Meaning Making Machines

Meaning Making Machines. Psychology Fanatic article header image
Meaning Making Machines. Psychology Fanatic
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We are meaning making machines. When Susan doesn’t respond to a text, with no other credible information, our wheels churn, giving her absence meaning: “She’s mad at me.” We are driven to seek meaning. We are not satisfied with the simple facts—we want to know why.

The meanings are more than a bundle of words floating through our minds; the meanings influence emotion—the more meaningful an event, the more emotional the memory. It rarely occurs to us that an emotional arousal—fear, anger, disgust or simple joy—could be reacting to a wrong assessment. But meaning may be very wrong: Susan may be driving or dropped her phone in the bathtub. But the impact of meaning doesn’t stop with a single event, subsequent events are also tainted.​ The faulty assessments bias future encounters. We protect our erroneous meaning through selective processing of new information. In addition, a new event may provoke greater arousal than it deserves. Emotional distortions create distorted interpretations that compound with each subsequent encounter.

Impoverished childhoods and traumatic experiences interfere with accurate assessments in adulthood. Past hurts spill into the present encouraging self-protecting behaviors. These behaviors limit opportunities, spoil relationships, and create more pain. The habitual responses flow so naturally and feel so justified that we overlook self-sabotaging behaviors.

Traumatic Experience and Future Emotions

High emotions take their toll, creeping into all aspects of our lives, closing doors, cheating futures. The pain from past hurt continues forward, interfering with trust, bonds and intimacy. When we are threatened, mundane events appear ferocious. Our meaning making machine misinterpret the casual word as an attack. We automatically—and unconsciously—respond with shame, anger, emotional detachment or spiteful revenge.

​We understand the response given the past. We attach deep meaning to the current infraction, frightened and cornered, survival instincts jump to action; we puff our chests and attack. The accusatory reaction doesn’t resolve the problem—often creates a divide, shaking safety for both partners. Our adaptation is counter-productive, creating more of what we do not like.

Emotional Safety

We need a safety zone (secure base). Healthy relationships provide shelter from fearful futures. We know we are loved because we feel it. An ill-tempered word from a partner is softened because we know their heart. The safety zone of a relationship deteriorates with unpredictability. When fights create the drama of possible abandonment, we find no security. The drama of on and off relationships damages the soul.

Crystal L. Parks Ph.D. suggests that we create meanings explaining current experiences to sooth discrepancies between experience and our subjective global beliefs. These meaning soothe emotion, reestablish emotional safety, and settle disrupting cognitive dissonance.

See Emotional Safety for more on this topic

We live in a world of unpredictable acceptance. We spoil love with conditional offering—I love you when you do what I say. Both partners feel the lack of security, no secure base is present for retreat when life becomes stressful. Outside stressors create stronger relationships when the relationship provides relief. But insecure relationships add to the stress.

​Our expressions of hurt, sorrow or anger generate too many emotions for the relationship to manage—outside stressors overwhelm the fragile connections. When we rebuff a partner seeking solace from outside pressures, the failure to provide safety in times of trouble erodes trust, destroying intimacy, and creating a need for partners to guard against hurt. Healthy relationships validate emotional experience, allowing for open expressions of emotion.

“The pain from past hurt continues forward, interfering with trust, bonds and intimacy. When we are threatened, mundane events appear ferocious.”

~T. Franklin Murphy


We can fight the emotional tendencies that undermine connection. With mindful attentiveness, and professional guidance, partners can recognize when the past is intruding on the present. By recognizing unreasonable reactions to triggering event creates space and a chance to intercede before the automatic response.

​We intervene in the destructive cycle of communication. An enlightened partner examines the accuracy of assigned meanings, created by the mind and influencing emotions and then step back to consider alternate explanations. This process isn’t fool proof; emotional reactions occur beneath the veil of consciousness. But we can expand awareness, catching previously unseen influencers that evaded detection.

We cheat the opportunity to gain wisdom through by blindly following habitual processes:

  • We erroneously mind read, assigning faulty attitudes, thoughts, and feelings to others
  • We make judgments from ambiguous signals
  • We judge behaviors from biased coding systems
  • Moods and attitudes strongly influence assessments
  • The degree we feel a judgment is correct doesn’t directly related to actual accuracy

Identifying Faulty Labels

To improve our meaning making machines, we must acknowledge the imperfectness of assigned meanings—whether those meanings are explicit or not. If we accept unconditionally this aberration of the mind, we are more susceptible to the ills. We must challenge faulty cognitive sureties. Without thought, we simply feel, react and then justify. Our automatic reaction goes unchallenged and often destroy our lives.

Unfortunately, the easy path of sticking to past practices has a high price—stagnation. We may fine tune explanations, seemingly giving legitimacy to reactions but keep doing the same darn things that destroy us and our relationships. However, we don’t need more articulate reasons; we need better action. We must challenge the behavior, not fine tune the justifications. We sacrifice the sanctity of a perfect self but gain the security of stronger relationships. The lack of security that inflicts too many cruelly deprives them of moving into the vulnerability that ultimately builds security.

Soothe the Emotion First

Emotions can get the best of us and we get lost in silly explanations. When highly aroused, emotions limit effective reasoning. If using mindfulness is a new experience, grant sufficient time for aroused emotions to settle before responding. Trying to force emotionally aroused partners or ourselves into calm submission heightens resistance and reinforces emotional divides.

​Navigating the intricate maze of interpersonal relations during heighten arousal obscures options, evokes frustration, and ultimately destroys bonds; first recover, and then reengage, remembering to disengage if emotions begin to intrude. Over time, we develop the skills to soothe our aroused system without the frequent need for escapes.

A mindful approach creates a safe zone in relationships where we develop intimacy, inspire hope, and forge unbreakable bonds. We still will have active minds that give meaning to events; but when we soothe emotions first, we open our mind for more practical and less emotionally fused reasons. Our meaning-making machines will still live but will more effectively serve our long-term goals of stronger relationships.

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