This article first appeared in my newsletter October 21, 2016. Click here to sign up to receive my online newsletter.
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The scene: a workshop with about 70 participants from four continents.
Part 1: One of the workshop leaders disclosed something painful that was happening in his life. He said he wanted us to be aware of the situation but he did not want to discuss it with any of us. Specifically, he asked that we not approach him with condolences, advice, our similar experiences, questions or anything else. He asked us just to take in the information. Period.
Part 2: About half an hour later during an exchange of comments between a couple of workshop participants, someone said something that could be interpreted as a “zinger” directed at the workshop leader. A few people said, “Oooh.” Most of us could not see who made the comment. Shortly after that, we had a break.
Part 3: When the session resumed, the workshop leader said he had intended to ignore the comment but, upon someone else’s advice, had decided to let us know that he found the comment hurtful and asked that whoever had said it please speak with him during the next break.
Part 4: Later that day, the workshop leader and the person who had made the comment said they would like to tell us what happened when they spoke with each other.
The person who had made the comment was devastated. He’d actually intended the comment to be a compliment but as soon as the words were out of his mouth, he realized it could be misinterpreted. Subsequently hearing that the workshop leader felt hurt by the comment made the situation even worse. That tapped into memories of a painful childhood incident that left him feeling responsible for the death of an important adult in his life. At the workshop, one more time he felt responsible for hurting someone important to him.
By the end of the two men’s conversation, there was forgiveness all round. The workshop leader understood that the comment was intended as a compliment. The person who made the comment began to accept – emotionally as well as intellectually – that as a child he had not been responsible for a death; as an adult, he could let go of the guilt he’d carried for so long.
What I concluded
As a silent observer, what struck me about all this was that the triggering incident was just an incident. Not good, not bad, just something that occurred. With further information, it was clear no harm was intended. The incident did not cause the pain. What caused the pain was the meaning that people attached to the incident.
The workshop leader, and perhaps the people who said, “Oooh” when the comment was made, decided that the meaning of the comment was insulting and hurtful. The comment was not hurtful; the meaning they attached was hurtful.
I remembered times in my life – some of them recent! – when I attached a painful meaning to an incident when there were other ways to interpret that incident. Reframing the meaning of an experience can sometimes eliminate the pain.
Perhaps, as Robert Scheinfeld says in The Ultimate Key to Happiness, things are painful only if we decide to attach a painful meaning to them. If we can observe and acknowledge things without judgment, we’ll still have challenges but they are less painful – simply things to handle.
This is not to deny life’s painful experiences, like the loss of someone we love. It is to acknowledge that some of our pain is inflicted by our own thoughts, and we could choose other thoughts.
A second thing also struck me – and not for the first time. If we have some unfinished business or leftover emotion, it’s probably going to keep showing up until such time as we can resolve it and be a peace with it. There are processes to help us do that, but that’s another conversation!
In the meantime, the next time I’m feeling pained, I intend to challenge myself to find a different meaning!
P.S. You can find out more here about Robert Scheinfeld’s The Ultimate Key to Happiness: How to Be Happy All the Time No Matter What’s Going on Around You