In a previous blog post, “Through a Glass Darkly,” I proposed that all of us go through our lives wearing invisible eyeglasses with lenses comprised of thoughts and beliefs that we have come to hold about ourselves, other people, and the world. I suggested that some of these thoughts and beliefs make for “dirtier” lenses than others in that they restrict, rather than expand, our sense of what is possible for us, and in our lives. We can talk about these particular thoughts and beliefs as contributing to moods and behaviors resonating with catabolic energy, which breaks us down, rather than anabolic energy, which builds us up. In Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), Bruce D. Schneider describes catabolic thoughts and beliefs as “energy blocks” that get in our way of making conscious choices, and prevent us reaching our potential (129); he identifies four such obstacles: limiting beliefs, assumptions, interpretations, and gremlins (with “gremlin” being another way to reference what we often call our inner critic). In past blog posts, we have looked at limiting beliefs and assumptions; today, we explore interpretations.
The Problem with Interpretations
If you take myth and folklore, and these things that speak in symbols, they can be interpreted in so many ways that although the actual image is clear enough, the interpretation is infinitely blurred, a sort of enormous rainbow of every possible colour you could imagine.
— Diana Wynne Jones
Schneider defines an interpretation as an opinion that we create to explain an experience that we have had (137). For an example, he refers back to the scenario that he used to illustrate assumptions, in which he has asked a woman on a date, and she has declined: he interprets her “no” as meaning that he does not dress well enough (138). Cue Sharp Dressed Man from ZZ Top’s 1983 album, Eliminator! If he decides to act on his interpretation, Schneider may spend money on a new wardrobe, which — if his own idea about why the woman has declined a date with him does not reflect the reasons that she herself might cite — could constitute “‘marching off in the wrong direction'” (138), and even set himself up for frustration when she still says “no” as he stands before her in a new (and expensive!) Armani suit.
When we allow ourselves to believe that our interpretation is the only possible explanation for what we have experienced, we close ourselves off from other options that may be very helpful for us to consider. Personally, I think of every experience in our lives as generating the “enormous rainbow” of possible interpretations that the late British children’s fantasy writer, Diana Wynne Jones, associated with myth and folklore. I view interpretations as stories that we tell ourselves to help us make sense out of our experiences and the world around us; others may sometimes agree that these stories are “true,” but even this social construction of a certain “validity” does not make interpretations facts.
There are no facts, only interpretations.
— Friedrich Nietzsche
There are ways for us to challenge interpretive “energy blocks,” of course, and the approaches will likely sound familiar to anyone who is already familiar with cognitive-behavioral responses to anxious thinking, especially to those patterns that are often referred to as mind reading and personalization. The first step is to recognize that we do not have to accept everything that we think as “true,” that our ideas about what we experience are not facts (whatever those are), but beliefs based on what we see through the lenses in the invisible eyeglasses that we wear. When we catch ourselves making an interpretation, then, we can ask ourselves, very simply, as Schneider suggests, “‘What’s another way to look at that?'” (140). Just posing this question to ourselves can defuse the power of our own particular perspective, and diminish what — borrowing from Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Adichie — we can call “the danger of a single story”; we acknowledge that other (and potentially more helpful!) meanings are possible. We may even decide to go a step further, and ask another person, whether or not that person is involved, about his or her interpretation of an experience. Or, we can play around with challenging ourselves to argue what we would identify as the exact opposite of our first interpretation. There is a rainbow of possibilities!
I have proposed before, and will again, that we give ourselves the chance to think more realistically, with greater balance, when we challenge our often all-too-automatic anxious thinking. If, after exploring other possible meanings of an experience, we still decide that we want to stick with our original interpretation, we can do so, and then shift into conscious consideration of how we want to respond. In the process of responding consciously to any interpretation we have, I suggest that we remember how long we have been looking through the particular set of lenses that supports this interpretation; initially, we may find ourselves still tending to perceive (or even look for) what we are used to seeing. In my own experience, interpretations can be at least as emotionally charged as the assumptions that we explored in the last post, and so also difficult for us to let go. Just imagine a history for Schneider, in his dating scenario, in which he grew up poor and was teased as a child for not having the popular clothes that so many of his peers were wearing! To help us loosen our grip on a “stubborn” interpretation, I suggest echoing the approach that Schneider recommends for responding to assumptions — validating our perspective as absolutely “normal” given what we have experienced previously, and how we have learned to think about those experiences (136). How else could we think — until we challenge ourselves to think differently?
Think the Rainbow!
Experience the Rainbow!
Over the next couple of weeks, I invite you to notice when you are making interpretations, creating opinions to explain your experiences (I think of human beings as meaning-making creatures — we engage in this activity all the time!). Your boss may come into work and head straight to her office without saying “Good morning!” to you, shutting the door hard behind her. You might think that she must be angry with you, though you don’t know why she would be; you might steer clear of her for the rest of the morning, trying to figure out what you did to upset her, instead of talking to her about the assignment she gave you, and which you have finished — early! You might be feeling nervous about how a classmate is looking at you as you give a presentation, wondering what he is criticizing about you, or about what you’re doing, as he watches.
As you notice when you are making interpretations, consider whether or not your interpretations are helpful to you, whether they resonate with catabolic energy, which distracts and drains you, or anabolic energy, which supports you in moving in the direction you want to go. What are other ways of looking at these experiences? Perhaps your boss has had a tough morning with a sick child, or is grouchy about spilling coffee on herself in the Starbucks drive-through (her mood may have nothing to do with you!). Maybe that classmate is thinking how nervous he is, imagining that you might be feeling similarly, and admiring how you are forging right along in your presentation. The key, I think, to challenging interpretations, is in a variation on the Skittles candy ad campaign — “Experience the Rainbow! Taste the Rainbow!”: Your interpretation is only ever one possible color of meaning for the experience that you have had. Think the Rainbow!
Featured image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Skittles-Candies-Pile.jpg