Chewing Over Adler – Trauma Does Exist

Several weeks ago, I shared my summary and thoughts about the controversial title of Part One of Ichiro Kishimi’s best-seller The Courage to Be Disliked.

For the first time, I received very mixed feedback on a blog post. While some told me they appreciated the writing and even-handed summary, others vehemently disagreed (and fairly so) with the title of the piece.

Many critiques cited arguments and research around the burgeoning scientific field of epigenetics.

In short, we are born with a unique set of genes. Life stressors and trauma can activate or suppress different genes that in turn produce changes in physical and mental functioning. It is a convincing attempt to settle the “nature vs. nurture” debate with an answer of “yes.”

From an epigenetic perspective, because traumatic experiences can alter our genetic expression, trauma produces physical manifestations that do in fact “exist.”

I agree.

I wonder if Adler would as well. When he wrote many of his books and treatises, the study of trauma (at least in the West) was in its infancy. Most studies on the after-effects of traumatic events stemmed from case studies gleaned from soldiers returning from the Great War who struggled from a condition known at the time as “shell shock.”

I’ve experienced a fair share of “spell shock” since coming to Korea.

I also must re-consider how I defined trauma in my past post. A friend of mine put it powerfully:

I think you play much too fast and loose with the definition of ‘trauma’ in your blog as being “adverse past experiences”, and that doing so does a disservice to those that have been through acute, complex, or chronic trauma. I think it muddies your assertions at best, and is honestly a bit offensive to the sufferings of those with traumatic disorders at worst.

That’s fair. I wrote the title as I did partially to evoke a similar frustration I felt when I opened the book. But to anyone who I triggered or hurt with my flippant and haphazard definition of trauma, I am sorry. It was sloppy and poorly-researched.

The Oxford Dictionary defines trauma as:

a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.

While the dictionary is not an absolute arbiter on the meaning of words, it is a decent starting point and gives more gravity to the definition of trauma – a highly charged word in modern society.

Please do not kick the bus drivers.

After reflecting on the content of Kishimi’s book once more, I have to wonder what the translator had in mind when they chose the word trauma.

As an English speaker with little knowledge of either the German or Japanese language, it is tough to comment on this. When I read texts by Alfred Adler or Ichiro Kishimi, I must not only evaluate the ideas, but also consider that both texts are filtered through a translator – a translator with their own biases and linguistic schemata. My German and Japanese abilities fall far below the level required to engage with the texts as written by the authors in their native languages. So instead, I put my faith in those translators to present the most neutral adaptation possible – a nearly impossible feat considering inter-language diversity and the inexact nature of language as a medium of communication.

The Courage to Be Happy does not address trauma as most modern-day English speakers would interpret it. Instead, the Philosopher and Youth discuss how individuals have the power to interpret their life narrative in a way that either contributes to or hinders the “fulfillment of their life tasks.”

In other words, (Adler and Kishimi say) people have a choice. They can view past hardships as a source of blame for their current woes, or as evidence of their psychological strength and resilience. Though these ideas are not mutually exclusive, either. Many of us vacillate between these two states of mind of a semi-regular basis.

About as fast as a go-kart with no governor.

But when one considers epigenetics and the study of mental health in general, questions arise – questions that cut to the heart of Freud and Adler’s disagreements.

Do human beings have agency in shaping their life story?

Do we make our own choices, or are those choices predestined by a cascade of epigenetic factors?

Are conscious choices an illusion?

Freud would side with the cascade (even if he didn’t have words like ‘epigenetics’ at the time). We are who we are because of what happened to us in the past. Sure, we can talk things out, introspect, and find comfort in understanding. But our life path is more or less determined.

Adler would say otherwise – that our life circumstances are equally a product of past events and the individual’s ability to frame and organize those past events into a cohesive life narrative. And the shape and tone of that narrative plays a role in how the individual interprets present circumstances and future goals.

For example, some refer to individuals on the receiving end of a crime as a victim while others may say survivor. These terms are not synonymous. And neither term seems to reflect an issue of fact. Rather, it seems to reflect how one interprets and integrates past experiences into one’s life story. The connotations that surround either word can powerfully influence one’s present sense of self and future goals. One bestows power. Another confers powerlessness. One turns a resentful eye to the past. Another turns a defiant eye to the future.

