Embrace Making Meaning in Ways That Empower You! Podcast Ep. 4:1

In this episode, which follows Chapter 4, Section 1: Embrace Making Meaning, I address humans’ need for order and meaning. You’ll learn:

  • How humans crave order
  • Why “blame” is the low-hanging fruit
  • How to take control over your meaning-making

I guide you through understanding fear, guilt, and shame so they no longer control you. And I teach you how to make meaning in ways that will help you heal. This episode is going to change your life. 

4-1 embrace making meaning

Humans crave order.

When you go through traumatic or challenging events, your mind and emotions experience chaos and disorder. On top of the intense emotions from the situation, the confusion makes you feel more powerless and out of control. In an attempt to regulate yourself, your mind desperately tries to grab order from wherever you can. In this episode, I explain how this leads to problematic thinking, making you feel even worse.

Luckily, once you understand what is happening (and realize that it doesn’t mean you are crazy!), you can override it. In fact, you will hear the exact script I use to calm myself and create rooted meaning around an event. Using this script, you can heal your past, recover your agency, and feel empowered in your life. 

“People often resist healing because they think letting go means it’s okay that someone did something terrible. Staying suffering because the other person doesn’t deserve to get away with it is like drinking poison and waiting for that other person to die. You deserve to heal, and that is all that matters. Not healing gives the person who hurt you continued power over you.” – Dr. Jodi Aman

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Transcription of the Embrace Making Meaning:

Hey, you’re here with Dr. Jodi, and this is Season 4 of “Anxiety… I’m So Done With You!” This podcast is a teen and young adult guide to ditching toxic stress and hardwiring your brain for happiness. If you’re new here, grab a copy of my book “Anxiety… I’m So Done With You!” because this series goes section by section through it, going a little bit deeper, giving more examples, and telling more stories. In this season, which follows Chapter 4, we’re finally focusing on you making peace with yourself. 

Because you can’t get rid of anxiety when you’re still being your own worst critic. Most likely, you have been your own worst critic, even though you don’t deserve it. You deserve kindness, compassion, and forgiveness. In this season, I will give you the practical tools to do that for yourself. Thank you for listening, subscribing, and leaving me five stars on Apple Podcasts. Please spread the word about this book and series because mental health problems have dire consequences that inflict more pain on young people, their families, and their communities. And I would be grateful if you could help me turn the tide by sharing these tips for embracing self-love.

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Welcome to Chapter 4, Section 1: “Embrace Making Meaning”

Welcome to Chapter 4, Section 1: Embrace Making Meaning. This episode will be a good one. In fact, this whole season will be awesome. If nothing else, it will be relieving because guilt, shame, and negative self-blame account for almost all of our suffering. 

In this episode, we are going to talk about:

  • humans’ need for order,
  • how we get it when we desperately need it
  • how it influences our meaning-making in very negative ways
  • how you can consistently make meaning of events from your past in a way that heals your mind, body, and soul. 

Ready? Let’s start with fear. 

There is a point to the sensation of fear. You feel the emotion of fear in order to call your attention to something. Once your attention is there, your decision-making takes over, and you decide what action to take. At the point when your mind takes over, there is no more need for fear. 

Guilt is the same way. There is a similar purpose. You feel the emotion of guilt in order to call your attention to something. And from there, what is supposed to happen is your mind is supposed to take over so you can decide what it is you want to do to respond and do it. Once you are on to the decision-making and action-taking, the guilt itself is no longer needed. If this emotional regulation system went smoothly, that would be great. We would do the tasks we wanted to restore relationships, repair any damage, and commit to being better the next time. 

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However, it only sometimes works that well, especially if we already think negatively about ourselves. The guilt, shame, and blame get stuck in our consciousness, snowballing the past stories of similar feelings and worrying us that everyone will know how bad we are. Not only are we suffering from the overthinking and rumination of these self-blame narratives, but we can also get immobilized by them and so stuck in more and more overwhelming feelings of guilt. So we have all the guilt and no relationships. 

In the book, I shared my favorite anecdote that illustrates the mechanisms that increase our guilt, shame, and blame. I am going to share it again here to dive deeper into it. 

