The Mire of Making Meaning

Let me ask you a question.

Are you having a good day?
A good year?
A good life?

Before you answer, notice how your brain starts to process the question.

How do you measure whether you’re having a good day, year, or life?

The only way you can do it is by making meaning.

Whether we realize it or not, we constantly make small judgments that set us up for happiness or misery, depending on how we choose what things mean.

The concept of meaning-making has been discussed by several psychologists and was also the central theme of the work of Victor Frankel. In his view, the primary motivation of each person is to discover meaning in life. 

While making meaning plays a big part in the life we choose for ourselves, it can also cause us to falter when we make too much meaning about trivial events.

If we are the type of person who wants to improve our lives, there can be a tendency to be judgemental about ourselves, our circumstances, and what happens to us. 

We rate and rank ourselves and circumstances according to unique criteria that we have created. Often it can be us rating things against a future version of what we think we can be, or it can be against other people’s lives.

Here are the ways I have noticed that I tend to make meaning and reduce my enjoyment of life as a result.

Over-Comparing & Comparisonitis

When we compare ourselves or our lives to another person’s (whether we know them personally or know about them), we often tend to be less happy with ourselves.

The tendency to fall into comparisonitis is a lot easier since the mainstream adoption of social media. We often see the ‘highlight reel’ of other people’s lives while seeing the entirety of our own.

Of course, the reality is that comparison is impossible because we are all unique. Nobody has lived the exact same life as you or has the identical physical, emotional, and mental make-up. So trying to compare yourself to another person is not realistic.

Letting go of comparing yourself (either positively or negatively) can be incredibly empowering and a big relief.

‘Allness’ Framing

Whenever we start to make meaning in our lives about something, we tend to use words like ‘always’ or ‘never.’ But unfortunately, this practice makes meaning that encompasses the entirety of our lives.

For example, “I always get overlooked for promotions,” or “I never seem to meet the right person.”

This tendency to frame our meaning as permanent or lasting forever makes things seem much more hopeless.

It is much more accurate to say something like: 

“So far, with this company, I haven’t been able to get promoted,” or “Despite looking for the right person, I haven’t found them yet.”

This type of phrase helps to remove the idea of things being futile. It also makes us feel more empowered to try something different or to keep persisting.

Labeling Ourselves or Our Situation

The final way that we tend to make meaning is via adding labels to ourselves. Very often, when something doesn’t go our way, we tend to believe it is because of who we are. 

This thinking approach is why you hear people say things like “I’m shy” or “I’m not athletic.” They have extrapolated their behavior and experiences to be part of their identity.

When you label yourself in a certain way, you tend to limit your thoughts and behavior to match your chosen label. 

People who see themselves as shy are unlikely to put themselves in a social situation that stretches their comfort zone. 

The other way labeling works is when we tend to label our situation. You notice this when the economy starts to go into a downturn. People suddenly find myriad reasons why their success is now limited due to ‘the economy.’ 

Making Meaning Is A Mental Trap

One of the most significant breakthroughs I experienced in my personal development was when I started to catch myself in the act of making meaning. 

I would have an experience, sometimes good, sometimes bad, and then I would add meaning to it. It would throw me off my focus because I would get mired in the meaning.

It wasn’t actual experiences that caused me happiness or disappointment, but the habit of adding too much meaning. When I judged myself or the situation, and I felt worse afterward.

As I started to see that I was free to not make any meaning, my life and focus improved. Emotions were less potent, and I could connect and relate to people in a more genuine way.

Returning to the Big Picture

When we make meaning in our lives, it adds an emotional dimension to everything we experience. This mental habit can positively impact us when used as a source of inspiration and focus. Yet, it can also negatively impact us when we practice meaning-making excessively. 

I am learning that focusing on your larger life meaning (your goals, plans, mission, and purpose) helps you become empowered.

Letting go of smaller, trivial meaning-making is a key to living in a calm, confident, creative way.

Use meaning to light your way rather than make snap judgments in the short term.

“In a word, each person is questioned by life; and they can only answer to life by answering for their own life; to life they can only respond by being responsible.” – Viktor E. Frankl.

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