Archive for December, 2009

What’s Real? A Nor’easter of Perception & Meaning

December 1, 2009

A long time mentor once gave me a piece of priceless wisdom, which I will never forget.  “A persons perception is powerful.  It is the set of glasses with which they view the world through.  It doesn’t matter what you say or mean to say, they can only interpret it based on those glasses.” The glasses he’s talking about are core beliefs.

How many times has conflict amongst co-workers, collaborative partners or spouses all erupted because of a misunderstanding of what was said, meant, implied or otherwise communicated to another person? How many times have you witnessed an argument yet could see so clearly that the way it “landed” for one party was not at all the intention of the other party.  But in that moment those 2 players could not see or hear that?

It happens so often and is the cause of so much pain and anxiety in our world. We all carry a set of beliefs that become the “glasses” with which we give all meaning.  If you believe that you are a victim then no matter what constructive criticism or guidance is offered there is a knee jerk reaction to blame others for whatever is going on.  If you believe that people are inherently dishonest then most of your dealings in life will be perceived as suspicious or not to be trusted.  Why? Because we assigned a meaning to an event long ago that now has set up those beliefs.

Any situation is merely an orchestration of exchanges.  However they have no meaning, none what so ever until we assign the meaning. I used to have a mentor that would ask me “Why are you getting so upset? Those events have no meaning” and I just wanted to throttle him! (Hey, transparency here!)  It would make me even more upset at what was going on.  But then I really got clear on this point.  The best way to explain this is to give you a simple example.

When I was 16 years old I finally earned my drivers license. I was thrilled beyond belief to have this newfound freedom.  I felt like a grown up and took my responsibility with having the use of the family car – a chocolate brown Thunderbird – very seriously.  My parents imparted the importance of being responsible to us constantly.

One snowy winters day I was allowed to drive the Thunderbird to school.  It wasn’t snowing much in the morning but by lunchtime a nor’easter rolled in and school was let out early.  I stood in the High School parking lot looking at the car and looking at the buses.  I had to make a decision: drive home in the snow or take the bus home.  Thinking that I would be deemed irresponsible if I left the car, I opted to drive home.  Up and down the hilly slopes I drove slowly and cautiously.  Then it happened, I went into a full slide, eased off the breaks and did my best to maneuver the car.  Instead, I ended up crashing into the guardrail right in front of the State Troopers barracks.

My mother picked me up and did her best to comfort.  When we got home my extremely irate father greeted me.  I had completely totaled the front end of the car.  Our bad ass T-bird was cooked.  I started to cry and felt awful.  I immediately turned to my mother and said; “Does he care that I’m not hurt? Doesn’t he care that I’m not dead?!”  I interpreted his actions, his words to mean that he didn’t care about anything, especially me, except the car. In truth, what I had interpreted was really not the truth.  I assigned the meaning to his words and actions.

What would be another acceptable interpretation of this situation or his actions and words?  There are many.

  • “He was so scared that I could have been killed that he couldn’t express that fear in the moment.  He deflected his fear by focusing on the car.”
  • “He was worried about his family as a whole and was struggling with how we would get around without this car and how he could finance another one.”
  • “He did the physical inventory the minute he saw me: 2 arms, 2 legs, no blood, nothing broken.  He knew I was ok.”

We never know what a person is really thinking or what they truly mean. It’s all about how we interpret and assign meaning to any given situation.  Did my father really not care if I was ok?  I highly doubt it.  But in that moment, in my young mind I had assigned that meaning to the experience as well as not feeling loved or responsible.

You know what?  None of that is real unless one makes it real in their mind.  There are many ways any situation can be given meaning.  The challenge is not to.  Not to make something it’s not.  Not to fuel something that doesn’t really exist.  To avoid conflict and misunderstanding by practicing this art form daily.

I offer you this now so that you can reflect on this principle as we close 2009.

  • Where are you giving meaning that causes you conflict and pain in your life?
  • What is causing you to hold grievances against another person?
  • How have these meanings that created a story you keep playing in your mind stopped you short of your dreams?

Let it go.  You’ll be happier for it.

When you realize that you are the author of the pain in your life you will stop.  The greatest compassion you can show is to release yourself from the illusions you’ve created and live a more constructive life without them.