The Meaning Triangle: Creating A Positive Feedback Loop

So I want you to imagine something. Imagine it's 8:00 PM and you've just run out of milk and you don't have time to go to the store in the morning. So you send someone from your household to go get the milk at the grocery store and they say, "OK, I'll be back at 9:00. It's just it's going to take me a while to get the milk, but I'll be back soon."

And now it's 9:30, and they still aren't back. And so you try calling them, and you try texting them.

No answer.

You can't find their location because they disabled that on their phone, and you don't know what's going on.

And now it's 10:00 PM and they still aren't back. And your mind is now racing, going what happened? What does this mean? You have no idea what happened... so you start making up stories.

Maybe they got in a car accident. Maybe they were kidnapped. Maybe they have a flat tire. Or maybe they won the lottery.

You have literally no idea.

Let's take another example: You go to take a math test and you study, study, study really, really, really, really hard, and then when you get the paper back, it says C and you just feel so disappointed. And you say, "I'm just not good at math and I suck. I studied as hard as I could and I just suck at math."

These are examples of assigning meanings, and this is an essential part of everyday life. Can you imagine how it would be if you had no idea what happened to anyone at any time and you couldn't just make up stories and have a best guess? We wouldn't be able to function. Like, meanings are essential to our lives and they drive our everyday functions, everything from the alarm beeping means that it's time to get up to the green light means it's time to go, to my stomach gurgling means that it is time to be hungry.

Very rarely do we have a direct definition of "this definitively means this." The problem is we often don't have enough data to really derive a true meaning, so we need to make a guess.

And that in and of itself is not the problem. The really actual problem is when we choose a meaning that simply doesn't serve us such as saying "I just suck at math" when you take a math test and you don't actually know that.

You don't know that you suck at math. You just dismissed it away with that. The real only true thing you do know is that you got a C on a math test.

Obviously, you don't understand the material well enough. That's it. All other meanings are completely subjective because we don't have enough data.

This is the meaning triangle and it explains how meaning works:

So let's go back to our example of a math test. So let's take the action of you study for the math test.

The result would be you get a C on that math test. And then the meaning could be one of 10,000 things. And the meaning that you choose does two things.

Number one, it will create a feedback loop in the meaning triangle, either a positive or a negative one, or neutral sometimes. And number two, it may reinforce your identity. So let's say that, for this example, you choose the meaning of I'm not good at math.

What that will do is, subconsciously, since you're saying, "oh, that's now a part of my identity, I am not good at math." Then it will seem worthless to study. So you say, "I'm going to go through the motions of studying, but I'm not actually going to really study and put my full effort into it." And a lot of this is unconscious.

And then the result from that next math test is you've got a D on the math test and you go, "See? This means I'm not good at math. I was right!" And that just reinforces everything and you go down this negative feedback loop.

Now on the other hand, if you take the action of studying for the math test, you get a C on the math test, and you apply the what I'm going to call the actual meaning, the true meaning

. And let's say that that is just, from this case, the data that we do have, is I don't have enough information to be good in this area of math.

I don't understand the equations. I don't understand what's going on. I have not grasped the concept yet.

That's the meaning. That's the true meaning. So therefore, it doesn't really affect our identity at all.

And then we just create an amazing feedback loop because then we go, OK, let me study a different way. That's the action. Oh, OK. I got a C plus.

OK, now the result is I'm actually pretty good at math. And you go through this loop the other way. Nothing changed except for our meaning.

So how do you choose a meaning that serves you best? Well, it starts by asking yourself, what is the true meaning of this situation? It may literally just be, for example, "That's a red light." It means that it's a red light. And therefore, a red light is here and that's the true meaning. You can derive nothing else from it.

Or it may mean, "I don't understand the information in this math test." Whatever it is, you start with the true meaning and then you say what other meanings can actually help and assist me in this situation as opposed to making it worse?

So what now? Well, start to apply this framework to your life. Start thinking about what meanings serve you and what meanings don't.

If you would like more on this and a very thorough deep dive into how you regulate yourself and guide yourself through life unconsciously and not, check out our "Thrive" course here.

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