Upsetting Experiences and Trauma: The importance of meaning

Obviously upsetting experiences come up a lot in my work.

Sometimes people worry that their trauma is not big enough to need treatment, that the incident is silly or insignificant and that they should just get over it on their own.

I have found that the need for treatment sometimes depends less on the severity of the trauma and more on the meaning that is attached to it. Sometimes the meaning is initially negative and then as people process the upsetting event over time, they begin to find a more adaptive meaning. Treatment seems to be needed when for whatever reason, the meaning remains maladaptive.

This may explain in part, why some people are more traumatized by the same event than others, why some seemingly benign events upset us more than other more objectively traumatic events, and how people who grew up in the same families can have very different views of what the experience was like.

It is not a surprise then, that an effective way to lessen the impact of an upsetting or traumatic experience, is to explore and ultimately redefine its meaning.

Let’s take a relatively benign example.  Let’s say as a young child, you put a lot of effort into making a painting for one of your parents.  When it was finally done, you took it to your mother and showed it to her, expecting great admiration and praise.  Unfortunately at that moment, your mother was busy on the phone.  She wasn’t able to give you the attention that you needed.  If you then thought to yourself, “Hmmm, I must not be important” then the event will likely be upsetting and continue to disturb you and you may end up carrying it with you for a long time, allowing other subsequent experiences to reinforce it.  You may begin feeling like you are not important in general. When you feel this way, you notice more experiences that confirm that belief and the belief that you are not important continues to strengthen.  Although the original event was not hugely traumatic, you can see how the meaning associated with this event can turn it into the beginning of a life long obstacle to your happiness.

If instead you had attributed a different meaning to your mother’s unavailability (“she would pay attention to me if she could because I am important, but something else important is taking her attention right now, and it has no relevance to my importance”) the experience would not be upsetting or leave a traumatic imprint on your life.

Accidents remind us of our vulnerability and of the fragility of life.  If we hold onto the idea that we are vulnerable, we tend to become more and more fearful.  Some bad experiences seem to say to us, that we are unlucky.  If we hold onto this meaning we will find many experiences to confirm that we are unlucky.  If instead we say to ourselves we just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time today and we are no more vulnerable or unlucky than we were before or than the next person, then we can more easily move on from the experience.

When people treat us badly, we sometimes look for something we can control to explain it…we blame ourselves (I did something to deserve that).  In other words, sometimes we are embarrassed because of the meaning we attach to the embarrassing event (e.g. “I am an idiot, people must think I am stupid”).  If someone behaves badly towards us in public and we are embarrassed, we may be embarrassed because we think people will judge us.   If we hold onto these meanings it begins to affect our outlooks, the decisions we make and we may begin to feel stuck.

So it is useful to explore and redefine the meanings associated with the upsetting things that happen to us, and continue to get in the way of our living our lives as we wish to.

The next time something upsetting happens to you, think about what meaning you might have attached to it, and see if you can find a more adaptive meaning.  The sooner you can do this, the faster you will heal.