be more suited to a doctor with a better work ethic. So Carla was quite surprised when the time came for her appointment and the doctor walked in and began apologising. ‘I’m very sorry that we had to reschedule your appointment. I was doing volunteer work at a village in Africa, working in partnership with local doctors to restore sight to the children who live there. It wasn’t until after I arrived that I learned there were more children to treat than expected.’
In that moment, Carla’s reality changed. Nothing external had changed, only the meaning she attached to the situation. She no longer had any negative feelings towards her doctor; it was quite the contrary. Now it seemed obvious that her doctor must not only be a highly talented eye specialist, but a wonderful human being as well.
We attach meaning to everything. It’s something our brains need to do so that we can function in the world and make sense of everything we encounter. Even when we say that something means nothing, we created meaning.
Furthermore, we usually treat the meanings we have created like empirical evidence we have gathered based on extensive research that is one hundred per cent accurate. Then, because we’re so certain that we’re right, we act and feel in ways that align with the story that we made up. This is a problem because our created meanings rarely equal reality.
In Carla’s case, her initial interpretation of her doctor’s actions was very negative. This caused her to feel unnecessary stress and resentment, and almost resulted in cancelling her appointment and wait even longer for surgery with another doctor. In reality, Carla’s doctor was attempting to do right. When Carla realised, her experience of the situation and the meaning she gave it changed.
I did a similar thing to Carla while I was writing this book. Less than a week before my book was due for second round edits, my father called to say that he, my mother and my two nephews were going to be in town for the weekend. While he was probably expecting me to be happy about that news, I got upset with him. I thought, ‘Why are they visiting while I’m on a writing deadline? Why couldn’t he have picked a weekend when I was free to spend time with them? Why did they tell me with one day’s notice? If he had given me more warning, I could have negotiated a different due date with my editor.’
In my frustration, I also added the following meanings: ‘He doesn’t care enough to check in with me before making plans and then just expects me to be available. He only cares about what’s convenient for him and then expects me to just drop everything and fit in with their plans.’
The reality, of course, is that my father cares about me deeply. His plans were a last-minute idea and it needed to be that weekend because it would be the last opportunity before my nephews went back to school. I was nearing the end of a long period of writing, which was sometimes a lonely task, and in that moment I was feeling mentally exhausted – none of which had anything to do with my father.
Yet in the moment, I was so frustrated that, instead of sharing in his excitement that we would be spending time together, I added meanings that were not true and that upset me. I left the phone conversation feeling disappointed.
How often do you do this? Think of all the times someone you care about has done something that upset you, and you made it mean they don’t care. Just as in my example, what is more likely is they just happened to do something without realising how it might affect you. You were the one who made it mean they don’t care and it was this meaning rather than their actions that upset you.
Perhaps the other person could have been more empathetic about your situation. But if they weren’t, it’s rarely because they don’t care, especially if it’s someone close to you. Some people do not empathise well. It doesn’t mean they don’t care. Most people care, but they don’t always show it in the way we want.
It could have been the case that Carla’s doctor was selfish. People do behave selfishly sometimes. But do you really want to make that your first judgement of someone when you have no evidence to support your claims? Until such time that you can confirm the reality of the situation, your judgements do nothing to the other person, but they do make you miserable.
The question is, do you want to be miserable (and possibly right), or do you want to be happy and free? Do you want to be free from the need to control what other people do? Do you want to be free from the need to have other people behave a certain way before you can go out and live your life the way you want to?
Of course, you want to be free. And experiencing freedom means taking responsibility for the meanings we create.
From a place of awareness of and responsibility for the meanings I created, I called my father. I apologised for getting upset, acknowledging my reaction was much more about what was already going on in my own life than a reaction to what he did. In that moment, not much in the external world had changed, but I felt free – free from the pain, free from being a victim of life circumstances and free to create options and ways to spend time with family and get my book finished.
This article is an excerpt and adaptation from Seven Freedom Elements, published by Morgan James Publishing (New York), released 6th Feb 2018, and available for pre-order. Click here to learn more about the book and get your copy.