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Choose the Meaning of Events, Even Traumatic Ones

We’ve all had “bad” things happen to us and some of you have had “terrible” things or many “terrible” things befall you—sexual/verbal/physical abuse, poverty, neglect, rape, bullying, accidents, and other events which were out of your control. Does that mean you must experience pain and suffering due to these events? You likely believe that pain and suffering are inevitable by-products of such happenings and cannot be separated from the distress you (or anyone) will experience in their aftermath.

If so, you’re wrong. Fact is, the meaning we make of trauma and “bad” things happening to us is the sole determinant of how much, if any, pain and suffering we experience. Michele Weiner-Davis, MSW, LCSW, proves this point by relating the story of Sally, a single, outgoing, 35-year-old friend of hers. An avid runner, Sally was attacked by a knife-wielding, masked man on the way into her apartment building after a run. Sally immediately told herself that she might be raped but that she would survive. Her attacker did, indeed, rape her while holding his knife to her throat. She didn’t fight him, but took advantage of his attention to having an orgasm to escape to a neighbor’s house. (“Knowing when to push” by, Mar/Apr Psychotherapy Networker, p. 53)

Writes Weiner-Davis, “When the police arrived, Sally matter-of-factly relayed what had happened. After listening to her report, the police officer said, ‘Lady, I don’t get it. You were just raped at knifepoint and you’re telling me the story so calmly. How is that possible?’ Sally looked the police officer straight in the eye and without a moment’s hesitation replied, ‘You don’t think that I’m going to let 15 minutes with that fucker ruin my life, do you?’”

Weiner-Davis goes on to say that Sally “had no PTSD, no nightmares, no sexual hang-ups, no depression, no anxiety.” The sole result of the rape was Sally volunteering for years at a rape crisis center. To understand how Sally managed to get through the violence of what happened in the rape emotionally unscathed, Weiner-Davis tells us that Sally never thought of herself as a “rape victim or survivor.”

Sally’s perspective proves the point that it’s not the event, but the meaning we make of it, that hurts us. Wisely, Sally consciously chose not to assign a life-changing meaning to the rape. She likely decided that it was a random occurrence that could happen to anyone and that it had no real impact on her life other than enduring a terrifying 15 minutes.
Obviously, the fact that the rape happened to Sally as an adult is different than rapes or other “traumatic” events that occur when you’re a child. However, now, as an adult, you can still assign a different meaning to whatever happened to you as a child and, more importantly, you can decide whether you’re going to stay mired in the past feeling like a trauma victim or survivor or whether you’re going to enjoy the present which is much more fully under your control. You may not have had a choice back then, but you do now.

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