Seeking Meaning Beyond Trauma

March 22, 2021

An abstract painting of a figure in front of an orb with undecipherable scribblings.
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For many, the search for genuine meaning remains a desirous, life-long pursuit. How do we know when our lives can actually be characterized as meaningful? On a very fundamental level, searching for meaning places your life in a context of meaning; that is, you know what it means to lose meaning and to reacquire it.

An old definition of the word meaning is “to name.” When we name ourselves, we are attributing meaning to our lives. We can name ourselves as lovers of apple turnovers or as someone dedicated to supporting others in maximizing their human potential. The more devotion we get behind the name and the more the name points to serving something larger than ourselves, then the greater the depth and breadth of the meaning created. We might say that the richness of a meaningful life reflects what truly matters. Some ways to lean into the direction of creating meaning include identifying what you desire from life, acknowledging what life is asking of you, knowing your gifts and how they might best serve, and knowing and living what you love.

Being able to generate meaning that offers direction and fulfillment depends upon an open and workable relationship with ambiguity or uncertainty, as well as taking action that consummates the vision we hold. The credibility of the previous statement is affirmed when we are willing to get honest about the mystery, unpredictability and insecurity of life, as well so many of the dynamics that generate real meaning. Some of these dynamics shrouded in ambiguity include love, freedom, justice, courage, emotional intimacy, wisdom and compassion. Many indigenous cultures Initiate young people into the mystery of life by a ritual, which anthropologists refer to as the ritual of the Mysterium Tremendum or Great Mystery. We continue to insist that the delusion of the right education, right bank account, right job, right spouse and neighborhood will make life certain, predictable and secure. Those things can create a measure of comfort, but that can’t strip life of its mystery.

An abstract painting of a figure in front of an orb with undecipherable scribblings.

“Hanging Out in Time” by Puneeta Ranjan

Beyond a culture that does not seem to be helping us to have the kind of relationship that is capable of generating meaning, there are also many distractions along the way. The attachment to immediate gratification, needing to impress, addiction, arrested development and hubris can easily block the pursuit of meaning. However, early trauma, especially complex trauma where there are ongoing violations to a child’s physical, sexual or emotional boundaries, or some premature loss, can substantially inhibit an ability to generate authentic meaning. Trauma places the nervous system on alert for possible threats to safety. Being driven by a hijacked amygdala, children can easily move into adulthood vigilantly patrolling the environment in support of survival.

Literalized or Lost

My work with early trauma has shown that there are at least two significant ways that it can become an impediment to being comfortable relating to ambiguity. The first group I identify as “literalized” as they move away from ambiguity by reducing their experience to concrete information gathered by the five senses. The second group I identify as “lost” since they become lost in ambiguity, unable to bring meaning through real action. Let’s look more closely at the group coping with ambiguity by literalizing their experiences.

Literalizing the Ambiguous 

This group of survivors seems to have the predisposition of gathering information in concrete terms. Hence, they can be defined as concrete learners (see Anthony Gregorc’s Learning Typology Model). Meaning is attributed to what is seen, heard, touched, tasted and smelled. Negotiating emotions, values, abstract principles and diverse beliefs can be challenging. Black and white thinking places abstract considerations into neat boxes, missing the nuances of the lived experience.

As tolerance and acceptance for the unknown wanes, the need for immediate information increases. Since these adults were likely abused by family authority figures, any lack  of clarity expressed by a contemporary authority figure will be immediately called into question. Typically, there is a receptivity to any charismatic leader exuberantly announcing opinions, regardless of how factual they are. As a result, conspiracy theories become extremely appealing.

In a recent article in Psychology Today, Dr. David Ludden points out that in a confused world we seek answers that comfort us and fit into our world view, answers that offer a sense of control and security as well as an opportunity to maintain a positive self-image aligning ourselves with those who passionately claim to possess the truth. A history of complex trauma greatly amplifies the need to feel comforted by a particular world view, to have a sense of control and security, as well as to have a positive self-image.

The consequence of not being able to cope with ambiguity is captured in the following by James Hollis:

“Living with ambiguity, not being too attached to the old ‘certainties’, and  earning what life needs to tell us whether or not we think we are up to it are, frankly, the only ways to grow, become more capacious, live a larger journey.”

When we are threatened by “what life needs to tell us” because it is ambiguous, we can easily sacrifice living a larger journey.

When the ability to hold ambiguity and learn from it is compromised, several significant consequences result, leaving us living in a small journey:

1) There is a rigid attachment to black and white thinking with little tolerance for the gray in life. The most significant aspects of life come in gray: justice, love, freedom, responsibility, compassion, courage, integrity, morality, spirituality, etc..

2) Since the above life experiences can be described as ambiguous meaning-makers, any adverse response to ambiguity can seriously mitigate the ability to create meaning in one’s life.

3) It becomes challenging to live life on life’s terms since life tends to unfold ambiguously by way of mystery and unpredictability.

4) Right and wrong thinking tends to seriously weaken a capacity to work with diverse beliefs, values and needs.

5) The essential ingredients of curiosity, wonder, and imagination that support comfort with the unknown are muted. They are suspended in favor of maintaining a reliable surveillance of the environment. In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk addresses the impact of chronic trauma upon imagination:

“When people are compulsively and constantly pulled back into the past, to the last time they felt intense involvement and deep emotions, they suffer from a failure of the imagination, a loss of the mental flexibility. Without imagination there is no hope, no chance to envision a better future, no place to go, no goal to reach.”

