Existential Recovery – Emotional freedom inherent in the choice of meaning


Quick summary: Most of us believe that the outside world is responsible for our emotions, that our emotional dispositions are externally controlled (ex. he/she or this event etc made me feel this way). I am going to suggest that the meaning that you place onto an occurrence in often what you are emotionally reacting to… I will suggest that you have a freedom to choose your emotional experience as you have a choice in what meaning you place on the occurrences in your life.

Why do we all experience life with different emotional reactions?

  • Why can one person pick up a snake with curiosity while another person flees in terror?


  • How can one group of people celebrate the death of a loved one with dance and thankfulness while another group of people reacts with hopelessness and depression?


  • How can the results of an election bring some people to tears and other people to cheers?


  • Why is sitting in the woods devastatingly boring to one person and awe inspiring to the next?


  • Why can one group of warriors hold sincere respect for their enemy while another group of warriors holds contempt?


If the outside world causes our emotions, then how is it that we all have different emotional reactions to the same stimulus?


We have the power to attribute our own subjective meaning to our lived experiences… the meaning we create can foster a wide range of different emotions.

  • The meaning that one person attributes to an event might lead them to feel depressed… the meaning that another person ascribes to the very same occurrence might make them feel hope.


This insight is received as being very hurtful to many people… many interpret this insight as blaming the victim for their very real pain.


  • A common response to this insight is, “so you are saying that I caused my own suffering based on the meaning that I placed on my traumatic experience? You are saying that I would not ‘suffer’ if I just changed the way that I looked at the event?”
  • In honesty this is often where that conversation will end as the message, though good intentioned, is being interpreted in such a way that the person receiving this insight is experiencing even more suffering.
  • This insight has the intention of offering freedom so as to reduce suffering… the very common interpretation listed above is very often the source of increased suffering.
  • Not everyone is ready for this message and you would be wise to share this insight with compassion, empathy and gentleness.


This message does not condone the ill intentions that produce suffering intentionally…


  • This message allow for the receiver of ill intentions to emancipate themselves from the emotional control of he/she who intended to cause suffering.


  • This is quite similar to the elusive concept we call forgiveness… forgiveness is for the forgiver… true forgiveness allows a person to free themselves from their emotional reactivity to the oppressor.


  • What about the oppressor? Your forgiveness will not free the oppressor from their suffering… they must forgive themselves.


There are also many instances where great pain was experienced though no one or no thing ever had the intention to cause suffering… there are natural disasters, accidents, poor decisions, and selfish decisions etc that people experience with great suffering.

  • These events feel ‘meaningless’…. great pain is being experience and there is no apparent reason for the pain to have entered into our life… there is no good answer as to, “why did this happen?”


  • Such occurrences throw us into a chaotic storm of meaninglessness in which all the structures, laws, and rules that we believed to govern this world crumble before us… our beliefs can no longer offer us hope, comfort, and resolve.


  • This is when this message in your guiding light in a sea of chaos…


You have both the power and the freedom to apply structure to the chaos you have found yourself in as you have the power to make meaning of meaninglessness…

Your truth is your reality… your consciousness lives within the landscape of your own creation… The internal and external world are one… their apparent separateness is simply an illusion.

Suffering is a terrifying impassable river which traps you on the far bank in pain… with your freedom to create meaning you build a bridge in the landscape of your consciousness so that you can now safely pass to the other bank where perhaps you will find peace and happiness… the river is still there and the bridge heals the suffering of that river.


Your ability to create meaning is your tool for emancipating yourself from suffering.


One of the most significantly ‘traumatic’ events that I experience in my life happened when I what in my late teens… my interpretation of the experience at the time left me feeling inadequate, hopeless, and alone… I cannot imagine feeling more love than I do for the woman with whom I am married to and we have a baby boy arriving in a few months. The love and joy that I experience in this moment could not have happened if not for the ‘traumatic’ event in my teens… I now place a different meaning on that event… that event was the metaphorical seed for the wonderful life my consciousness lives within at this moment…

That event was quite possible the best thing that ever happened to me… my new meaning brings me bliss… my old meaning brought me suffering. The event opened my eyes to the path that I was on… there are hundred of decisions that have helped me in achieving an authentic sense of purpose that arose from the meaning I created related to that one event.


Therefore with meaning I emancipated myself from both suffering and from that which inhibited my authentic purpose.

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.
William Hambleton Bishop
William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

2 thoughts on “Existential Recovery – Emotional freedom inherent in the choice of meaning

  1. with some difficulty, I can accept that I am responsible for the degree of suffering that I am experiencing at the hands of other’s ill intent – that I have allowed them to knock me down and make me feel like I am powerless

    but it is difficult to be on the bank of suffering, and knowing that I could build a bridge, but from my experience, knowing that as soon as I start to build that my bridge is attacked, undermined and undone by those in my office who are abusing their power and the workplace policies…..

    I find that it is better to do nothing than do something that amounts to nothing or something that will be so undermined that not trying seems safer than risking and being assaulted a new

    I do not know how to overcome the paralisis and I fear slipping from being merely traumatized to actually disabled and unable to ever start that bridge….

    • Thank you for sharing… I have found existentialism to be more personally helpful during times of recovery. If you find yourself to be in a place without safety in the moment it is often best to listen to your intuition and to protect yourself. I know that this seems contrary to the message in the post that you were reading, but in truth there are two sides to everything, which means that I seem to contradict myself from one blog to the next. There is a deep clarity that can come from insight based or existential contemplations… this insight can produce ‘right action’ or actions which are compassionate to both yourself and to others… you are allowed to defend your emotional, physical, mental and spiritual self… and by continuing a path of personal growth you will find that the boundaries that you set for yourself can have no negative affect on other things.

      There are radical ways of perceiving all the theories that I talk about on my blog… in this post I am not suggesting that if your hand is in the fire that you should re-work the meaning of your hand burning… sometimes we must remove ourselves from the flame… when I was in a similarly unhealthy environment in my own life I had to look at the meaning that I placed on actions that could be used to protect myself… what meaning do you attribute to staying in such an environment and what meaning to you attribute to leaving? In other words sometimes people stay in unhealthy or unsafe situations because they believe that leaving would justify a negative self-definition such as being a ‘quitter’… sometimes a ‘quitter’ is a person with healthy boundaries… the existential meaning could be either “I was not strong enough and I had to leave” or “I was strong enough to protect myself from injustice and therefore I left.” … that choice in meaning is the existential freedom that I am trying to share… the meaning you choose will affect your emotional reaction and you actions related to the subject… either meaning is as true as you choose it to be. Thank you again for sharing – I have another post that might be helpful – http://www.thoughtsfromatherapist.com/2011/04/29/some-stress-is-best-left/

      In the end only you know what is best for you… I am a strong believer in intuition if you are in a place of emotional clarity.

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