Trauma Doesn’t Define Us

In The Courage to Be Disliked, Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga explain a fascinating argument from Adlerian psychology: Trauma does not exist.

The example is a young man who has shut himself in his house and is living like a recluse. He doesn’t work, he doesn’t go out, and he doesn’t take care of himself very well. His parents and friends worry a great deal about him, and even he himself is miserable, but there just doesn’t seem a way out of the situation. What’s going on here?

The book is written as a conversation between another young man and a philosopher, and the young man argues that his friend — the recluse in question — can’t help but be a recluse because of traumas he’s suffered in the past. As it turns out, the man didn’t have a nice childhood. His parents favored his brother and, as a result, did not treat him kindly. Expectations were high, and nothing he ever did was good enough. Of course he is going to give up at some point and stop trying, the youth tells the philosopher.

The philosopher, however, takes a different stance. He claims that the young man can leave his house and “get back to life” at any point. The reason he chooses not to do so is some goal he has, and even is the goal is hidden, perhaps even from himself, the purpose for his behavior is still there. What happened in the past matters only insofar as it affects the goal the young man chooses and the behavior that subsequently follows. Does it suck that he was treated badly by his parents? Absolutely. But the choice to let that suffering make him stay in his room is his alone.

This is the difference between etiology and teleology, two fundamentally different ways of explaining things and, really, looking at the world altogether.

Etiology is the study of causation. The goal is to find reasons for what is going on, and those reasons must, of course, always lie in the past. For most of us, etiology is the only way of explaining life that we know. Cause-and-effect is the number one pattern we are looking for in all things, and we are taught to do so from a young age. “The tide goes out because the moon changes.” “He hit you because you called him a mean word.” “You got fired because you didn’t do a good job.”

It’s hard to even comprehend how pervasive this type of thinking is. This is also the Freudian view of our psyche and trauma. For Freud, everything went back to something that happened in our childhood, usually before we were even self-aware. “You reject love because you weren’t loved as a baby.” “You are looking for the father figure you never had in unavailable men.” And so on.

The reason this line of arguing has become so “popular” is simple: It’s attractive. It turns life into an easy, straightforward, point-and-blame game. You never have to look long or far to find a potential reason for anything, and as long as we have one, regardless of whether it is true, our brains will be satisfied.

“When you treat a person’s life as a vast narrative, there is an easily understandable causality and sense of dramatic development that creates strong impressions and is extremely attractive,” the philosopher explains. Humans are curious. We desperately want to know why things are the way they are, and whatever satisfies that thirst is welcome in our minds — even if it doesn’t align with our true aspirations.

But what’s the alternative? Why else would a young man whither his life away between dust and frozen pizza boxes? According to Adler, there is another way of looking at the world: Teleology.

Teleology is the study of purpose. It tries to assess the destinations of things rather than their origin. Whereas etiology is concerned with the beginning, teleology is concerned with the end. What function or goal does a certain behavior serve? Teleologists believe the goals are the origins — rather than in the past, the reasons for our behavior lie in our present and future! An alcoholic might drink to briefly forget his sorrows in the present, like his job not going well. A customer might yell at a waiter not because the water spilled her drink but because she wants to be angry.

This is a dramatical shift from etiological thinking and, for most of us, unheard of. But it really is just another version of “the ends justify the means,” and it simply indicates that everything we do is a means, and it always serves an end, even if said end might seem illogical. From a teleological perspective, the young man is shutting himself in because it helps him accomplish a goal. Now what might that goal be?

The philosopher has an idea: “If I stay in my room all the time, without ever going out, my parents will worry. I can get all of my parents’ attention focused on me. They’ll be extremely careful around me and always handle me with kid gloves. On the other hand, if I take even one step out of the house, I’ll just become part of a faceless mass whom no one pays attention to. I’ll be surrounded by people I don’t know and just end up average, or less than average. And no one will take special care of me any longer.”

