When Bad Things Happen, Part 2
This article is a sequel to the July 2013 Newsletter Article, When Bad Things Happen. Of course, I meant to get back and complete the article the very next week. Ah, the best laid plans…
But better late than never, right? I recommend you go back and read that article to give you the back story and context for this Part 2.
In Part 1, I talked about 2 things I learned from an experience that helped me get out of the Pit of Despair. Here is the third and perhaps the most deeply profound learning for me.
What Are You Making it MEAN?
Its important to understand how your brain works. The human brain is a Meaning Making Machine. The brain takes in literally billions of bits of information every day from your physical senses.
It is the brain’s job to interpret that information, to make sense of it so that you can survive, both literally and figuratively.
Which means your brain has to do two primary things:
- Determine what information is important or deserves your attention (think signal to noise ratio)
- Determine what that information actually means in terms of you, the world and your place in the world.
It’s that second step that usually gets us into trouble. As I mentioned in the first part of this article, we are very uncomfortable with the unknown. That’s just human nature.
And we have survived and evolved as a species because our brains successfully made life and death decisions with limited information. (The bush is shaking, there’s probably a lion waiting in ambush!)
So our brain has evolved a predictive capacity or the ability to extrapolate based on limited information, using your expectations, beliefs and past experience (which together make up your context – the environment in which meaning is determined).
But this extrapolation is mostly happening at the unconscious level and is presented to our conscious mind as “The TRUTH.” Unfortunately, it is often these “truths” that propel us into the Despair Pit.
It is useful to remember that these truths are anything but. They are constructs based on limited information plus your self-constructed context.
Don’t mistake the map for the territory!
Instead, approach these “truths” with curiosity and ask good questions. Here are a few that I’ve found useful.
“Now What?” Instead of “Why Me?”
When hanging out down there in the despair pit, we are often asking really poor questions. The most common is some version of “Why me?” Instead, try asking, “Now What?” That conversation might go something like:
Now that these circumstances/challenges/obstacles have happened, now what? What can I do, right now to:
- protect myself?
- feel better?
- change my circumstances?
- continue to pursue my goals? And so on….
Can you see how asking these kinds of questions instead of “Why me?” could show you the path out of the despair pit?
What is the belief?
Once you’re in a more stable place and you’ve taken care of the business you need to take care of, and you’re ready to do some transformational self-examination, a good question to ask is
“What is the belief that’s being triggered?”
(If you don’t know what that means, click the link and read a good article explaining the concept around triggering).
In my experience, when I’m having a really strong emotional response to my circumstances, there is often a belief underlying that response that is being energized by the current circumstances.
If you’ve ever been in a musical instrument store when someone strikes a tuning fork, you’ve heard how the different instruments will vibrate in harmonics to that tone. A similar thing happens when your external circumstances trigger your inner beliefs. It may not be logical, but in some way your brain has created a connection between what you are perceiving and your past experiences and/or beliefs.
So, if you can identify which belief, expectation or past experience has been triggered at the unconscious level and make that dynamic conscious, you can use that awareness to begin to understand it and even shift it if you choose to.
One of the best ways to make that internal shift is to remember that the context you are using to create your experience of your circumstances, to make that meaning is a subjective framework and not TRUTH.
What could you make it mean? Because if it could mean many different things, could you choose a different meaning? And if you can choose a different meaning, why not choose a meaning that creates a more positive and functional experience, a meaning that guides you out of the despair pit, or even allows you to avoid the pit altogether?
This is called reframing. You are seeing the picture of reality in a new context.
Think about a circumstance you’ve had recently that was perhaps painful. How could you reframe that experience in order to feel better and more empowered to be constructively responsive to those circumstances?