First of all, humans like order. We crave it because it makes us feel safe and in control. Feelings of powerlessness trigger stress. Therefore, when we are under stress, we crave order more. In other words, we crave safety and control more. 

I will use an example of a human’s response to chaos to help illustrate this concept. Nature is chaotic. If you were to stand in a forest, there is no order to the angle trees grow, the balance of lush branches versus sparse ones, the size of trunks, where plants grow and fail to grow, and the height and shape of the underbrush. There are reasons for these, but not a crystalline structure to a forest. It is chaotic. 

This is what will happen…

If I were to leave you in that forest, sitting under a tree for a few hours by yourself, and asked you to stay put until I returned, I would probably return to find you have implemented some order in your small space. You might have created a soft pile of moss to sit on, lined up different shape rocks in a pattern, or kept yourself busy braiding small branches or tall grasses. 

Unless you were a seasoned meditator or had fallen asleep, it would be hard to do nothing while sitting idly in that chaos. Your mind would be looking for something to do. If you are an overthinker or have a history of negative thinking––which is pretty much most of us––these few hours of forced stillness could instigate worry, frustration, and loneliness. 

Order, or elements of order, help you feel empowered. Making a game with sticks and rocks, digging a hole, and decorating your small area, would give you something to do, which is experienced as empowerment or re-claiming order. You are connected with your agency and authority in a situation, even when there are limits on you. 

In life, there are always limits…

You have limits on your energy, your time, and your money. There are rules that limit you; accessibility can limit you; lack of skills or other people’s boundaries can restrict you. Anxiety wants you to see the powerlessness in these limits, so you stay focused on feeling vulnerable. However, there are an unlimited amount of things you can do within those limits. For example, you have, on average, 16 hours awake each day. You can sleep less and add a bit onto that, but you can’t add onto the 24 hours that you have in a day. However, within the time you are awake, there are countless decisions, choices, and abilities on how to use that time, even when there are some obligations in there.

You can get frustrated by the limits, which will soak up more energy, or you can focus on what you have control over, and then that attention will open more space and energy for more choices during the time you have. 

Okay, back to humans craving order. Bad or difficult situations are chaotic, and this makes them nonsensical. When you go through them, your mind, senses, and emotions are overwhelmed, and so quickly and desperately want to restore order. The disorder is uncomfortable. And that discomfort is on top of the situation being painful, scary, or disturbing. So you are having a response to the crisis and then a response to the discomfort of the chaos of the crisis. To handle this, humans reach for and grab order as fast as possible. The problem is that the fastest way to achieve order is to blame. When there is a problem, the first question is, Why is this happening? Because not knowing feels more out of control. Blame answers this question. 

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“People aren’t mean because they don’t like you; they are mean because they don’t like themselves”

Honestly, a lot of times, this helps. For example, when you say, “People aren’t mean because they don’t like you; they are mean because they don’t like themselves,” it helps you see that meanness is the other person’s problem rather than a you-problem. When you understand that, you don’t take their name-calling or criticisms to heart, giving that person less power over how you think about yourself. So, blame is sometimes a good thing. 

Unfortunately, when a person is young and isolated, for example, if a child’s caregiver abuses them, self-blame is the quickest way for them to make sense of what is happening. That’s why people who experience trauma blame themselves for it when it was not even close to their fault. Kids who are abused were in the wrong place and at the wrong time and didn’t even remotely deserve what happened to them. 

 Blaming oneself is the quickest way to make sense of things because blaming the caregiver doesn’t make sense in that context. Caregivers are supposed to care, and they may even be trying to convince the child that they are doing it because they care. This is why self-blame feels easier. 

As you can imagine, this doesn’t satisfy for long because self-blame also feels out of control. They don’t know why they would have caused it and have to figure that out by listing the negative things about themself. Then, they have to figure out why they are such a mess in the first place. Chaos ensues. 

