What are you making it mean?

Martin Carter

In this post regular FED post contributor Martin Carter reflects back on the death of his mother two years ago and on a big learning about the kinds of stories he makes up when triggered and the questions he asks that help him get back into being his best.

The call arrived at midnight. We immediately lifted the kids from their holiday beds in Cornwall, threw a few things in the car and set off driving through the night. My mother had been fighting cancer for some time but this sudden deterioration was unexpected. She wasn’t expected to last the night.

We arrived in Solihull at 4am and I immediately jumped into our other car, abandoning Claire and the kids on our driveway, and continued the dash to the hospital in Derby. The roads were clear and I got there in no time at all and joined my dad and sister at mother’s bedside. Four hours later Mum was sitting up eating breakfast with the doctors declaring a miracle. Having not slept, mum insisted I go home and get some sleep.

Within 2 hours I got the second call. The apparent quick recovery was followed by an equally quick relapse. I jumped back into the car and repeated the journey. Only this time the roads were packed. I felt my frustration rising, thinking I wouldn’t get there in time. I found myself adopting all the driving techniques which immediately trigger me when I am on the receiving end of them : passing on the inside, pulling into gaps that were perhaps a bit too tight and driving too close to the car in front, willing it to pull over. The journey took twice as long as before, but thankfully I still made it. Mum died peacefully some time later.

A week later, I found myself ‘triggered’ when a car nipped up my inside and pulled in front of me, causing me to brake. As I started to run my usual pattern of cursing, gesticulating and role-playing what I would say – and perhaps even do – to my offender if I got the chance I heard a quiet voice in my head say ‘perhaps his mum’s dying?’. Immediately the pattern was broken. I realised I had a choice how I responded to the trigger – get angry about something I could do nothing about or let go of it. So I let it go.

Now I’m not naïve, I know that their mother probably isn’t dying. But this isn’t about giving them a break, it’s about giving me a break from emotions I don’t need. Simply acknowledging that their mum could be dying, liberated me from the need to dispense justice, be indignant and to get angry.

I then realised that I was running similar story-telling patterns in lots of other areas in my life and so I set about trying to practice telling myself different stories. Two years on, and I am still finding new ones every day. To help me do this, I have shamelessly stolen a question that Anthony Landale frequently used in our FED sessions – “What are you making this mean?”. I now try and ask it whenever I feel those familiar feelings rising and am frequently amazed at how often it saves me from a whole pile of stress inducing emotions that I just don’t need.

Leadership nudge: What are you unconsciously allowing yourself to make things mean? What could you consciously choose to make them mean and what might that do for your mood, your performance and ultimately the quality of your day?

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