Our feelings don’t just ‘happen’ to us

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The NLP ‘Attaching Meaning’ Pattern

It’s one of life’s conundrums.

Why is it so hard to change negative or un-useful behaviours? Even when we know they are not good for us?

Our feelings don’t just ‘happen’

We have a number of ways of producing our feelings. Most of these ways are unconscious i.e. we do it automatically and through habit. And because of this our feelings just seem to happen to us. And because they just seem to happen to us there’s a tendency to just accept them – rather than play an active role in running our own feelings.

NLP is one of the best methods for understanding and managing feelings – even if it is most commonly, and erroneously, thought of as a means of ‘doing things’ to other people. With NLP we can look at what’s happening behind the scenes and figure out quite precisely how we create our own negative and positive emotions.

Emotions and ‘habitual interpretations’

One very common method of creating unpleasant emotions is to interpret events i.e. decide what they ‘mean’.  In other words, we attach our meaning to the event and then have feelings about the meaning we have attached to the event….

The process goes like this:

  1. Something happens in my life. E.g. I encounter an unexpected traffic hold-up en route to work
  2. I instantly decide whether I like it, dislike it, fear it, welcome it, etc. in other words I ‘interpret’ the event – I attach my meaning or significance to it. E.g, this is a nightmare. This is a disaster. It’s going to ruin my entire day!
  3. This results in emotions. These result from the significance which I attach to it!  E.g. I’m now resenting the event. I’m imagining all sorts of unpleasant consequences as a result of it. And I’m getting tense, impatient or angry.

Of course I don’t do this in a deliberate and systematic way. It happens in a fraction of a second.

And it happens unconsciously or ‘automatically’. It’s also quite personal and idiosyncratic. Somebody else might respond quite differently. The meaning that I’m attaching to the event is arbitrary.

For example:

  • I’m waiting to catch the bus home. It’s late again. I could decide this is ‘bad’ because I want to get home to watch my favourite soap. Or I could decide this is ‘okay’ because it gives me a chance to people-watch and practise my NLP skills.
  • I’m chatting with a colleague and I begin to describe someone – only to find that I can’t remember that person’s name, even though I know that I know it. Again I have a choice; I could shrug this off and accept that it’s the very common ‘tip of the tongue phenomenon’ Or I could decide that I’m getting senile, that I’m losing my brain cells as part of the ageing process, etc. and begin worrying about my mental health.
  • You’re at a social event and notice that a stranger is looking at you. Here you have an endless range of ways of interpreting their look: they dislike you, they find you attractive, they’re afraid of you, they like/don’t like what you’re wearing, etc.
  • At work a  member of your team, previously an excellent time-keeper, has been begun arriving a little late on some mornings each week. He won’t discuss the matter – saying it’s okay,  he’ll sort it out. You could label his behaviour lack of interest, loss of motivation, being obstructive and uncooperative – and emotionally respond to these labels. Yet, the reality might be that he has split with his partner recently and sometimes the new child carer arrives late so he misses his regular train.
  • Your manager picks on some error you’ve made and seeks to coach you in improving your performance. You have a range of interpretations to choose from: she is always picking on me, she’d just trying to show how superior she is to me – or she’s a really helpful manager and always ready to me improve my skills.

Nothing is good nor bad

An event does not have an intrinsic meaning. We attach significance to it – and then have feelings about the event, based on how we interpret it!

This process is one of the 13 NLP Meta Model patterns which we look at in our NLP Practitioner course. (Traditionally the pattern goes by the strenge title of Complex Equivalence.)

However, this Attaching Meaning process is neither an NLP discovery nor even a discovery of modern psychology or neuroscience. Shakespeare recognised the process over 400 years ago and has Hamlet remarking ‘for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’. And no doubt earlier writers have also described it.

It’s yet another habit

Attributing meaning or significance is hugely important phenomenon. The meanings you habitually attach to events and to peoples behaviours decide how you emotionally and behaviourally respond to what’s happening in your life.

And we all do it. We go through life deciding what each event ‘means’ and then have feelings based what we have decided!

Remember, we don’t pause and carefully scan a list of potential interpretations or meanings, choose one based on the prevailing facts, and then have our emotion. It happens very quickly and quite thoughtlessly. It’s simply, but importantly, a habit we’ve picked up over the years.

Optimists, pessimists, and the rest of us

How we do it varies from person to person but each person’s style of interpretation will be fairly consistent for them – it’s become an automatic and very quick process.

  • Optimists have developed the habit of interpreting things in positive ways. Pessimists have learned to only see the bleak side of life.
  • People who are risk averse habitually see risks, threats and dangers everywhere.
  • Others have developed that habit of being suspicious of everyone’s motives.
  • Still others are on the look out for opportunities in everything that happens in their lives.
  • And others see everything as the result of fate or joss or God’s will.

Yet each of us ‘knows’ that our interpretation is real. It’s the truth – the reality – because that’s how we’ve always functioned. So the significance I attach is very real for me – I know that how I am perceiving the word is reality! Because that’s how I’ve always perceived it.

So my emotional response to my interpretation feels perfectly valid – to me. Yet may appear quite irrational or off-the-wall to others.

Action points

It’s a good idea to begin noticing just how much ‘attaching meaning’ you do in your everyday life. This brings the habit into conscious awareness so you can begin being more choosy in how you interpret events – thus changing the emotional reactions you have to them.

Part 1: Recognise the habit:

  1. For a few days notice your own ‘attaching meaning’ habit. Does it have a tendency e.g. to be risk averse, fatalistic, pessimistic, etc.?
  2. Does the habit enhance your life? E.g. does it enable you to look on the bright side of things or look for opportunities in seemingly unpleasant events? Doe sit result in an open rather than a suspicious approach to new acquaintances?

Part 2: Remind yourself that it’s just an arbitrary interpretation:

  1. When you find yourself having negative feelings following an interaction with somebody ‘track back’ to discover the significance you attached to their behaviour
  2. Now ask yourself ‘Are there any other possible ways of interpreting that behaviour of theirs?’

And that’s it.

It’s mainly a matter of raising your awareness of how you go through your day.

Doing it for a few hours after reading this article will be interesting. Doing it for a few weeks could be life changing.


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