Psychotherapy and Neuroscience

Personal Meaningfulness of PTSD Narratives

Trauma narratives not only report sensory perceptions but also resonate with personal meaningfulness inherent in trauma-related emotion. Emotions such as self-anger, helplessness, and internal shame or self-devaluation have not only been tied to traumatic sensory aspects but also to traumatic appraisals of oneself in interaction (Andrews, Brewin, Rose, & Kirk, 2000; Kangas, Henry, & Bryant, 2005; Lee, Scragg, & Turner, 2001). Traumatic appraisals of self in interaction are emotionally salient cognitions that are also known as self-schemas (Markus, 1977). They are early developing implicit appraisals of self in interaction that are not commonly verbalized but imputed and inferred in behaviors like self-esteem (Lee et al., 2001; Lewis, 1994; Rochat & Striano, 2000; Tomasello, 1995). Appraisals of oneself in interaction are tied to different secondary needs, social motivations, and drives for affection-affiliation, control-power-autonomy, achievement, validation, and subjective sense of well-being (Cooley, 1912; Diener, 2000; McClelland, 1995). This is a list of sampled self-appraisals and the motives underlying their expression.

Secondary Emotional Motivation Negative Self-Appraisals Positive Self-Appraisals
Affiliation-Love Motive I can’t get close to another (1)
I want love from another
I am an outsider & don’t belong (2)
I can’t trust (anyone) (1,3)
I am not lovable (2,3)
I am unwanted
I am alone
I can get close to another
I am loved & contented
I belongI am able to trust
I am lovable (3)
I am wanted
I am a part of.
Dominance-Control Motive I am scared
I can’t protect myself (3)I am powerless (3)
I am helpless (1)
I am unsafe
I am calm
I am able to protect myself
I am empowered
I am in control (3)
I am safe (3).
Achievement Motive I’m never good enough (2,3)
I can never do anything right (1)
There is something wrong with me (2)
I am a disappointment (3)
I am good enough
If I try, I can do it rightThere is nothing wrong with me
I am okay the way I am (2,3).
Validation of Self by Another or Others I am not important (2,3) I am different
I have to please others
I have to be perfect (for others) (1,3)I am not respected

I am bad
I am worthless (3)
I am ashamed of myself (1)
I am to blame
I deserve bad things (3)

I am important
I am like everyone else
I can please myself
I can do the best I can (for me)I, my ideas, & my needs are respected
I am good (3)
I have value
I am honorable (3)
I am not to blame
I deserve good things (3)
Subjective Well Being Motive (4) I am empty
I am in need for (love, validation, control, etc.)
I am damaged (or wounded) (3)
I am insecure
I am in pain
I am overwhelmed
I am complete
I am satisfiedI am whole or healed (3)
I am secure
I am healthy
I am composed.

Sources: (1) Goulding & Goulding, 1979; (2) Goulding & Goulding, 1989; (3) Shapiro, 2001; (4) Diener, 2000.

Appraisals of self in interaction cumulatively conceptualize the state of satiation of one’s social motivations and secondary needs for comfort. With positive social interactions and satiation, self-appraisals are positive. With negative stress-filled social interactions and dissatisfaction, appraisals of self in interaction are negative. Traumatic experience typically engenders negative self appraisals (clinical observations). For instance in response to a traumatic episode one may have a self-other schema that the world and others are unsafe and a consequent power-control of oneself in interaction of I am unsafe or I am helpless. One may also have an achievement self-schema of I am a failure in my ability at being able to achieve control over a traumatic event (Foa, Ehlers, Clark, Tolin, & Orsillo, 1999). As observed in clinical practice appraisals of self in interaction provide personal meaning to trauma narratives. Reliving, evaluating, and inserting them into trauma narratives give them greater personal meaning. This type of personally meaningful relational processing helps to identify and define the impact of trauma on oneself and one’s relationship with others and the world. It also seems to facilitate the eventual habituation and extinction of PTSD trauma-related arousal and symptoms that had previously suggested traumatic impact on the self (Foa et al., 1999). A therapeutic technique was developed by this author and its use is illustrated in Current Psychotherapies-SSRT-of this web site.


Andrews, B., Brewin, C.R., Rose, S., & Kirk, M. (2000). Predicting PTSD symptoms in victims of violent crime: the role of shame, anger, and childhood abuse. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 109(1), 69-73.

Cooley, C.H. (1912). Human Nature & Social Order. New York: Scribner’s Sons (Chapter 5).

Diener, E. (2000). Subjective well-being. The science of happiness and a proposal for a national index. American Psychologist, 55(1), 34-43.

Foa, E.B., Ehlers, A., Clark, D.M., Tolin, D.F., & Orsillo, S.M. (1999). The post-traumatic cognition inventory (PTCI): Development and validation. Psychological Assessment, 11, 303-314.

Goulding, M.M., & Goulding, R.L. (1979). Changing lives through redecision therapy. New York: Grove Press.

Goulding, M.M., & Goulding, R.L. (1989). Not to worry! New York: William Morrow.

Kangas, M., Henry, J.L., & Bryant, R.A. (2005). A prospective study of autobiographical memory and posttraumatic stress disorder following cancer. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 7392), 293-299.

Lee, D.A., Scragg, P., & Turner, S. (2001). The role of shame and guilt in traumatic events: a clinical model of shame-based and guilt-based PTSD. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 74(Pt 4), 451-466.

Lewis, M. (1994). Myself and me. In: S.T. Parker, R.W. Mitchell, M.L. Boccia (Eds.), Self-awareness in animals and humans (pp. 20-34). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Markus, H. (1977). Self-schemas and processing information about the self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 63-78.

McClelland, D.C. (1985). Human motivation. Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman, & Co. (Chapters 7, 8, 9, 10).

Rochat, P., & Striano, T. (2000). Perceived self in infancy. Infant Behavior and Development, 23, 513-530.

Shapiro, F. (2001). Level I training manual: Part one of a two part training. Pacific Grove, California: EMDR Institute Inc.

Tomasello, M. (1995). Understanding the self as social agent. In: P. Rochat (Ed.), The self in infancy: Theory and research (pp. 449-460). Amsterdam: Elsevier.