Language matters. Language is powerful. Language can shape the way we view ourselves and the world around us.

Language makes our coffee orders too.

Lately, friends and colleagues have called me out when my flippant use of language on past blog posts could hurt others. And for that flippant use I am sorry.

Yet I am also grateful. The sometimes short-sighted speech I share is not from a place of malice, but ignorance. Each point of criticism I receive shines a light on that ignorance and challenges me to consider other perspectives – to become a more compassionate writer step by painful step

Kishimi’s unnamed Philosopher also propounds that individuals can always make different choices moving forward regardless of past failures, traumas, or habits. As the saying goes, “when you argue for your limitations, they become yours.” It’s a tired maxim corrupted by self-help “gurus” for decades.

But does it not also sound egregiously insensitive to those who may struggle with real mental health disorders?

“Pick yourself up!”

“It’s all about mindset. ”

“There is no good or bad. Only thinking makes it so.”

“Walk it off, bro.”

I certainly do not contend that mindset shifts will help solve all mental distress in all people. As one friend reminded me, mental health is a highly individualized practice. Events that are chronically distressing to some are not distressing to all. And those who experience the same distressing event may experience completely different mental impressions and epigenetic effects, leading to different psychological responses.

Great time at the go-kart track.

Even Adler himself seemed to circumscribe limits on mindset shifts alone.

β€œEveryone will experience shock effects if he is exposed to a concentrated barrage of fire.
But he will (p. 295) become stuck with these effects, and they will become permanent, only when
he is not prepared for the tasks of life.” (Adler, 1956, p. 296).

There are many people whose epigenetics conspire against them so powerfully, that they lose their subjective sense of agency and ability to reappraise their life story and circumstances. Some people receive concentrated barrages of fire that ultimately prevent them from accomplishing the tasks in life. Some people do not receive such fire but still find themselves in dysfunctional distress. Many folks need assistance that far supersedes “reading a book”, “getting some exercise”, or “practicing mindfulness.” And I would never argue against that.

But other people do cling to a subjective sense of agency – that feeling that they can change their mindsets and habits and proactively construct a more beneficial life narrative. The question is, what percentage of people possess that subjective sense? 0%? 100%? 80%? 10%? Different people will provide different answers to that question.

This question, as well as Freud and Adler’s disagreements, seem to walk along facets of the hard problem of consciousness. Put forth by David Chalmers, the hard problem basically asserts that our current understanding of the brain cannot account for subjective experience. While it makes intuitive sense that brain activity is all that there is, technology and research is far from being able to accurately map exact neural circuits to subjective experiences.

Are we capable of bending our consciousness by altering our self-talk?

Is our interpretation of our life story fixed or is it possible to “rewrite the past?”

Is our self-talk an intrinsic function of who we are, only susceptible to epigenetic factors beyond our control?

Is there a bidirectional relationship between our conscious thoughts and decisions and our epigenetics?

Are we all just walking around with white circles over our face?

Perhaps someday we will reach some singularity where all epigenetic and neural circuits are mapped with near-perfect accuracy. Maybe the individualized practice of “mental health services” will one day involve collecting a 30-day “brain report” and inputting that data into an algorithm that will recommend therapies and treatments most likely to restore an individual’s mental and emotional functioning and ameliorate suffering. I’m all for any solution that can help people live happier, healthier lives without treading on dignity or human rights.

Finally, I appreciate the constructive criticism I received on my previous post. Though it does take a minute for my inner-ego to whine and tire itself out, the seeds of personal growth and understanding sprout when we can receive criticism and failure in good faith.

We all have blind spots in our knowledge, and I appreciate everyone who’s called me out on those blind spots. As someone who struggles to consider the perspective of others, such feedback helps me improve my empathy – one small step at a time.

Adler, A. (1956). The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler: A Systematic Presentation in
Selections from His Writings
. Edited by H.L. Ansbacher & R.R. Ansbacher. New York:
Harper and Row.

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