Human beings use narrative to make sense of the world, to sort patterns out of the chaos. Narrative is a powerful tool. The stories you tell about your life shape your decisions as well as your emotions. But sometimes we can be trapped by our own narratives, telling ourselves the same hurtful story over and over again.
One of the most important things I want my clients to know is that negative meaning-making is optional. There are infinite ways to interpret your experiences. It’s possible to make a choice to interpret them in a way that brings you more joy and hope and less fear and pain.
Here are some good ways to stop the process of negative meaning-making in its tracks:
- Breathe. When you start to feel yourself getting wound up by a distressing thought, it’s always good to take a moment to pause, inhale deeply, and exhale slowly. Focus for a time on just existing in your body. Making the exhale twice as long as the inhale is a good goal, and takes quite an internal shift to achieve; this is how you know it’s working.
- Recognize your pattern. If you’re thinking “this always happens!” or “why does everyone treat me like this?”, chances are that you’ve caught yourself in a moment of habitual negative meaning-making. Take moment to notice the pattern of meaning-making, or your tendency to interpret events through this particular lens. You might take a page from Byron Katie and ask yourself “am I absolutely certain this is true?” or even “could the opposite be at least as true?” I love these questions for shifting habitual thoughts and meanings.
- Think of alternative interpretations. Take moment to imagine a different meaning you could make out of this situation. You don’t have to believe in it, but just consider it. What are at least three other explanations for what’s happening?
With practice, it becomes easier to disrupt the cycle of negative meaning-making. You will find that it’s much easier to recover from a negative experience when you don’t fan the flames of self-hatred, jealousy, disappointment, or despair. The stories you tell about yourself shape your life. Choose them wisely.