Why I am telling you this…

I am telling you this because you can consciously change course if you recognize that is what is happening. Let me give you another example: If someone was mean to you, even if you said to yourself, “They did this thing. They are terrible!” More often than not, it doesn’t end there. Because, as a human being, your mind keeps questioning the meaning and starts to second-guess itself. Instead of you saying, “I already decided that that person is terrible, so I don’t need you to question anymore, thanks anyway,” when the mind keeps questioning, you comply and think, “That doesn’t make sense. Why would someone do that? Especially someone who I trusted. Maybe I am overreacting or caused it somehow.”

Then, immediately that thought makes you feel bad about yourself because, literally, you are judging yourself. It is not over yet, because next, you feel the urge to defend yourself against yourself

Subsequently, you would then have to stand up to your defense, especially because shame is still wreaking havoc. You’d wonder, “Maybe it was my fault.” 

At this point, your mind begins to teeter-totter, going back between: “Was it me?” “Was it him?” What is me?” “Was it him?” thus causing more chaos and determination to solve an unsolvable problem. I’m calling it “unsolvable” since it is now so convoluted and expanded with blame narratives, negative self-judgments, and worries that it is hard to distinguish the whole thing from the original event. 

The blame game

I call this “was it me/was it him” back-and-forth the blame game. While it’s an attempt to get order, it causes more chaos, stress, and anxiety. Continuing to question, doubt, blame oneself, and beat oneself up after a bad experience is one of the biggest sources of emotional turmoil I have witnessed. People know they are suffering but are unaware that this is a process happening behind the scenes. Once I point it out, they are like, “Yes, that is exactly what I am doing.” It feels chaotic but also safe in a way. It is a suffering that is familiar, and the figuring-it-all-out feels like an action you are doing to keep yourself safe. The false thinking that it is “keeping you safe” makes it hard to let go of the blame game. But it is not keeping you safe; it is causing more stress. 

Are you relating to any of this? 

I want to read you a section of the book. I know you just read it, but anxiety and negative judgments repeat themselves all day long, so I want to repeat this part at least one more time. 

To compound the suffering further, there is an additional layer of negative self-judgment: If one believes they had done something wrong but doesn’t know what it was, they will further blame themselves for “not knowing what.” This incites a fear that they will not be able to prevent it from happening again in the future. Also, because they “allowed” it, they sometimes feel like they deserve to feel bad, so they don’t try to feel better. Or, they decide they need to work hard to deserve to feel better,

and so they might

  • try to please everyone, 
  • try to figure out the problem, 
  • overwork to prove their worth, 
  • accept blame from others, 
  • over-apologize, or 
  • attempt to protect themselves by isolating themselves. 

Like running on a hamster wheel, these take huge effort with no results, conjuring even more blame because they “can’t get better.”

People blame themselves even when enduring only mild chaos. That, combined with our sense of inadequacy from unrealistic standards, is why guilt and shame are so overwhelmingly present in modern culture. These ultra-damaging emotions are the hallmark of self-contempt. I’ve seen them cause self-hatred, self-abuse, intrusive thoughts, intense panic, devastating depression, overworking, addiction, isolation, and more. 

When you can relate to this, you can see why I say that internalized mental illness is not the problem: the human experience in the context of the modern world causes our emotional turmoil. This means it is understandable how you feel. Also, instead of questioning why you are suffering, thinking that you are just wired this way, or believing that you are different because you have a mental illness, this knowledge allows you to focus all of your energy on improving your emotional wellness.

When referring to “modern culture,” I am acknowledging a few things that set today’s world apart from past societies, like individualism, phone use, and an increase in idle time––meaning there are fewer chores people need to do to survive. These both cause trauma to the human psyche and also increase our trauma reaction. 

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Embrace Meaning Making

If this information causes you to worry, don’t worry; during this season, I will give you practical tips to resolve this. I first wanted to invite you to the power role over what is happening by understanding the mechanisms at work. With this insight, you can decide what to believe and what to reject. Also, once you are aware, you can override any monkey-mind tactic that doesn’t serve you.

