Making Meaning When Terrible Things Happen

In their book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Emily Nagoski, Ph.D. and Amelia Nagoski, DMA (2019) write about what they call the “Something Larger”, or the source of meaning in our lives. Sources of meaning can be the pursuit and achievement of certain goals, service to a spiritual calling, connection with others, etc. The “Something Larger” gives one the thought “my life has a positive impact”.

Making Meaning When Terrible Things Happen- How to Deal With a Turbulent Life:

According to Nagoski and Nagoski (2019), sometimes life is stable and flowing, and we are regularly engaged in Something Larger, and the world just makes sense. Other times, life gets turbulent, and we clutch onto that meaning for dear life because it gets us through the storm, it helps us tolerate the despair. And sometimes those rocky times last too long and you feel numb, stuck, and hopeless. Little by little, you start to rebuild, with kindness, compassion, and approaching tasks in small steps (and with help from others!). Eventually, we go from coping to thriving again and can even come out of it with a greater sense of meaning in our life.

The Origin Story

Rewriting the narrative of your experience, focusing on the lessons and strengths you gained through adversity is a way for you to turn terrible into an opportunity to explore your sense of meaning in life.

Answer the following questions:

What parts of the adversity were uncontrollable to you? (the weather, other people, your life circumstances at the time, etc.) (Nagoski and Nagoski, 2019, pp. 69-70)

What did you do to survive the adversity at the moment? (Nagoski and Nagoski, 2019, pp. 69-70)

What resources did you leverage, to continue surviving after the adversity had passed? Be specific. (Money, information, friends, ability to research and seek, accepting help, persistence, coping skills, hope, etc.) (Nagoski and Nagoski, 2019, pp. 69-70)

Think about how the experience empowered you, think about what you learned, what insight you gained. (write it down)

Write a summary:

Even though I couldn’t control____________ (adversity), I managed to_______________(survival tactic), and then I used____________________ (resource) to grow stronger. After that, I could_______________(skill/win/insight) (Nagoski and Nagoski, 2019, pp. 69-70)

Meaning enhances well-being when you’re doing well, and it can save your life when you’re struggling (Nagoski and Nagoski, 2019).

If you would like personalized support and guidance on Making Meaning When Terrible Things Happen, please call Specialized Therapy Associates at 201-488-6678 to schedule your complimentary consultation.


Nagoski PhD, Emily and Nagoski DMA, Amelia (2019). Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. Ballantine Books.