Calming Down

a helpful little question

By April 11, 2013 28 Comments

Good morning!

This is a post about a *very* helpful little question.

I learned this question a while back. It’s helped me un-suffer (that’s my new word for something that stops our suffering) time and time and time again.

The question is:”What are you making this mean?”

If that sounds abstract, hang in here with me for a minute.

As we walk through our lives, lots of ouches happen:

He didn’t call back.

She snapped at me.

They gave the job to someone else.

Those are what I’d call the facts.

We think we are upset about these facts – about what actually happened: That he didn’t call back! That she snapped at me like that! That they gave the job to someone else.

But usually, we are not upset about these facts. We are upset about our interpretations of the facts, and particularly, when we take these facts to mean we are being attacked or rejected in some way.

It goes like this…

He didn’t call back He didn’t like me. I’ll never find the right guy. He didn’t find me attractive. I suck at dating.
She snapped at me. She doesn’t respect me. She can’t deal with working with other people. If I don’t do this project perfectly, she’ll never be satisfied. She’s an out of control b—h.
They gave the job to someone else. I didn’t do a good job on the application. I sounded ridiculous trying to answer their questions. They were looking for someone younger. They were looking for someone older. I’m not cut out for this industry.

Listen today and you’ll see: it’s amazing how much of human “conversation” amounts to people ranting their own made-up interpretations of the facts. “She said blah! And if she said blah, she obviously has no respect for me. I mean, if you respect another human being, you would have said x not y. I decided a long time ago, I’m not going to work with people like that.”

Whoa. Maybe she said that because she was in a freakin’ load of pain. Or because she has a habit of losing her temper, and she hasn’t quite learned to manage her emotions well.

Maybe, just maybe, it has nothing to do with you.

It’s what we add on to the facts that makes up angry, resentful, defensive, hopeless, or self-hating. Because we are hardwired to be hyper alert for any dangers to our survival, what we add on tends to reflects our worst fears and our particular negative conditioning.

Let go of the interpretation, and what’s left? Sometimes, sadness and grief about what happened, yes, but without the feeling of being attacked, threatened, disrespected, or rejected.

Here’s a simple, easy way you can suffer a lot less:

1. When something upsets you, separate the facts from your interpretation. The facts will always be simple and short, like a movie plot without characters’ personalities, without mood music. The facts sounds like short, “See Jane Run” sentences: I sent in the job application. They called me for an interview. I did the interview. They called and said the job went to another candidate.

2. Then ask yourself, “What am I making that mean?” What interpretation am I laying on to those facts? See the difference between the facts and the story/interpretation you’ve layered on top of them.

3. If your interpretation is leading you to suffering, leading you to beat yourself up, or demonize others, question it. Be willing to let it go. It’s not the truth. It’s just one possible interpretation.

And most important:

iI your intepretation holds you as anything less than an expression of the divine with an unfailing strength and worth, let that interpretation go.

If your interpretation neglects the truth that people hurt others only out of their own suffering, weave that truth right back in to the center of how you are looking at the situation.

There is no seeing the truth of the matter without the wisdom of compassion transforming how you see.

When in your life have you let go of a subjective interpretation that was causing you suffering? What did you replace it with? Tell us in the comments.

p.s. You all wrote so many beautiful, moving comments on Monday’s post about the spiritual life. You can read them HERE.




Join the discussion 28 Comments

  • Thank you Tara, for showing how to quickly disarm one weapon of self destruction.

  • Love this post Tara, thank you for sharing. I’ve let go of taking things personally and making assuptions (two of Miguel Ruiz’s 4 Agreements) in my business and in my personal life.

    I replaced it with asking to find out what the real reason is. And if it’s not possible to ask (or get an answer) then I choose to believe a happy (non-stressful) story about why “it” happened.

  • Good question indeed, Tara, thanks! Any practice that invites me to see the larger whole of a conversation, situation, etc. gives such perspective. Thinking we are the center of the universe is one way to get a case of the crazies. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Lee Zulman says:

    This is a great question. Such thoughtful consideration will likely ensure a better outcome. Doing this often might reveal a pattern. Thank you.

  • Suzette Nguyen says:

    I let myself fall into negative self-talk more often than I care to acknowledge – it’s as if the suffering feels “comfortable.” It’s a daily practice for me to stay conscious of what is fact and what is intepretation so thank you for the reminder email this morning!

  • Barbara says:

    Great question leading to important insights when we recognize personal (interpretation) and impersonal (fact). Thanks, Tara!

  • Alejandra says:

    Absolutely true and wonderful advise. Thanks for the reminder on an easy fix to daily obstacles. I first thought of this on a particular ocassion when I didnt know how to react or what to make out of the situationin until someone came along and told me. And, I thought, hey maybe that’s not all there is it. Attitude is, indeed, all matter of perspectives.

  • Love this post, Tara. When I was in grad school, we had a phrase that became a mantra very similar to this. It was, “We are meaning-making machines.” So, it became a good reminder that as social and human beings, we are always looking to understand, even unconsciously. And we’ll just lump meaning into any old exchange so that we can understand what to do next.

