Let’s start with a controversial statement: life is trauma. From the moment we are born, we are overwhelmed by sensations. As we start to contextualize reality, however, these sensations become different emotions. Emotions tell us what to do and what not to do as it relates to the health and the survival of our body. Later on, we develop the faculties of language that further solidify our understanding of these emotions so that we can act with more certainty through a sense of self that is built on a foundation of memory, habit, and interpretation.
Babies are, practically speaking, useless. They don’t know what to do with these sensations. Fortunately, most babies have mothers. And even more fortunately, mothers have the capacity to regulate the emotional states of their babies through what scientists call limbic resonance.
For fun, imagine me as a baby. I’m playing. I’m crawling around. Let’s say I crawl into the sofa. I feel some strange sensations, but I’m physically fine. The uncertainty of those sensations makes me want to look over to my mother. Limbic resonance means that when I look over to my mother in this instance, I internalize her psychological state. It helps me contextualize my sensations. If my mother is calm, realizing it’s no big deal, I become calm as well, and I continue playing. If my mother is anxious for one reason or another, I internalize that anxiety, fearing for my own safety.
“No matter how great your parents were, if you have to make your way through the physical and the social realm, you will pick up some “stuff.””
The reason I say that life is trauma is that there is never any certainty as to what my sensations mean, especially when I’m young. There are many wrong ways to act or feel in a particular context, but only a few right ways. But other people, over time – my family, my friends, my community – help me regulate these emotions in a synchronized way. Individually, I am always facing trauma, but when someone else, through their experience, helps me contextualize and regulate my sensations, I gain a little more agency based on what I learn. In this sense, a connection is an antidote to trauma. It releases the pressure of not knowing.
Naturally, over time, my concept of self starts to blossom, and this self learns to regulate and contextualize those sensations into emotions based on that foundation of memory, habit, and interpretation. But it doesn’t do so perfectly. No matter how great your parents were, if you have to make your way through the physical and the social realm, you will pick up some “stuff.” This is even worse if your parents weren’t perfect in how they raised you. The other “stuff” then compounds on top of that.
“I am always facing trauma, but when someone else, through their experience, helps me contextualize and regulate my sensations, I gain a little more agency based on what I learn”
Between the rough ages of 20 to 40, most people kind of start to pick up on this baggage they have stored behind their sense of self. They start to see how some of their habits and interpretations lead them astray and they learn to adapt in their own ways. But people generally do this in one of two ways: They either shrink from life, or they lean into it. The former creates addiction and the latter projects interestingness.
This is a good time to mention that this is a vast over-simplification and most of us fall somewhere between the two at different times based on a myriad of complex factors. That said, both addiction and interestingness become habits that create self-perpetuating feedback loops. The more you feed one, the more it feeds you. In complex system terms, Nassim Taleb would call one state fragile (harmed by disorder) and the other antifragile (gains from disorder). In certain psychological literature, another conceptualization is that of addiction being an expression of post-traumatic stress versus interestingness being an expression of post-traumatic growth.
Now, a question: Why do so many adults suffer from chronic back pain as they age? There are some wild statistics that report this being an affliction that affects more than one-fifth of the population. Part of the answer is surely that aging just wears you out. But if I were to guess, I’d say that most of them have unprocessed sensations stored in their body based on their particular experience of life, and this causes a profound amount of stress in them that manifests as back pain.
The body has an incredible memory, and every wrongly contextualized sensation gets stored in it until it is adequately processed and released. The longer it is stored, the more problematic it becomes. Addiction is an easy form of release in the short-term, whether that be something as extreme as drug addiction, or a slightly less extreme addiction to social media or material consumption, or something more subtle like excessive neediness in relationships or falling into cycles of resentment and anger and self-pity. In any case, the object of addiction becomes a crutch. The problem, of course, is that all crutches eventually break under pressure, leading to a fall.
The reason I call the opposite of shrinking from life – the opposite of addiction – a projection of interestingness is that there is actually no way around the stress of trauma. If life itself is trauma, if our very being is constantly negotiating with the uncertainty that comes with movement, we have to deal with it one way or another. We have to interpret it, and we have to act, and we have to change. Every time we do that in a way that affirms life, we create a piece of ourselves that wasn’t before.
“If life itself is trauma, if our very being is constantly negotiating with the uncertainty that comes with movement, we have to deal with it one way or another”
Trauma in this sense is a process of differentiation. Everyone has their own form of trauma. Some accumulate over decades, others accumulate much faster. Denying the pain of trauma leads to addiction because the body has no other way to express what it feels. It becomes hardened. Channeling it in healthy ways is what makes life a kind of art – an expression of the diverse emotions that have come together to make a person who they are. It’s a nebulous form of interestingness that can’t be replicated by someone else. It’s what people call authenticity, or being who you are.
The psychoanalyst Thomas Ogden defined his work with his patients as a process of “sensing something human.” His aim was to bring out that light that hides behind a rigid sense of self that has found comfort in responding to the trials and tribulations of life in a very particular and regimented way, because deep down, it fears the consequences of that light coming out.
In cases of addiction, the light stays put behind various barriers because the implicit assumption is that some object has the power to fix you without you having to do the real, hard work yourself. It’s a complete relinquishing of agency. It seeks safety in a cage at the expense of growth. Of course, for some people, given the difficult things they go through, that’s a big ask. Easy to say, hard to do.
The question, then, is: What is the difference between this addiction and projecting interestingness? Between shrinking from life and leaning into it? What does someone like Ogden mean when he talks about sensing something human?
The answer is connection. Not connection as a kind of crutch, but connection as a form of bodily regulation. What we seek is to be mediated by another in the same way that a child is mediated by the mother. To create a limbic resonance with someone or something that is capable of pulling that light out of us when it starts to dim – whether that be a spouse or a community, or something simpler and more personal like music or a passion project. Something that supports us, sure, but more than that, something that actually asks something of us. This other becomes an attractor towards which those bodily sensations can then safely orient themselves, and in the process of orienting themselves, become something more as they are released.
This article was first published as “Letter 3: The Logic of Trauma” on zatrana.substack.com on May 5, 2020.
Zat Rana is an essayist writing at the intersection of philosophy, science, and art. He runs a publication called Thinking Better, Together, where 40,000+ smart, curious people gather to better understand the world. Join here: zatrana.substack.com/subscribe