As it turns out, the young man might be staying inside as a way to get back at his parents. He is taking revenge, and the only way to keep savoring said revenge is by continuing to enact it in the now — by continuing to stay inside. At the same time, he now gets all the attention he didn’t get as a child, and that’s another goal of his fulfilled.

These are not great goals, obviously. The young man probably does not even know he has them. But subconsciously, if that’s what’s going on, he is choosing to stay inside not because of anything that happened in the past but because of what he is getting out of this behavior right now. “I doubt he’s satisfied, and I’m sure he’s not happy either,” the philosopher says, “but there is no doubt that he is also taking action in line with his goal.”

I think you can easily see why teleology isn’t exactly a smash hit with therapists, psychologists, and coaches: It places all of the responsibility on you. Instead of having a million causes in the past that you can point to, you must constantly justify everything you’re doing in the present. That’s not only exhausting, it reveals our biggest flaws. Everything is, in one way or another, our own fault.

There is, however, a silver lining: If our behavior is wholly derived from our goals, then if we can change our goals, our behavior will automatically follow! But how do you know what your goals are? And how do we change them? According to Adler, the answer lies in how we interpret the things that happen to us: “No experience is in itself a cause of our success or failure. We do not suffer from the shock of our experiences—the so-called trauma—but instead we make out of them whatever suits our purposes. We are not determined by our experiences, but the meaning we give them is self-determining.”

Going back to the young man, he decided that the abuse he suffered at the hands of his parents had to mean that they didn’t love him. They were bad people, people who must be taught a lesson, and as such, he now spends his days keeping them in a constant state of worry and anxiety by doing the same to himself and staying in his house. But what if he’d chosen a different interpretation? What if he believed that, though his parents loved him very dearly, they failed to see how he was different from his brother, and thus they placed the same expectations on him, a setup that never could have worked. What if, instead of bad people in need of punishment, his parents were simply mistaken, and it was his destiny to walk his own path unaffected by their opinion, without need for their attention or approval? A man like that might have chosen to emigrate to another country, pursue a career in art, or travel the world free as a bird. Different meaning, different goals, different behavior.

According to the philosopher, Adler is “not saying that the experience of a horrible calamity or abuse during childhood or other such incidents have no influence on forming a personality; their influences are strong. But the important thing is that nothing is actually determined by those influences. We determine our own lives according to the meaning we give to those past experiences. Your life is not something that someone gives you, but something you choose yourself, and you are the one who decides how you live.”

While it might be an overstatement to say “trauma doesn’t exist,” it’s a succinct way of making the point that, under a teleologic view, trauma needn’t exist. As long as we interpret the bad things that happen to us in a way that allows us to move forward productively, to better ourselves, our lives, and the lives of those around us, we are not beholden to our past in any way. We can take any adversity, any obstacle, and make it part of the way.

The next time you’re stuck with a behavior you don’t really want, ask yourself: What’s the point of this behavior? What goal might I subconsciously be pursuing with this? What is the purpose this habit serves, no matter how twisted of an end it might be?

If you want to lose weight but keep eating sweets, maybe it’s not some long-formed addiction to sugar that’s the problem, but the fact that your job is stressful, and every little bit of dopamine helps cope with that stress. Who’d have thought that quitting your job might help you lose weight? Those are the kind of hidden correlations teleology might bring to light, and they are, at the very least, fascinating to consider.

The best part about it, however, is that teleology offers liberation from the past. No, your life is not a long chain of neatly lined up cause-and-effect events. Its possibilities are endless, and the path into the future could fork a million ways depending on what meaning you give to today.

“We humans are not so fragile as to simply be at the mercy of etiological (cause-and-effect) traumas. From the standpoint of teleology, we choose our lives and our lifestyles ourselves. We have the power to do that,” the philosopher says — and if you ask me, that’s more than enough. Don’t let your past decide your future, and don’t set your story in stone while you’re still holding the pen.