Why Updating the Meaning of Old Events is Crucial to Mental Health
Until you make correct meanings of old, distressing events, you’ll be stuck in a mental time warp and at risk for emotional eating because you won’t feel in control when you’re triggered by them. Triggers are no more than old perceptions that something is wrong. Nothing need actually be wrong, but we think it is. Here are two examples.
- You were the middle child among five siblings. Your older brothers were close in age
and hung around together, your younger sisters were bubbly extroverts, and you were and remain an introvert. Your siblings teased you (though lovingly) about your shyness and mostly left you alone, and you grew up feeling invisible as if you weren’t interesting or important. When you socialize now, you view every rebuff as proof that people don’t want to talk to you or find you likable. You mostly do things alone but yearn for friends.
You could continue to make meaning of your relationship with your siblings as proof
that there is something unacceptable about you. But that is not the real meaning of what happened back then. The actual meaning is that there was never anything wrong with you except that you were different in gender from your brothers and in personality from your sisters, none of whom knew exactly what to make of or how to connect with you. You being the middle child was an accident of birth and you being stuck with your siblings as a formative constellation in your childhood was nothing but sheer bad luck.
- Your father suffered from alcoholism and flew into unpredictable rages and your
mother was highly critical and demanding and you suffered the brunt of their anger much of the time. You believed that if you tried harder to be a good child, you could avoid triggering their ire. You thought that if you were very careful and did everything right, you could escape their rants or beatings. Now you are obsessed with right and wrong, go out of your way not to upset anyone, and therefore are passive about getting your needs met. You see people as frightening, yet you still dearly want their approval.
The meaning you make of your childhood is that you’d better not upset people or they’ll retaliate and hurt you and that being good equals emotional safety. The real meaning of what happened to you in childhood is that you had parents who were unable to manage their habits or regulate their feelings. As in the example above, you were fine and only unlucky enough to have been the brunt of parental poor mental health. Now you can upset people and fight back if they lash out. Now you can make mistakes, observe people’s reactions, and decide if you still want them in your life. Now you can get your needs met because you have a wider circle of folks to choose from.
If you don’t make sure that you have accurate meanings of events, you’ll be stuck in a time warp. The right meanings will make your life, as well as your eating, a lot better.