Control the Meaning, Control the Outcome

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You may not always have self-control, but you always have meaning-control.

What do I mean by this?

Most of the time we are able to maintain good self-control over what we decide to do in certain situations. Other times we are swayed by various forces, and those forces can be internal or external.

For instance, you’re driving along, enjoying your favorite song, you’re almost home, and then just as you are getting ready to exit the highway, someone cuts you off.

You yell and shake your fist and you think, “What an asshole!” You probably even scream it.

What just happened? You’ve been hijacked.

You’ve been swayed by external forces that are beyond your physical control. Additionally, you’ve lost your temper and your self-control over your own emotions. You went from feeling happy and relaxed to feeling angry and rattled.

But you haven’t lost all control. You can still decide how to interpret what just happened…in fact, you did. You’ve maintained your meaning-control – you took the components of this “getting cut off in traffic” and decided to apply meaning to this person’s behavior and you’ve labeled him “an asshole.”

Now he may very well be an asshole, but you don’t know that for sure. And that is not really what matters here. What matters is that you have the choice to assign meaning to all stimuli that come to you, whether it comes from the environment or a person, like the *ahem* “asshole” who cut you off or internally from your own past experiences and belief system.

This ability to assign meaning to encounters and environments empowers you to decide in each moment how you want to interpret what you perceive.

You could, for example, interpret the cutting off situation in the following ways:

  • The person has a sick child in the car and needs to get to a hospital
  • The person who cut you off was kept late at work by a nagging boss, and now was rushing home for his anniversary date with his wife
  • The person simply did not see you

Each of these possibilities is viable, realistic, and more likely to be true than your knee-jerk reaction that  the driver is an asshole.

Now you may consider this argument a complete waste of time because you don’t care how your interpretation of the event or the person affects your understanding in the moment. Why should you have to consider other possibilities when they have no bearing on you?

You don’t care if that person was kept late at work. You don’t care if that person didn’t see you. And you don’t care if there is a sick child in the car…well, you might care about that, if you have any compassion whatsoever.

But here’s the thing. The way you assign meaning to people, problems, and possibilities has everything to do with your mental and emotional well-being.

When you let yourself get worked up because someone cut you off in traffic, you expend a lot of mental and emotional energy in the moment and then for some minutes afterward, and even more when you tell this story to your family when you get home.

When you decide to assign more thoughtful meaning to this situation, you can feel empathy or compassion instead, which is much less costly and releases endorphins and other hormones which increase your emotional mood and physical vitality.

When you decide to assign more thoughtful meaning to any situation, you allow yourself options for how you want to expend your mental, emotional, and physical energy.

Getting angry may feel good in the moment because you were scared and you could place blame on the other driver, but that doesn’t help you in the minutes that follow. In fact, it could make you less safe, because now you’re driving while seeing red.

What can help you in the next moments is taking a completely different view. Instead of placing blame, think about how grateful you are to have avoided a collision. Hell, take credit for being an amazingly aware and skillful, defensive driver.

Turn an emotionally devastating event into a supremely positive one.

Don’t let your anger get the best of you. That is just a default reaction. Quickly acknowledge it, and then toss it away.

Remember that you are in control of assigning meaning to events and situations. So do that with the intention of making yourself feel better, stronger, wiser, and more resilient.

Even when you don’t have self-control in the moment, you always have control over how you assign meaning immediately after that moment.

And when you execute meaning-control you build self-control. When you slow down just a bit and assign meaning that is thoughtful and helpful to your current situation, you build your self-control for use in future similar scenarios.

The more often you intentionally control the meaning you assign to an event, a belief, or a person, the stronger you build your self-control and the more efficient and effective you become in stressful situations.

Perception, interpretation, and designation all tie together to create a system in which you assess the situation, analyze the data, and assign appropriate meaning.

Bringing this system into practice will not be easy, but refusing to do so will leave you feeling like your emotions are controlling you, rather than you controlling your emotions.

Your Mindful Moment:

Control the meaning and you control the outcome.

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