Dave* came to see me because he was having some difficulty at work. His supervisor thought he was taking things too personally, he told me in our first meeting. “What does that mean?” I asked. He shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe you should ask her,” he said.  

When I ask either a client or another therapist what a particular comment, thought, feeling or experience means, I’m not surprised when I get a vague answer like Dave’s.  It is not always simple to understand what someone else means when they tell us something -- even when the message is as clear as “you have to get help with this.”

On the other hand, I’m often puzzled myself when clients ask me to tell them what something means.  For example, Muriel* dreamed that she was drowning. “What does it mean?” she asked. I know there are books that explain dream symbols, and for that matter, I could tell Muriel what her dream meant to me – but neither a book of symbols nor my explanation would be about her.

Freud was not the first to introduce the idea of unconscious, or unrecognized symbolic meaning;  but he brought the concept to popular attention, and he made us aware that many different aspects of our experience can have multiple, often unrecognized meanings. Most psychoanalysts no longer agree with him that underlying meaning is sexual or aggressive in nature; but a large part of the general population recognizes today that even the most obvious of symptoms can have more than one meaning. A child’s upset stomach, for example, may be the result of too much candy or a virus; but it might also be a reaction to anxiety about a soccer game, an upcoming test, or a birthday party where she feels like she might be left out.  

Unfortunately, looking for meaning can be taken too far. Sometimes the question of meaning is seen as a way of finding trauma in a person’s past.  In my experience, assuming that there are hidden childhood experiences of neglect and/or abuse underlying all current difficulties in an adult’s life is not helpful. What is much more important is to understand a problem in its current context, and gradually perhaps to put together some experiences, both in the recent and distant past, that might have contributed to the current concerns.

We actually think about meaning all of the time, although we don’t always realize that’s what we’re doing. Here is one very simple example: When we crave something sweet, we either start to try to figure out what we can eat to satisfy the longing, or we work hard to ignore it or divert ourselves (for example, when we are dieting). Both of these responses include an implied interpretation of meaning:  either we think our body is communicating something of interest, a need that we want to satisfy, or we think it is responding to non-essential cues that are not actually about physical need.  Yet my work in the field of eating disorders has taught me that even these responses do not take into account all of the possible physiological meanings (leaving aside psychological and emotional ones) of a desire for something sweet. It can be the body’s communication of a genuine need for sugar, for instance in moments of stress and/or low energy, when we need a speedy physiological “pick-me-up.” 

Alternatively, it can be a signal that the body is not processing food properly or that it is creating too much or too little insulin. It can also be a physiological and psychological reaction to a variety of factors, including being tired, sleep-deprived, hungry, depressed, lonely, sad or anxious. Interestingly, the longing for something sweet may also actually be the mind misreading physical symptoms of thirst. And conversely, alcoholics in recovery are often taught that a longing for alcohol can sometimes be soothed by a sweet drink. All of these different experiences can be seen as underlying “meanings” or interpretations of an apparently straightforward physical desire. Understanding the meaning will influence the action an individual takes to deal with the craving.

 It is absolutely true that, as Freud is reputed to have said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar (or as someone commented on one of my recent posts, a couch is just a couch)! I have heard the story that some of Freud’s followers met for dinner on a regular basis, and that every move anyone made was analyzed. “What did you mean when you said, ‘pass the salt’?” one analyst is reputed to have said to another.

No one wants to take the issue of meaning to that extreme anymore. But looking for meaning without being ridiculous about it can aid us in many different parts of our lives. When Dave began to try to understand more about what his supervisor meant when she said that he needed to stop taking things so personally, he began to see that a number of different comments that she and other people had made to him, and which he had taken as criticism of his work, were actually not about him at all. In some cases they were expressing their own anxieties; and in at least one, a colleague was actually praising Dave’s work.

Understanding what his supervisor meant allowed Dave to change his own attitude towards his co-workers and his bosses. To his amazement, six months later he received high marks on his evaluation and a bonus for his work. When he asked his supervisor if he could take this personally, she nodded enthusiastically. “Oh yes,” she said. “Please do.”

*names and identifying information changed to protect privacy

Teaser image source: http://esextonbrown.wordpress.com/author/esextonbrown/

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