"Prison bars imagined are no less solid steel." R. Crowell. "Imagination is more important than knowledge." A. Einstein. "When imagination and will work together, all things are possible." C. Fillmore.
Imagination is one of the six functions of our minds (along with logic, reason, will, memory, perception, intuition). Our ability to use our imagination for our benefit plays a major part in our experience of power, self esteem and joy. In fact, one definition of the word "empowerment" is the ability to assign advantageous meanings to life's events. Facts are facts. But the meanings of the facts we make up, imagine, and interpret all the time. We can't help ourselves--our minds are made to create meanings.
Probably everybody knows by now that there are two million bits of information pouring into our senses every second. Our nervous systems, however, are not set up to handle all that that information.
One of our protections against data overwhelm is the way our belief systems filter out information. Belief systems help us by making it likely that we will automatically and quickly make meanings-a short cut. For example, if we believe that dancing is evil, we will automatically assume a dance teacher is suspect. Our automatic meaning-making can imprison us by diminishing our self esteem, limiting our possibilities and causing relational rifts.
Common examples of disempowering meanings
Below are three typical unexamined meanings that leach our self esteem and zest.
The prison of low self esteem: "I'm a failure."
So often I hear people in their 30's calling themselves a failure because they believe they should have been married with children by now. "I'm 35, and I'm behind all my friends. I'll never find someone right for me."
The prison of distrust: "He doesn't care about my needs, only about his."
"The phone was ringing; I was throwing up in the bathroom when our realtor called. My husband answered and was relaying questions about when the realtor could bring someone over to look at the house. He didn't care that I was sick!" (He was actually trying to please her by having the house sold as soon as possible, which is what she told him she wanted.)
The prison of unearned guilt: "I find other women attractive to look at, so I shouldn't be with my girlfriend." "When I look at a beautiful woman I wonder what it would be like to have sex with her. I must not love my girlfriend. I'm really not being fair to her. I'd better break up."
How to change your meaning, and change your zest
When you take a stressful, painful or frightening situation and work at assigning supportive meanings to it, you can increase your empowerment and zest.
An example of how to change a meaning and change your zest is what Joey (a fictionalized composite) did to help himself. Several months ago Joey's wife who was in a hotel bar with her business associates and had been drinking too much. She had not eaten all day and needed help getting to her hotel room. A male business associate walked her there and attempted to kiss her. She told Joey what happened, and that it didn't go any further. Despite the fact that he knows her to be rigorously honest he began to suspect her story and was obsessed with imagining painful scenarios. His wife, too, suffered greatly, from observing him in such pain. Joey and his wife began daily fights.
5 Steps to making a meaning change
Using Joey as an example, I show several steps to making a change of meaning.
1. First ask yourself: Are you aware of your present attitude towards it?
Joey certainly knew he was irate and terribly hurt. He imagined that much more had happened than what she had told him.
2. Determine whether you are willing to change your attitude about it.
Joey actually desperately wanted to believe that his relationship was not tainted, even ruined. He was very willing to change his painful imaginings.
3. If you are willing to change your point of view, list 10 positive things that have happened or could happen as a result of the situation. Notice any resistance you may have to doing this. Write down your resistant thoughts.
In this case, Joey was way ahead of me. He actually announced that he wanted to stop imagining all the things he'd like to do to punish her or to attack the man.
Joey's list of 10 positive things began with, "After seeing the pain involved here in feeling betrayed, I could never cheat on her-or anyone." He quickly added, "She has been so hurt by the pain that I've felt, that I'm sure she won't ever do anything like that. Her pain feels like a sort of an insurance policy against this ever happening again." He continued, I've also learned anger management methods that will help me keep my cool with my kids and help me in my work." As Joey began to focus on the positive results of his originally painful situation, he started returning to his zest point.
4. Chose an intention that supports a form of creative visualization about what's possible.
The deliberate imagining of desired scenes is an important step, and makes this process more than mere "positive thinking."
Joey chose the intention, "We will be even closer than before. We can re-connect and commit to making our relationship a priority."
He began using his imagination to create possibilities. "I 'm picturing reconnecting as we get ready to go to sleep. We've gotten into the habit of falling asleep while watching TV, instead of connecting. I'll restart our old habit of taking turns reading to each other while we snuggle. And I can initiate our good night kiss, which we both love, but have let slip away." His energy visibly builds as he plans what he can do, now that he has shifted his attitude.
This kind of deliberate work of imagination usually needs to be recreated several times a day, when the automatic scary pictures and thoughts rear their heads.
5. Take the actions that support your intention.
Joey's smile when he returned the next week broadcast his success with this exercise. He was smiling a similar smile a couple of months later announcing, "My wife and I are pregnant!"
The choice is ours. We can be trapped or free to invent. An anonymous writer rings true, "Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to chose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness."