The Mad Max Guide To Dealing With Trauma

Speaking of her character in the new Mad Max movies, Charlize Theron was moved to state that “I think of women as very resilient. We can walk through pain and suffering and shake it off, instead of putting it in the avoidance box.” It’s a wonderful thought; I only wish it were more true. In fact, one of the biggest problems with human beings is that we DON’T do this. Rather than shaking off our bad experiences, we tend to dramatize our pain and create all sorts of abstract meaning to encase it in, and women are some of the worst offenders when it comes to this.

“It says a lot about the human condition,” she goes on to state. “No matter how bad it is, if you’re alive, you’ll find a sliver of light. That’s what we hold on to.” 1 Once again: wonderful sentiment, but not the standard approach to adversity we typically take in this country.

Most people, when confronted with hardship, do precisely the opposite. They play the victim role. They wallow in the injustice of what occurred. They fret the fact that life should treat them this way. They act as though they are the only ones who have suffered. They personalize the pain and create all sorts of abstract ideas about how this should impact them or what it means about their personal identity. Since our beliefs dictate reality, people can literally think themselves into a disturbed state, creating trauma through their own thoughts. It’s something I see so routinely in all facets of life that I’ve come to believe this elevation of negative experiences is in fact the primary cause of suffering.

How past experiences hurt us

The past is past. The only way for it to damage us in the present is if…

  1. Someone’s actions continue to directly affect you; such as if they continue to abuse or imprison you or have left you crippled or dead.
  2. We bring the pain with us into the future and surround it in stigmatizing ideas.

In many ways, we’ve become psychologically spoiled in the modern world. Once we humans mastered our environmental woes, it’s almost as if we started manufacturing all new ones to fill the void. Since we’re no longer dealing with life or death threats on a daily basis, we now take smaller, much more insignificant events and hold onto them for much longer than we should.

So here’s what I want you to do: When it comes to the pains you’ve experienced, whether it’s those that involve recent wounds or others long gone, ask yourself: What would Mad Max do? Would he have time to sit around and feel sorry for himself? Wallow in the negative? Get caught up in his status as a victim? Inflate the event with all sorts of added meaning or significance? Or would he put it out of his mind just as soon as it was over to focus on more pressing and urgent matters?

If you were living in such a post-apocalyptic madhouse, would you have time or energy to devote to feeling sorry for yourself? Would you spend your time feeling damaged because of a “bad touch” that happened 20 years ago and lasted all of 10 minutes? Would you find it productive to blame your parents for all the ways they failed you? Would you have the luxury of fretting over little dings and dents to your pride or virtue? How about holding onto grudges? In light of all the suffering that would be going on around you and the people struggling just to survive, could you fill your mind with thoughts of how bad the world has treated you? If not, why do you think this is a good use of mental resources in your current situation?

You can also apply this standard of thinking to your everyday life. In a Mad Max world, would you be overly concerned about clothes? Hair and makeup? Having new furniture? Would you find yourself caught in the trap of commercialism? What things would be most important? Figure out what would truly matter if the apocalypse arrived today, and focus on those things.

So do yourself a favor: Be more like mad Max. It may just save you a lot of heartache and suffering.

  1. Donna Freydkin, “Charlize Theron’s Furiosa Blazes a ‘Mad’ Path,” USA Today, p. ID

The Labeled Society

One of the more destructive habits that our society excels at is labeling. We routinely attach negative labels to all types of people, actions, or events:

  • Terrorists
  • Predators
  • Monsters
  • Degenerate
  • Perverted
  • Despicable
  • Illegal’s
  • Sickening
  • Evil
  • Catastrophic
  • Horrific

These destructive labels have become so commonplace that most people absorb them without ever giving such words a second thought. Few stop to consider how this labeling might be affecting their everyday lives. This is unfortunate, because there are several ways that labels work against our common human interests:

  1. Labels aren’t accurate

Labels, by their very nature, attempt to reduce people or things to a single stereotype that is loaded with negative meaning. Thus they preclude an accurate understanding of the world. No matter what the label, it’s the equivalent of saying something like “all men are dirty little pigs.” It reduces a complex world to a simple, inaccurate message.

  1. Labels exaggerate the negative and harm everyone involved

The very purpose of labels is to apply negatively charged words to something in order to make that person, event, or experience seem worse than it might otherwise be perceived. But as you might imagine, deliberate attempts to make things seem worse than they have to be through emotionally loaded language doesn’t actually help people…it hurts them.

For an example of this, read the following statements, and tell me which one makes you more angry and upset:

  1. I was hurt by an imperfect person who made a mistake without intending to be cruel or wanting to hurt me.
  2. I was hurt by an evil, predatory monster who set out to get me because they are a sick person who enjoys tormenting others.

Not a very tough decision, is it? The second statement stokes our anger and makes us feel much worse about whatever happened, because the labels preclude a more accurate understanding of what took place. They shut out empathy, understanding, and compassion. If someone is an “evil monster,” then we are forced to assign to them the most malicious motives and hostile intent. If they are “predatory,” then we must think of what occurred as an intentional and malicious act against our being, while simultaneously painting ourselves into the role of helpless victim.

Such beliefs are not only inaccurate, but destructive to boot. Whenever people are still struggling from isolated, non-life-taking events years into the future, it is typically because of these negative beliefs more than the events themselves.

  1. Labels alienate

Labels promote an Us versus Other mentality. Therefore they separate and divide us rather than promote understanding or compassion.

  1. Labels get in the way of more effective solutions

Labels prevent us from seeing the situation for what it really is, which makes finding a productive resolution all but impossible. As psychologist David Burns, M.D., states, “this labeling (prevents people) from defining the real problem, breaking it down into its specific parts, and applying appropriate solutions.” *1

  1. For as you do to others, so will be done to you

Perhaps most importantly, as people are exposed more and more to these labels in the outside world, they inevitably tend to turn them more and more against themselves. It’s a well-established principle of psychology that the more judgmental a person is towards others, the more self-hatred they tend to build towards themselves. Labels affect us all by creating a more negatively charged and intolerant society, even when we’re not directly involved.

Why this matters, and what you can do about it

This is more than an intellectual argument. The effect of being constantly exposed to all this labeling has a very real, very measurable impact on our lives. On a personal level, we spend more time feeling helpless, angry, confused, and afraid. We become more suspicious of others. When we fall short in any area of our lives, we have a harder time forgiving ourselves. When others fail us, we are hurt more deeply and have a harder time forgiving them and reconciling the situation. We create more internal and external conflict for ourselves.

As a society, it means we actively promote prejudice in our communities, since labels are merely a sophisticated form of prejudice. It means spending a lot of money on antagonistic “solutions” that usually only aggravate our underlying problems. It means fostering a national lack of compassion toward those who seem different or whose actions we don’t immediately understand or sympathize with, which quite literally threatens our very survival as a species. (These problems scale up, and our tendency to label others makes it easier to consider the rational means to annihilate them, such as nuclear warfare.)

The biased, judgmental, and psychologically abusive media environment we’ve created for ourselves isn’t going to change anytime soon. But there are things you can do as an individual to fight the tide and stop these negative persuasions from creeping into your own life:

  1. Avoid labeling yourself. The more you do it, the worse you’ll feel about both yourself and life in general.
  2. When you are exposed to it on television, consciously say something to yourself such as: “labels are always misleading” or “people are more complicated than a few labeled traits or experiences.” It may seem silly, but each time you consciously refute a label like this you diminish its impact.
  3. Whenever your kids are exposed to labels through the media, talk to them about why labels are wrong and how they teach an inaccurate way of viewing things.

*1: David D. Burns, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, New York: Signet, 1980, p. 72