One of my teachers, Jon Eisman, often says “humans are meaning making machines.” This might be at the core of what makes us human. And like almost everything, this instinct has both helpful and challenging aspects.
The challenging aspect of how we humans are driven towards meaning is what I’m going to call “little m” meaning making. This can be described best through illustration. A coaching client told me last week that she hadn’t heard from one of her closest friends during the holidays and she was feeling down about it. We took a few minutes to make space for her feelings- sadness, worry and frustration. And when I asked her what story her brain was telling her about the situation, she said, “I’ve done something wrong. She’s mad at me.” When I asked what evidence she had that was true, she couldn’t come up with much. But her mind was trying to make sense of something that was upsetting to her. A few days later she found out that her friend’s mom had been hospitalized and in her stress, she’d shut everyone out. “It wasn’t about me at all,” my client emailed me.
This story illustrates a cognitive distortion called jumping to conclusions. Its a normal reaction to stress and if you find that this happens to you frequently, just know that you are not alone. It happens to me too. We can learn to identify and question these “little m” meanings to find more accurate and helpful ways of thinking. If you want to learn how to do get yourself out of distorted thinking, cognitive behavioral therapy has some science-backed methods.
Now let’s talk about “Big M” meaning. This is the life affirming and value driven way of making meaning. In “Burn-out, The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle” (highly recommended), Emily and Amelia Nagoski (sisters!) define meaning as “the positive value that an individual’s life can exhibit…the feeling that you matter in some larger sense. Lives may be experienced as meaningful when they are felt to have significance beyond the trivial or momentary, to have purpose, or to have a coherence that transcends chaos…the nourishing experience or feeling like we’re connected to something larger than ourselves. It helps us thrive when things are going well and it helps us cope when things go wrong in our lives.”
We all need that right now, don’t you think?
In life and career coaching, exploring “Big M” meaning-making is a large part of our focus. I help clients do this by identifying their core values. Values are like a compass, they guide us in the direction of what is most important to us and we are happiest when they are at the root of our goals and actions. Another way we make “Big M” meaning is thru connecting to something bigger than ourselves. From being a part of a movement (yes, Black Lives Matter!) to sharing spiritual practice in community to serving others through our work or volunteering, we humans belong together and we know it.
Many people even locate a sense of “Big M” meaning during times of hardship and extreme duress. In “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Victor Frankl suggests that a human’s deepest desire is to find meaning and this gives them the courage to survive anything. As a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during WWII, Frankl found the will to survive by focusing his attention on caring for others, being resourceful (like saving bits of string to use later) and focusing on the purpose he had in finishing his manuscript (which became his inspiring book).
Over the past few months as I have supported clients going thru the distress of surviving a global pandemic, suffering from the inequities of our current social system, losing jobs, worrying for sick family members and grieving loss, we have reflected on what “Big M” meaning we can hold on to. While the focus is different for everyone, what I know for sure is that being intentional and clear about our values and creating belonging is imperative.
So if you are contemplating what to make of 2021, I encourage you to make more meaning. This will serve you and your community far better than unsustainable and unhealthy goals like the revolving door of diets (which earns billions of dollars for the diet industry and is scientifically proven to be ineffective and dangerous) or some imperfection you have decided you must “fix” about yourself. As Brene Brown says, “You’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.”