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Dec 27

G’day all!! I have just returned from another overseas journey. Before I begin on the present offering, I must apologize to the BC Ferries crew of the Coastal Renaissance as it was their vessel and not the Queen of Coquitlam that returned me to the Island during the horrendous storm during which I was haunted by Sisiutl. Since that time I have been wracking my brain trying to come up with an appropriate article to give you for a New Year’s present; and the present offering came to me. I searched high and low to see if I had put these thoughts into words previously on the blog. I was unable to find anything. You may be more successful than I, yet I think the words are so “appropo” at this time of year, as we all obsess over the past year, I make no apology for them.

The underlying theme herein is that people’s problems with trauma can be socially influenced. That is the problems that cause us, and those around us, misery and pain can be influenced by language, thought and attention. Being unsophisticated in such matters (psychological) we tend to adopt certain frames of reference, come to cherish certain beliefs, selectively attend to certain perceptions, subscribe to particular explanations, and routinely hold the same expectations (the current state of the art regarding “PTSD”?). This offering will attempt to outline the problems that can arise when our attempts at adaptation, while under these influences, can go awry.

In this post I would like to share with you a handful of ways that we can make ourselves unnecessarily miserable around the assimilation of a trauma. As you are in a hurry to get to that New Year’s Party, I shall offer you only four variations on the theme:

I. Dichotomizing The Event

Most of us have a reasonably healthy view of life as a mix of good and bad; with some ugly things that can’t be changed, yet needn’t be an anchor to be hauled through the rest of our lives. However those of us with a particular talent for misery making, tend to see life’s events in a dichotomous fashion; as either entirely good or entirely bad. The “entirely good” bunch twist experience into a paradise lost that becomes an unending supply of nostalgic “goop” (e.g. “back in the day…….”). Nothing in the present could ever compare. The “entirely bad” crew view their experiences as total living hells out of which have sprung all their present problems. Both have forgotten that like life in general, past experiences (read traumatic events) are rarely black or white, but mostly gray.

One form of this variation is applied to a variety of problems including the presently popular notion that happiness is a “trouble free good feeling”. Those who seem to better manage the human condition, muster up a little logic, reflect on the obvious fact that life involves pain, and recognize that a more accurate definition of happiness is “the ability to create a rich, full, and meaningful life” in the face of its’ emotional discomforts. They embrace life in all its’ fullness (horrors included) accepting that this means a full range of emotion as well ( i.e. maybe you SHOULD be horrified by what you experienced, and in the acceptance of this, lies resolution?)

II. A Biblical Perspective

Do you know your bible well? Remember, I am a graduate of Notre Dame, and “back in the day” (oops!!) the study of Theology was mandatory. Are you familiar with Genesis 19:17 and 26? Do you recall God instructing the Lot family to pack up and leave Sodom and Gomorrah? His/her instructions went something like this: “Make haste and don’t look back….head for those mountains over there or you are toast!!” They all managed to take these godly directions except Mrs. Lot, who just had to look back. And “poof” she was turned into a block of salt!

Now, those who have managed to create a healthy balance between past, present, and future seem to view the past much as we view history. It is something to be learned from, its’ mistakes used as lessons for the future, but nothing to be obsessed over. However, practised “misery-makers” have discovered that constantly keeping their eyes on the past is an excellent way of missing what is going on in the present. Only by keeping themselves vigilantly occupied with the past can they ensure that they will miss something entirely new, or those involuntary changes of perspective that could contain the seeds of happiness. These arguably illogical individuals seem reticent to even briefly glance away from the past (e.g. a horrific or abusive experience) for fear that they may discover something in the “here and now” that will undermine the credibility of their morbid convictions (e.g. it is well accepted the normal thinking processes of a healthy mind, naturally create psychological suffering).

