Humans are meaning making creatures who read all kinds of intention and motivation into what other people do. A glance or a word, can make or break our day or a relationship. We often base our judgments on history; our own with people from our past or with the person sitting in front of us. That type of what I call ‘if this, then that,’ thinking is at the root of it. When we engage in it, it can lead to discomfort at the least and emotional turmoil when it completely has its way with us.
It shows up as a phone call that hasn’t been returned, desired feedback that hasn’t been received, attention that hasn’t been reciprocated in kind, hard work that hasn’t been recognized, hearing no when we wanted to hear yes, someone who cuts us off in traffic, or what seems like criticism for what was intended to be a kind gesture. Perhaps our receptive filters aren’t working and we hear one thing when the other person is saying something else. So often, we are on auto-pilot, taking action based on what we think we heard and what we make those words mean.
Many clients have sat in my office over the years and told me that someone in their lives hates them, has intention to do them wrong emotionally and make their lives a living hell. I have asked them to tell me what was said. More often than not, those were not the words used, but rather that the other person offered input that they didn’t want to hear. Certainly, some of them had wounded people in their lives who knew no other way of communicating than through the filters of their own pain and may very well have spewed venom in their direction. I then assisted them in re-framing the statements and how they landed with them.
- Tell me specifically what they said.
- What did you read into it?
- If you were the silent witness to their words and an objective observer, what would you have seen or heard?
- How did you feel when you believed what was being said to you?
- What would it have been like if you had been able to put it into perspective and recognized that perhaps they were acting out of their own story and it had more to do with them than with you?
- How can you make peace with your perceptions?
Byron Katie created an elegant four question process that allows those who use it to explore the meaning behind the message in all areas of their lives. Back in 1986, she had an awakening experience that hauled her out of the depths of depression and cooled the rage she felt over perceived injustices in her life. She came away with the idea that when she believed her thoughts, she suffered and when she didn’t give them power, she felt freedom. She refers to it as The Work. The Four Questions are these:
- Is it true? (Yes or no. If no, move to 3.)
- Can you absolutely know that it’s true? (Yes or no.)
- How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without the thought?
I have incorporated this modality into my life and ‘taken to inquiry,’ as Katie refers to it, many troubling thoughts that have become unwanted hitchhikers that have attached themselves to me. Another image that comes to mind is the children’s game Barrel of Monkeys. That plastic container in primary colors filled with little simians with curved tails and arms challenges players to pick up as many of them in a chain as possible without dropping them. The frustration is that sometimes more than one monkey climbs on board when attempting to gather up one at a time. It is often that way with our thoughts. How many are clamoring for our attention and how do we properly address them without being inundated? In Buddhist tradition, the monkey mind is considered, “unsettled, restless, capricious, whimsical; fanciful, inconstant, confused; indecisive, uncontrollable”.
Journaling is also a powerful way of processing these dynamics. As I read through my own historical musings that date back as far as college days in the late 1970’s-early 1980’s, I see a pattern of rewriting the script and redefining the meaning behind my encounters with others. Sometimes, the mature, seasoned woman I have become, shakes her head in bewilderment at what the 20-something believed about life and relationships. At other times, I am amazed at the courage she embodied as she made her way in the world.