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January 27, 2012

Meaning-Making Machines

“We are meaning-making machines.” Jade introduced me to this concept, and says it all the time. In essence, it means that we make meaning out of things, events, people, situations, etc based off our individual biases. In a very general example, you and I can both be sitting at a cafe when we see a man walk in wearing all black, at hat and sunglasses. I might see him and assume he is a biker dropping in for a coffee, and you might see him and think he is going to rob the place.

Our unique experiences, insecurities and interpretation of the world form our outlook, so that we literally see and hear exactly what we want to see or hear through the eyes and ears of our biases. I think this is a particularly poignant point when it comes to our bodies, especially for women.

About 5 years ago, Jade remarked to me that I am “so dedicated” when it comes to my exercise, an observation picked up from my daily 5am gym visits and often 2-a-days. At the time I said, “Yea, I don’t know why I am so consistent with it? I think I am literally scared to not be thin.” Of course, I can see now that it is much more than that–I love the way working out makes me feel, I don’t feel the same when I skip and more than anything, I seem dedicated because I have simply made it a habit. It was just “what I did” every morning–there was no other alternative. But I can see now how initial my answer was so telling.

I have to admit that besides being somewhat embarrassed by my response now, more than anything it illustrates the point I am trying to make, and it is actually laughable. If I think about it, not being thin in an of itself is benign. I certainly wasn’t worried about health issues around excess weight. I was scared of what it would mean. Would it mean I was lazy? Would it mean I was undisciplined? Would it mean I would not be loved? Would it mean I would lose my clout as a fitness professional? Did it mean I would be unworthy in some way? Of course not! But for me, then, “not being thin” only had the meaning that I GAVE IT.

As an aside, I am giving this example as a show of just how insecure and one-dimensional I was in my early 20s. As a fitness professional, my love is helping people who want to burn fat or get healthy. This is more to demonstrate my view at that time, which was such that I felt I would be somehow “less than” if I gained weight, which I feel is a very common feeling among women, unfortunately.

I think we do this with a lot of things. At it’s most basic level, saying something like “I need to be a size 4” or else….or else what? THE ANSWER TO THE QUESTION OF WHAT YOU NEED TO BE (OR ELSE) IS WHERE YOUR INTROSPECTIVE JOURNEY BEGINS. I always say, what seems to be a body problem is really a mind problem :)

If you can identify the thing you are most scared of becoming, then you can begin to face up to it. For example for me, saying I needed to be thin or lean wasn’t about that, it was about what I made it mean, and if I wasn’t thin, what I would make that mean. I have shared in an earlier post about my biggest insecurity–that I am unlovable–and for me, my body and my physique was, for a long time, the only way I knew to assure love. I grew up as a top athlete, praised for always doing well in sports. My physique was my guaranteed ticket to love. If I was able to stay lean, ‘”in shape” and play the part of the physique role model, then I could always find affirmation that I was good enough. If I didn’t have that, then what? What else could I possibly offer if it wasn’t a bangin’ bod?

Essentially, I was attaching meaning to what I thought it meant to be thin. And my motivation for my dedicated fitness regimen was fear of not having my physique as a tool to garner love and affirmation. Saying it out loud (or writing it) is embarrassing. But it is a good reminder when I hear women say that they “need” to reach a certain size or look or body fat %, so then they can finally be (fill-in-the-blank)–happy, well-liked, adored, worthy, good, justified, etc.

This is normal stuff, we all do it. However, it is a useful practice to take stock of our fears. What is it that you simply cannot bear to have be a reality? What it is about that version of the story that scares the living crap out of you? What would YOU make it mean if that were the case?

Situations, things, people, events, circumstances, etc are literally only as bad as we make them out to be. We create meaning out of the most benign things and then take those meanings to heart. We see and interpret things to suit our biases and satisfy our insecurities. Here’s an example:

I am fit, muscular woman and someone remarks at how “buff” and “intense” I am. I can EITHER decide that they are rude and take it to heart, taking it to mean I am bad in some way or unacceptable. OR I can decide that it’s their way of giving me a compliment, they might not be sensitive to their language, but I decide that it’s nice they noticed and gee, I have worked pretty darn hard to have this “buff” body, and I love it! How cool that other people notice too!

It’s a subtle distinction, but there are women all over the world making the first choice. They are getting all heated and sensitive about comments made to them, when in actuality, it is THEIR OWN INSECURITY AND BIASES that get them heated in the first place. I know because I have done this exact thing a thousand times :) I remember getting offended years ago when someone called me G.I. Jill (lol)–like I was some kind of crazy hulk. They meant it in the most complimentary way, of course, and now I love it, I love G.I. Jill–why not?? :)

In order to begin getting out of our own way with this stuff, one option is to give people the benefit of the doubt. How are they to know that something they are meaning NOT as an insult is being taken as one via our heavily-biased sensitivities. If I get upset over being called G.I. Jill then it is ONLY because I have a sensitivity around that. Maybe on some level I am worried that I am too muscular or too intense or too extreme, and the comment simply brings out that insecurity.

Once again we are brought back to ourselves. It is all about our personal, unique interpretation of the world, one that is extremely slanted by our insecurities. Now, if I feel offended or sensitive or upset, I look inside and ask myself, what is it ABOUT ME that makes me feel that way? It has nothing to do with anyone else. If I were in a different mind space–maybe I just got a kick-ass modeling job, and I don’t care who calls me G.I. Jill lol–it wouldn’t bother me one bit.

Another example. Seeing down-time as lazy. I think many of us have a hard time justifying taking time for ourselves or just doing nothing. We tell the story that it’s lazy, it’s unproductive, it means we are unfocused or floundering. When in reality, taking down time is NECESSARY to recharge and reset so that we are able to function more optimally at times when we are working. So we can CHOOSE to see it as unproductive or lazy OR we can decide that it is actually the most PRODUCTIVE thing we can do to boost our overall productivity. It all lies within our personal perception.

I am sure you can relate to this :) We all do it. But the sooner we can catch ourselves getting caught up in our own BS, the faster we can make the turn-around and realize that we truly are meaning-making machines, and that we can simply CHOOSE to create a different meaning. Practice makes progress. And the good news is that the onus is on us. How refreshing! That means, we are the ones able to change the situation, with a simple attitude adjustment.

So, in conclusion, begin to identify your unique sensitivities by noticing when you feel like you need to defend yourself. Defending is a good indication that there is something there that you have a bias or sensitivity about. Being sensitive is fine, but remember that if it is causing you misery or insecurity then there is some potential work to do there, if you choose.

Related: Self-acceptance and why it doesn’t mean giving up

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