III. An Attribution Problem

Likely the most instructive example of this variation (with my sincerest apologies to all those who qualify as unthinking (vs. thinking) AA members) is to be found in the American Classic film, The Fatal Glass of Beer. The film is the story of a promising young man who struggled hard against dropping into a saloon, for a beer, each day on his way to and from work. He finally gave into temptation (so the story goes….nudge-nudge, wink, wink…..)and dropped into the saloon had his first beer, and began a decline into the depths of depravity. The inference being made, of course that the glass of beer was to blame and that the young man was the victim.

Those who pull themselves out of such situations, largely on their own, seem to factor themselves as agents into the equation somewhere. However those holding tightly to their cherished beliefs are able to spot the undeniable advantage of attributing blame to forces beyond their control. They intuitively recognize that even if they accept responsibility for the original sin (i.e. the beer, the drug, the food, the emotion), or traumatic response, it would be hard-hearted of others to hold them equally responsible for the irreparable and irreversible consequences of the original stimulus. In other words, in using this misattribution they can be at worst only partially to blame for their own misery.

Granted this variation on the past is not air-tight, but a skilled “misery-maker” can make it so with a little tweaking. What if he/she was not built to endure exposure (in the case of a trauma)) “… actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence…..” Surely then he/she must be the quintessential victim and resolved of all responsibility, right? In this case we wouldn’t dare to question our hero’s victim status or suggest she/he do something about his/her misery, right? It would be the ultimate insult to suggest that he/she do something about what was inflicted by neuro-chemistry, God, fate, society, relatives, neighbours, parents, teachers, siblings, doctors, police, employers, etc.

Can you believe it…….there is one more tweak that renders this variation almost impermeable to logic. Everyone knows that it is “unscientific” to suggest that the “pure” victim take some action to get better. We just have to refer to any psychology text to discover that one’s personality is determined by past events, especially those that occurred in early infancy. Come on, it has to be obvious to all that our hero is permanently damaged!! Surely everyone knows that what was once done can never be undone!! (Oh and by the way, herein lies the rationale behind long term psychotherapy).

IV. More Of The Same

I think I’ve saved the best for last. The final variation is one of the most frequently used and effective recipes for not only unhappiness but total disasters, ever known! Its’ application has lead to the complete obliteration of entire species and the precipitation of war. Its’ beauty lies in its’ simplicity. Even those “misery-makers” with an average amount of talent can use it to good effect. It has been around for so long that those in my profession have made a more than comfortable living off it for generations. In the profession, it is however not referred to as the “more of the same” problem but (clinically) as a “neurosis”.

Here’s how it works. Those who don’t suffer from it seem to recognize that problems tend to change over time. So they adapt by trying a variety of feasible solutions with the belief that every problem has more than one solution. Those, on the other hand who excel at making themselves, and all around them, miserable have fixated on the notion that for every problem there is just one solution. This game plan consistently produces a two fold result. First, the favoured solution becomes more and more ineffective while the problem becomes more and more hopeless. Second, our increasing misery along with our belief in only one solution leads us to the conclusion that we must do “more of the same”; and without fail each successive application of the ineffective solution (chemotherapy, traditional psychotherapy) results in more and more misery.

Those trauma patients who use the “more of the same” variation dig themselves into deep pits of hopelessness and despair,and behave as if they are duty bound to do two things. One, promise to recognize only one possible solution for every problem; and if it hasn’t yet been successful, accept that it is because he/she hasn’t done enough of it yet, and two; promise that under no circumstance will you break promise number one!


As it is the lead up to the New Year and many of you will be thinking back about the past year, and perhaps other years that have brought you to this point in your lives and careers. I want to give you a contemporary perspective on what you may be factoring into your equation. I want you to understand that there is more to attend to than the prevailing frame of reference, and that in the absence of strong empirical support much of what is held as “gospel” by the suffering public is rooted largely in social influence. That is, much suffering in the area of traumatic response is not rooted in permanent psychopathology, but in persistent patterns of thought that can be changed.


Dr. Mike Webster
Reg’d Psych.


From → Other

One Comment
  1. Anonymous permalink

    Just saw the 16 x 9 – we are all so happy that you took a stand for us. We are working as well to change things.


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