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Arrow Tip #8: Pay Attention to the "Meaning"

Sometimes life can feel like an emotional rollercoaster. One minute you're flying high and the next thing you know you're plummeting straight down. We all have ups and downs. The truth is, you have way more control over your emotional states than you may think.

Your brain is a "meaning-making" machine. It's always trying to figure out what's going on to keep you safe. It solves problems by assessing a situation and then ascribing meaning so that you can proceed as needed. The problem is the meaning your mind assigns something might not even be correct. That's because the meaning itself is subjective. It's filtered through your personal beliefs and assumptions. Many of those beliefs came from other life events that you gave meaning to. That's why two people can have completely different experiences of the same event or interaction. Many times the meaning you give to things are coming from your own fears. While the meaning you give an event may be subjective, the event itself is objective or neutral.


Here's the way most people operate. They walk through life encountering an array of events, circumstances, and interactions. How these are experienced depends on how they feel about what they encountered. But what determines how they feel? People tend to think it's the actual event that determines how they feel, but it's not. It's actually the MEANING they give to that event that determines how they feel! So, if you're feeling bad about something then ask yourself, "What meaning am I assigning to this event that has me feeling bad?" If you can determine that, then you can change the meaning and experience a better emotion. You must keep in mind that events themselves are neutral. It's the meaning we assign to the events that make them subjective, and that's where the impact is created.


You're at a party and the person you were conversing with abruptly walks away. There are a multitude of reasons they may have walked off. Based on your viewpoint, you will come up with some sort of meaning and from there you will either feel good, bad, or neutral about it. That emotion will determine how you experienced that interaction.


On an even deeper level, if you look back to some defining moments in your childhood, there were things that people said, events that you encountered, circumstances that you endured, that had a great impact on you because of the meaning you gave to them. In our childlike minds, we may not have had the capacity to truly understand something so the meaning we gave was probably not even correct or true, yet it goes on to impact us for a lifetime if we never examine it.



A child's parents get divorced.

Ascribed Meaning by child:

"I did something wrong and I'm to blame."


Carries the burden of being the "peacemaker". Has to be the perfect person so as not to rock the boat.


A child puts his best effort into completing a task. Rather than being praised for his hard and accurate work, the parent instead points out what the child didn't get right on the task.

Ascribed Meaning by child:

"I'm not good enough."


Feels inadequate.

These things go on to create beliefs we carry that affect our worldview, thus creating the meaning we give to subsequent interactions and events.

Meaning = Feeling = Experience

We consciously and subconsciously give meaning to every interaction, event, and circumstance we encounter. These can be empowering, disempowering, or just plain old neutrality. The more importance we place on an event (also subjective), the more impact the meaning has on us.

We attach meaning to all kinds of things. We attach it to something our spouse said. We attach meaning to events and create scenarios of what we "think" is happening. This affects how we experience relationships, work situations, and life in general. This works well when we give things an empowering meaning, not so much when we don't.

When something upsets you, ask yourself what meaning you are giving to the event. Then realize that it's YOU who have assigned it this meaning. Next, deliberately choose a new possible meaning. If you want to have better experiences then this is an important thing to become aware of.

Please note, that this is not a denial of what's going on in your life. It's simply realizing that there are many situations and circumstances where we decide to give our own filtered meanings to something that, in and of itself is actually neutral, thus creating painful or unwanted emotions and experiences.


Below are a few examples to help you take note of the different ways we assign meaning.

Examples of Events/Meanings:


~Someone doesn't call you back


~They don't care about me


~They may have some important things going on in their life I may be unaware of.


~Your child doesn't do what they were supposed to do


~She/He doesn't respect me. They are irresponsible.


~She/He is 16 and thinking about other things. This doesn't necessarily indicate irresponsibility. I may need to work on helping them to pay attention and following through with responsibilities.



  1. Begin to observe all the things you assign meaning to and notice how it makes you feel.

  2. When you feel bad about something, ask yourself "What meaning am I giving to this?"

  3. Consider all the other meanings that could also be possibilities.

  4. If appropriate, assign a new, better feeling meaning that could be just as plausible.

  5. For a deeper dive, examine some of your life-defining moments and notice what meaning you gave them. Notice how you may view the world through that lens. Re-assign a more empowering meaning to these that will enable you to view yourself and others with greater understanding.



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