Our brains are wired to problem-solve, to fill in blanks, to put together puzzle pieces, and to make sense of things. Often this process happens so fast and so instinctually that we don't even notice we're doing it, let alone question the accuracy. In fact, this process happens with all of us, many times over, every single day. Our interpretations of events are informed from many sources: our upbringing, a similar event happening in our history, our education or professional background, relationships, culture, where we live, our mood in the moment, something that happened earlier in the day, etc. So when two people have different reactions to the same situation, this is why. Sometimes we label it a miscommunication or a misunderstanding. At minimum it's a blip on the radar and at maximum it's a big emotional response resulting in extreme behavior.
Consider the following scenarios. What are your interpretations? Are they accurate?
1) You're home alone with your infant. You've been up all night with her and you're exhausted and bleary-eyed. All of a sudden you see a strange man move across the backyard, and he's heading toward your house!
A: It's the meter reader from the utility company.
2) You're driving to work, it's pouring rain, and you get a flat tire. You pull to the side of the road, get out, and get your car jack and spare tire from the trunk. As you're out in the rain getting ready to use the jack, you see your good friend drive by. You try to wave him down and he looks at you for a long moment but continues on. You know he saw you!
A: Your friend's dog is in the backseat, the dog was just hit by a car, and they are on their way to the hospital.
The antidote is a little bit of mindfulness and asking yourself, "What am I missing?"
We will never know everything about a given situation, there are just too many variables in life. For example, we will never know exactly what it is like to be anyone else on the planet. Even if it is explained in seemingly simple terms, an interpretation still takes place based on the meaning we put onto words. Acknowledge and honor that there is more than one way to see the world.
- Begin by noticing when you have a strong emotional reaction to something, pause, and put your attention on it.
- What interpretation of the event prompted your reaction? In other words, what thoughts were running through your head?
- Now, look at the facts that you know. Observe and describe what you could see, touch, hear, taste, and smell.
- What information were you missing? What are other possible interpretations of these facts?
This exercise is most easily conducted in hindsight. Later, with practice, you will be able build more awareness in the moment and create opportunities to change course.
The Cognitive Model
"Watching Your Mind" Mindfulness Exercise