    I still use this mantra – especially when I am in a misunderstanding with my beloved. Helps me diffuse my own high emotions to stop (especially if I am able to do it in the moment…) and remember that I may not have heard him correctly, or may not have interpreted him correctly. It is always to my own stories of insecurity that the meaning I have made finds it’s roots. And thankfully, every once in a while, we are able to smile about it as it happens – as in “Look, there I go again…”. These moments when I can catch my self quickly are so healing – and good motivation for me to keep paying attention to my meaning-making machine.

    Thanks for the reminders about this crucial tool!!

  • Christine R says:

    I stumbled on this about a year ago…completely unintentionally. It was a shift in my mindset that brought me huge amounts of peace and tranquility. It makes such a difference when we are able to keep things in perspective and not get caught up in the drama, whether real or projected. Since becoming aware, I can now catch myself during the times when I start to fall into the trap and it has made my daily life much richer. I am lighter, happier, and more serene.

    You did a wonderful job of articulating it.
    Thank you for sharing,

  • KC says:

    Thank you for this post. I just came back from a very aggravating meeting, and was about to write my letter of resignation, but I decided to take a few minutes and scan my email.

    Since I can’t actually afford to be out of work right now, you’re a life-saver. I’ve been able to reflect on my boss’ actions and realize that they’re not worth upsetting my whole life over. I will still start looking for something that’s a better fit, but with a better attitude about what I want to do instead of what I’m leaving.

  • Sarah says:

    Hi Tara,

    I love how you’ve said this in such a way that makes sense. The “un-suffering” is great!

    Lately I’ve been trying to pay closer attention to my interpretations and asking myself what I’m believing about a situation. Once I ask that question, it’s amazing how I’m able to move forward with self-compassion.

    Thank you for this!

  • You have talked from time to time about how you had various self-doubts when you first started your business. Well, if those unwelcome gremlins EVER give you trouble again, send them to me and I’ll ask them to step outside, for it is posts like this that leave no doubt. You hit the nail on the head again for me, in terms of timing. Yes, I did know all this, but I sure did need this beautifully expressed reminder to help put me back on track. Bless you and that flowing river.

  • AM says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Tara : )


  • kathleen says:

    I needed to read this today! Thank you!
    Love and light

  • I was thinking the same thing Stephanie… I found myself recommending ‘The 4 Agreements’ to a woman I was having a wonderful conversation with, just the other day. As you know, the ‘agreements’ are simple but not always ‘easy.’ However, once they become habit, it gets easier and doesn’t it simplify your life??

  • Debra Eve says:

    I am so guilty of blowing stuff out of proportion! Will definitely file this away for future use and clarity. Thanks, Tara.

  • Jodie says:

    Thanks Tara… brilliant, well-explained, and timely… as always!

  • Sarah says:

    I like to think of it as our “filter” how we see the world is completely colored by our own personal stories, our past, our views, our fears, our joys…our filters. So, whenever something difficult comes my way I try to see it through others filters, I try to remind myself that my filter changes how I see and hear things and others filters change how they respond and say things, too. I find that sometimes just letting facts be facts helps, too – if another “gets” a job/money/fame/vacation (what have you?!) that I had hoped would be mine I try to just acknowledge that feeling and then move on. I find that the less I feel focused on how different aspects of life impact me and rather how I can impact life things flow better 🙂

  • Catherine says:

    What a fantastic and important post!!

    There is a wonderful listening technique where you shift your awareness to your heart and listen from there, and then drop your awareness down deep into your belly and listen from here. It allows us to get under the noise of our mental ‘chatter’ and get a deeper and clearer knowing of what was actually said instead of hearing it through our filters.

    You can even use this technique after the event to get clarity about a given situation.

    Blessings in abundance


  • Mary Parks Workinger says:

    I would only add that one needs to start with compassion for one’s self or one can’t extend compassion to others. Allow yourself to feel the disappointment, sadness, grief first. You don’t have to wallow in your pain, but you need to let yourself feel it: pushing it away only causes more pain and prolongs the unhealthy dialog. Be brave enough to feel your pain, breathe, and then do the three steps.
    Thank you, Tara, for such a beautiful, helpful post with great concrete advice people can take out into the world this minute.

  • Christine says:

    Brilliant! That’s what I’m making it mean.

  • Breathing this one in. Deeply.

    I have a great (and firming) grasp on this for the he said/she said of everyday life. The recordable, spoken out loud moments. But just now. I took a moment to turn this inward.

    It is spring. And I’m an amazing gardener. I can grow anything, anywhere. And yet, my internal conversations around deep, personal loss are not letting those FACTS – that I can grow anything, anywhere – surface. I was (and still am) muddled in the conversations between me, myself and i where I spiral to a suffocating and layered place of perceptions, misconceptions, fibs and downright lies that completely contradict the facts and stop me dead in my tracks. Stop me from living a full, truthful, happy life. Stop me from letting go of pain. Stop me from growing.

    This kind of fact-based examination of what is, not what I perceive to be (or what someone else perceives to be) lifts my heart. In ways that other pushes through emotional pain have never done.

  • […] Understanding the difference between facts and our interpretations. […]

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