Did you know that our ability to make meaning of experience is one aspect of human behavior which distinguishes us from so-called lower-order animals? A part of our brain has evolved in such a way as to automatically assign significance to actions to keep us safe and secure. Unfortunately, most of us rarely examine our interpretations, and may not realize that they are outdated and way off base.

Human desire to make meaning is rooted in a need to avoid mistakes to stay alive, while animals assume this function through instinct, without reflection and interpretation. An example illustrates our differences. My friends’ former dog, Damien, got into a fight with a porcupine (true story) and came staggering out of the woods one day with quills shooting out of his poor mouth. Damien was in pain and used his fear of pain to stay away from porcupines ever after. However, he did not spend the rest of the day beating himself up for having annoyed the porcupine so much that the little fellow attacked him.

Catch my drift? It’s necessary to improve your behavior to ensure that your actions are life-enhancing rather than life-destroying. You don’t need to assign a meaning to whatever happens. This is true especially when we are children because, back then, our interpretations often are wrong. Why? Because we don’t have fully developed brains, and the meaning-making we do comes from a very limited capacity to comprehend the world and our place in it. We are like primitive people who heard thunder and saw lightning and thought the gods were fighting. Better to skip the interpretation and, instead, observe that being struck by lightning can maim or kill—and head for shelter.

Although humans may have an innate tendency to make meaning, as adults we need to look closely at how we interpret what happened to us in childhood or in later traumatic situations. Are children the cause of their parents’ unhappiness, as many come to believe? No, parents cause their own unhappiness. Do children deserve mistreatment for behaving badly? No, parents should never mistreat their children. Did your spouse or partner dump you because you are a horrible person? No, he/she left because of their own inner needs, healthy or unhealthy. Did you get raped because you walked home in the dark alone? No, it happened because a sick individual couldn’t control his impulses.

Review the meanings you’ve made of childhood or traumatic events. If you blame yourself, find at least one other way of interpreting the situation. From now on, if you must make meaning of experience, be sure the interpretation holds up to adult scrutiny.