In the “What’s in your hand?” activity of this section, I share how to make meaning in a healing and calming way rather than creating more chaos. Read that again because, in it, I tell you why bad things happen. It’s pretty straightforward why bad things happen, but the questioning mind is unsatisfied with simplicity. It has all kinds of excuses for rejecting that simplicity, especially when something is awful, because it feels like you are not acknowledging how horrible it was. 

What you need to do is separate why it happened from whether it was okay or not. For example, people are limited, and they hurt other people. It is that simple, but in no way does this mean you deserved it because you didn’t deserve it at all.  

I would never try to make you accept simplicity that would invalidate you. Instead, accept this simplicity because it is true; People hurt people. They shouldn’t, but they do. It’s not fair, It’s not okay, but they do. 

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Here is the script

Here is the script you say to yourself:

“It happened, it wasn’t okay, I did not deserve it, but it doesn’t have to define me.” 

“It happened” validates you. This has to be included because many people who go through a traumatic or difficult event question whether it happened or not. Maybe no one has told you this is common, and you think you are the only one who thinks this. Unfortunately, if you think that you are unique in thinking this, you give it more meaning, like “I must think it didn’t happen because maybe it didn’t.”

It would help if you decided once and for all that it DID happen. And then, you can choose not to entertain any more doubts about whether it happened or if you are exaggerating. 

Saying, “It wasn’t okay, and you did not deserve it,” settles the blame game. It restores your sense of worth because you need that. People often resist healing because they think recovery means it is okay that someone did something terrible. Staying suffering because the other person doesn’t deserve to get away with it is like drinking poison and waiting for either person to die. You deserve to heal, and that is all that matters. Not healing just gives the person who hurt you continuous power over you. Get your ruby slippers back, please, and decide that it wasn’t okay and you did not deserve it. 

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It doesn’t have to define you

Lastly, “It doesn’t have to define you.” Did you ever hear the quotation,” Don’t define yourself by other people’s limitations”? You can think of yourself as a victim or a mess because of what happened to you, or you can think of yourself as a survivor for being a good person despite what you went through. Remember I told you that when you have a problem story, you too often take what is wrong into your sense of who you are. “I am anxious.” Or “I am a loser.” It becomes your identity. Reminding yourself and taking a stand that the experience does not have to define you takes it back out of your identity and leaves you able to define yourself by your positive attributes, like being caring, considerate, funny, and smart. 

If you had significant trauma, you might need a counselor to help you through this re-storying process of what happened. I don’t recommend anyone of you do this alone. Find a trusted adult to witness and love you through the healing process. People do not heal in a vacuum, so stop trying to and beating yourself up when it doesn’t work. Humans are social beings, not individualistic beings. People need people. You need people. 

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Your mind will still question

After you do this process, your mind will still question because that is what a mind does. Knowing that that is going to happen can prepare you for it. Instead of getting upset that you didn’t heal right, you can say, “Hey, self-doubt, I knew you would question again. I have decided, and I don’t need you anymore. Just have a seat; I am busy right now.” Sound familiar? You are acknowledging but emotionally unattached, so you are not feeding it any of your precious energy. After you say this to yourself, please move into an active task as soon as you can. 

“Hey, self-doubt, I knew you would question again. I have decided, and I don’t need you anymore. Just have a seat; I am busy right now.” 

Got it? This is easy but might feel silly or unfamiliar at first. That might make it feel uncontrolled. Keep practicing. Lean into the discomfort because I promise it is safe. And, it is actually very controlled. After practicing for a short time, you will feel more in control than you have felt in a long time. Plus, this is sustainable control that lasts and lasts.  

Thank you so much for listing to this episode of Anxiety… I’m So Done with You! with me, Doctor Jodi.

You learned that when meaning-making is left to the monkey mind, it causes more chaos via the blame game. To help, I taught you a script for making meaning after a challenging event. We will go into more examples of meaning-making in future episodes going deeper into how to embrace that practice.  

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Thank you for listening

I appreciate your subscribing, commenting, and leaving me five stars on Apple Podcasts. The next episode will cover Chapter 4, Section 2: Embrace Letting Go. Read or listen to that, and I will see you there. In the meantime, hang out with me on YouTube and TikTok at Doctor Jodi

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