6) Having clear response to the dynamics occurring in an intimate emotional relationship are compromised. In the absence of immediate and concrete answers to ambiguous emotional issues, participants simply feel overwhelmed.

Making Peace with Ambiguity

Making peace with ambiguity for adults who suffered from chronic developmental trauma will call for patience and viable support. Here are several recommendations:

1) Learn to regulate your nervous system by first being able to distinguish a regulated nervous system from an unregulated one. Here are a few indicators of dysregulation: increased heart rate, shallow breathing, agitation, sweaty palms, increased muscle tension, becoming aggressive or withdrawn, an inability to identify what one needs, extreme thinking (everyone, no one, never, always).

2) It is critical to interrupt any shaming or ridiculing thoughts about your unregulated nervous system. It can help to recall that an unregulated nervous system once assisted you in your survival of childhood.

3) Physical movement like exercising or taking a walk can help interrupt a freeze reaction.

4) Focus on your external sensations, especially visual and touch. Visualize the colors, shapes and textures in your immediate environment. Focus on internal sensations such as pulsation above the eyes, tight gut, increased heart rate, tense jaw and flushed cheeks.

5) Upon reaching a measure of calm, acknowledge that you are learning to face ambiguity and the accompanying tension while letting yourself know that you are safe.

6) Give yourself the option of a physical boundary in order to support the feeling of safety.

7) Close your eyes and visualize yourself in a place where you feel comfortably free, courageous, intimate or some other positive ambiguous situation. Hold the image for a minute or so and then begin to track internal sensation.

8) Speak to others whom you trust about your apprenticeship with ambiguity. Tell them how it’s going: the challenges and the accomplishments.

9) Most somatic therapies can be quite helpful. I especially recommend Somatic Experiencing and EMDR.

10) With the right support and a measure of grace, the concrete learner may be able to find enough safety to be guided by the following from the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Lost in Ambiguity 

This second group of survivors get lost in ambiguity in order to move away from hyperarousal or some perceived threat. They take up residency in abstract considerations. Neuropsychologist Peter Levine discusses this psychological move into abstraction:

“Dissociation is one of the most classic and subtle symptoms of trauma. It is also one of the most mysterious. The mechanism through which it occurs is less easily explained than the experience of it or the role it plays. In trauma, dissociation seems to be a favored means of enabling a person to endure experiences that are at the moment beyond endurance—like being attacked by a lion, a rapist, an oncoming car, or a surgeon’s knife. Dissociation  interrupts the continuity of the felt sense.”

Levine’s notion of the “felt sense” can be understood as an awareness and connection to what is occurring in the body, such as internal sensations and emotions. Bodily experiences are translated into concepts, distancing the individual from what is happening in the body. Curious enough, while traumatized concrete learners claim they are only bodies, the traumatized abstract learners claim they are only minds. This latter group needs to find safety while feeling their emotions and taking action that reflects what they truly love. Let’s look more closely at what happens to folks lost in ambiguity.

1) Because being present in the here and now is mostly a bodily experience, they can easily miss what is occurring in the moment.

2) Meaning is both a capacity to relate to the ambiguous, crucial elements of the human condition, coupled with the ability to express them with real action. Meaning is compromised because of the loss of action.

3) When emotions are translated into thoughts, it becomes difficult to feel and identify emotional needs resulting in a diminished capacity for emotional intimacy.

4) Personal identity tends to become diffused amidst the airiness of conceptual activity. There is a loss of an embodied sense of who they are, their strengths, their accomplishments and what they truly desire.

5) Engaging in the rhythm of a relational dynamic is hindered as they are challenged to feel empathy for the other while connecting to a felt sense of what is important for them to communicate.

6) Typically, there is impairment to one’s ability to connect to instinct, which offers a significant source of information. Levine suggests:

“Instincts, therefore, are about movement—how to find food, shelter and a mate, as well as how to protect ourselves. These responses need no learning. They are hardwired in the service of our survival.”

Making Peace with the Body

Let’s explore some ways that traumatized abstract learners can safely return to their bodies, offering some measure of comfort in being lost in ambiguity. It will mean learning to feel safe with both external and internal bodily experiences.

1) Aromatherapy

2) Therapeutic massage

3) Reflexology

4) Movement practices such as gentle yoga, tai chi and dance

5) Playing music and noticing either the body’s response and/or what emotions are stimulated.

6) Expressing emotions to trusted others, even if it is simply what feels pleasant or unpleasant

7) Creating soothing images of your body in scenes that feel nurturing, comforting, along with tracking internal sensation that follow holding such images such as slow rhythmic breath, expansiveness in the chest or warmth in the cheeks

8) Carrying a touchstone which could be an actual stone, a medallion or any object holding sentimental value, reminding you of your commitment to let go of being lost in ambiguity and found in your body

9) Telling the story of returning to your body to a trusted support system

10) Employing some form of somatic psychotherapy

We are all meaning-makers. Although trauma can inhibit your capacity to make meaning, it need not be totally prohibitive. It may be that your innate predisposition to learn will create a particular relationship with ambiguity. Concrete learners who know how to take action can learn to safely relate to ambiguity, adding to the richness of what it means to live a meaningful life. Abstract learners can observe the felt sense of their bodies and take real action reflective of being somatically informed. Each group is asked to live the questions: What courage is life asking of me? And what external and internal resources do I need in order to accept life’s invitation?

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