modern applied psychology kain ramsay

We’re Meaning Making Machines

There once was a story about a businessman who was travelling home on the subway. The train car was quiet, and everyone was enjoying the pleasant atmosphere when the train stopped at the station, and a man entered the train car with his children.

The man sat down next to the businessman and stared off into space as his children ran up and down the carriage, wreaking havoc on the once quiet atmosphere.

The businessman tried to keep his patience, but it was as if the children’s father had no desire at all to care for his children. His irresponsibility for what his children were doing was maddening for the other people on the train and something had to be said.

The businessman turned to the father and said, “Excuse me sir, but do you see the chaos your children are causing? Have you no consideration for the other people on the train? You really need to reign them in.”

The father turned to the businessman and said, “You’re right. I’m so sorry, sir. This is completely reckless of me. We have just come back from the hospital where their mother—my wife—died, and I don’t think it’s quite registered yet for any of us.” He then called for his children to sit down beside him and they continued on their journey.

This story was taken from the book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ by Stephen Covey. Imagine how the businessman’s thoughts towards the situation completely changed when he had more information. Thoughts that may have been filled with anger, frustration, and offense over what was perceived as unruly children and a negligent father turned to thoughts of compassion and sorrow for children who would never see their mother again, and a husband who had just lost the love of his life. In an instant, with a bit more information, the entire meaning of the circumstances changed for that businessman.

Have you ever considered that it’s not what other people say or do that offends us, but it’s our own interpretation of life’s events that cause us to take offense? It’s actually a natural human tendency. And we can interpret circumstances and the words other people say any way we want to.

We are meaning making machines. At all times and in all circumstances, we’re assigning meaning to every single interaction and experience we have—for better or for worse. And it’s our natural default setting to assign meaning to circumstances and conversations based on our own perceived biases and personal experience. A person can say something to us with the best of intentions. But if we interpret what they say in a derogative, undermining way, we can get angry and frustrated, blaming the other person, or judging them as bad.

It’s important that, as human beings, we learn how to respectfully and meaningfully interact with those around us. This requires us to recognize that it’s essentially our beliefs that gives us the invisible foundation upon which we build our lives. It’s our beliefs that determine how we view ourselves, how we relate to other people, and how we see and relate to the world around us.

There’s three levels to relatability in life: how we relate to ourselves, how we relate to others, and how we relate to the world around us. Fundamentally, the beliefs and views we have about ourselves will determine how we relate to other people and how we show up in the world. For example, if a person felt unloved as a child, they may assign meaning to that experience and believe they are unlovable. Because of this belief, they will spend the rest of their life either trying to prove that negative belief that they truly are unlovable, or they’ll latch on to any love that comes along to fill the void, which may lead to unhealthy relationships in their future.

If we attach harmful meanings to the experiences we have in the past, we can internalize some really inaccurate lessons about ourselves. And we can use those beliefs to attach meaning to future experiences. Essentially, by assigning inaccurate meaning to our past experiences, we set ourselves up for future heartache and unhelpful experiences.

When we learn to step back and look at the meaning we’ve placed on our experiences and determine whether they are accurate or not, this is when we can really move forward and progress in life. For example, if you were rejected as a child, or you failed miserably at something, you can choose to define yourself by these experiences and consider yourself as a massive failure the rest of your life. This is one meaning you can assign to your past, which will follow you into your future.

Or you can assign the meaning that you’re simply an imperfect human, like everyone else on the planet, with plenty of opportunity and capacity to grow and improve. You can recognize that your experiences have made you into a stronger, more experienced version of yourself.

Our ability to assign new positive meaning to our past, and reject those old inaccurate beliefs, can only come when we take responsibility for driving our lives in the direction we want to go. When we rid ourselves of those unhelpful meanings we’ve assigned to ourselves, our circumstances, and those around us, we are free to create a more fulfilling life. It’s only when we make peace with the past that we can freely step into a more purposeful future.

Kain Ramsay
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As an established teacher of personal and professional growth principles, and a champion of mental well-being, Kain Ramsay is regarded as one of the world’s foremost thought leaders of modern applied psychology.