Stop Negative Meaning-Making In Its Tracks

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

The Power of Checking Your Assumptions With Your Partner

In many ways, human beings are narrative creatures. We make sense of our world by telling stories about it, by picking out patterns and weaving them into the overarching narratives of our lives. Stories help us understand who we are, and how we fit into the world. They help us create meaning, identity, and connection.

Sometimes, though, you may find yourself telling a story that hurts you. You may attach your identity to a narrative that diminishes your self-worth: “I’m always passed over, always second-best.” “When people see what I’m really like, they leave.” “I’m such a disappointment. I never do anything right.” These stories can start from a single bad experience or a series of painful interactions, or they can come to you in messages from your culture. But as you retell them over and over, they start to feel like they reflect an essential truth about who you are and how you relate to the world.

These stories are pernicious because they color your perceptions of how other people interact with you. For instance, if your narrative is “Everyone gets sick of me eventually,” how will you react when your partner says, “I would really like some alone time tonight”? Will you think, “That’s ok, everyone needs alone time now and then, and I’m sure she’ll want to see me soon,” or will you go down a dark tunnel: “She’s finally started to get bored with me and now she’s distancing herself. She’s probably preparing to dump me.”

Telling this story prevents you from hearing what your partner is really saying, which is much more likely to be about them than about you. This then creates unnecessary stress, pain, and conflict. You’re acting out a conflict with yourself through your partner–and your partner may not even know the role that you’ve cast them in. But how do you fight a narrative that feels so instinctively true?

The first step is recognizing what negative stories you tell yourself. When you’re feeling bad, what messages do you give yourself? Once you identify the harmful narratives, it will be possible to notice when one of them starts running through your head.

Being more aware of the stories you tell yourself will give you the opportunity to pause and check your assumption with your partner, before you start to spin out. “Sweetheart, sometimes I worry that (fill in the blank.)” “Sometimes when I’m down, I start to think that (fill in the blank).” By doing this, you’ll give your partner the opportunity to let you know what they’re actually thinking in those moments–and it’s likely to be much, much less scary than you think. It requires a leap of faith to share your scary, vulnerable, revealing fears, but it’s worth it.

What Makes Good Sex Good?

What makes a sexual encounter good? It’s all in the meaning we make of it.

Good sex isn’t the result of a particular sequence of events. Good sex is all about how the participants interpret that sequence of events. What might be a distressing and bad encounter for one person could be perfectly enjoyable for another, depending on how they attach meaning to the experience.

Imagine a sexual encounter in which neither partner achieves orgasm, but rather just wind down as they get tired. For one person, this might be seen as a failure. What’s wrong with us? Am I bad at sex? Does my partner not care about my pleasure?  For another, this might be a perfectly satisfactory and enjoyable experience. They could enjoy the sensation of being close to their partner, physically and emotionally, enjoying the shared intimacy of the moment.

Or imagine a very short sexual encounter. One person might think, What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I last longer? That was so embarrassing, while another might think, What a fun quickie. There are infinite possible variations of this idea. Think of anything that could “go wrong” in a sexual encounter, and you’ll see how much depends on how the participants interpret it.

Being attached to an overly rigid model of how a sexual interaction should unfold almost always becomes a problem sooner or later in a relationship, because our bodies are complicated and don’t always behave in the way we want. For that reason, if your measure of success for a sexual encounter is some particular activity, like penis-in-vagina (PIV) penetration to orgasm, at some point you will probably be disappointed. What meaning will you make out of that moment? If you’ve had this experience before, what meaning did you make then?

Consider this: what do you really want to get out of sex? Is it a particular kind of activity? Or is that activity a symbol for something more important–intimacy with your partner, trust, love, pleasure? How can you get what you REALLY want out of the interaction, and release attachment to a particular sequence of events?