At its core, human nature is pretty simple. It’s an animal instinct—we move toward what feels good and matters to us, and away from anything dangerous and unpleasant. What makes human nature more human than animal is that we recognize there’s a balance between our internal and external worlds.
It’s second nature to reach for a map when you’re lost in the physical (or external) world. But what do you reach for when you’re lost internally? Although there’s a difference between these two worlds, they intertwine and feed back into each other. What happens on the outside influences our internal worlds, and what happens in our minds influences our actions on the outside. The tools for navigating them aren’t really so different either.
The Internal vs. the External World
In the external world, there are plenty of things you might want to move toward in life—like relationships, meaningful work, or time in nature. Likewise, there are also many real dangers out in the world that we try to avoid whenever possible—like unexpected tragedies, life-threatening accidents, and abuse from others. We do our best to keep ourselves safe, but traumatic events can and do still occur.
In our internal world, we also try to move toward and away from certain experiences. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just be happy and content every day? If we could think positive thoughts, and bask in beautiful memories all day long? But in reality, it’s often the fear of danger or the memories of past trauma that fill our thoughts. And often, the harder we try to pull away from a painful inner experience, the more we get stuck.
The Impact of Trauma
After a traumatic experience, a feedback loop is often formed between the event in the external world and what’s happening in our internal world. This can result in a sense of disorientation that permeates everything. Trauma doesn’t just affect life following the event. It recontextualizes everything that came before the trauma as well.
Our sense of coherence—the extent to which the world ‘makes sense’ and behaves consistently—is shattered. As we try to make sense of it all, we might get left with questions like “Why did this happen to me?” “Was it my fault?” and “Could I have done something differently to prevent it?”
The tension between an external world that can cause us physical harm and an internal world that’s prone to fixating on that harm is something that we need help navigating. We need a map to help us leave trauma behind and lead a meaningful life. A map like this is useful for everyone, but especially those who have experienced traumatic events that often end up feeling unmoored and lost in a sea of “What comes next?”
The Power of Visual Metaphors
When we’re suffering, words can only take us so far. In these moments, visual metaphors can be especially useful to help us make sense of our lives and reorient ourselves to what matters most. In the same way sailors navigated rough seas using maps, stars, and other visual tools for thousands of years, a consistent visual representation of our lives can ground us in the present moment. It can help tell us where we’ve been, and how far we’ve come.
The best visual metaphors for life go beyond simple pictures. They incorporate some kind of temporal or geographical reference to tap into our mind’s natural inclination to figure out where we are in space and time.
A line on a sheet of paper with an arrow on one end can become a timeline used to map out the ups and downs of a year, a day, or even an entire life. Unworkable questions like “Why did this happen to me?” can be transformed into more flexible statements such as “I was there, but now I’m here,” and “I’m here, but someday I’ll be there.”
In a way, we’re all sailors. We’re all trying to chart the best course towards what’s meaningful to us. And with the right map, you can begin to visualize the best path forward.
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