How to Forge Meaning & Build Identity From Pain

If you banish the dragons then you banish the heroes

  – Andrew Solomon

In your darkest days you might have heard chirpy platitudes like “everything happens for a reason!” and “what’s meant for you won’t pass you!” and “it was meant to be!” and so on from a well meaning pal. You probably see them on social media against a background of flowers or a sunset or something. Do you ever feel like stabbing your laptop or phone when you see them? I do. An unreasonably aggressive reaction maybe, but they annoy me like nothing else.


These expressions are usually said by someone not in the situation, to the person who is in the shit of the situation, and have much more to do with the sayer’s desire to feel comfortable or like they are helping, or their need to ‘fix’ and make it all be okay,  than the receiver’s experience of being in the shit. And they can irk and miss the point in the face of utterly pointless tragedies, when it’s just shit luck, or where there’s no mistake to learn from, there’s just pure pointless broken-ness and the subsequent hard work of healing.

Horrific trauma or loss is not “meant to be,” it is not your “destiny”.  I admit that life decided to screw with me in the past, it was sometimes comforting to think that there is some ulterior power at work, that there must be a bigger picture reason for this. It is scarier, but a lot more empowering, to realise that there is no universe planning your fate. There are the choices you make, and there are things that happen to you, and there is how you choose to respond to those things. A lot of life’s circumstances are chance, not choice – the family, gender, socio-economic class, race, sexual orientation, environment you are born into, how you are raised, what school you go to, things other people choose to target you for. What we do have control over is our response, the choices we make in the aftermath, the meaning we take and make from it. We can give ourselves our own reasons, our own answers.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years thinking about how to dredge the meaning out of more difficult life experiences. I used to think that there was a “right way” to handle horrendous life experiences – to take some learning from it, to look deep inside myself for the problem,  and thought if I just waited long enough I’d trip over the meaning of it some day and it would all fall into place, but the passivity and lack of control, leaving things up to ‘fate’ bothered me, re-victimised me, and disempowered me. I ended up rejecting this concept entirely and focusing on the present and how I can use the experience, dig up my own meaning for it, and use it to go forward with. 


Instead of asking the question: “What does it mean?” I asked: “What does it mean for me?”

Exploring this idea led me to an author and speaker called Andrew Solomon. He has given TED talks about things like depression, bullying and being gay. One of his talks is called ‘how the worst moments in our lives make us who we are’ (video below) and I recommend it to anyone who has ever had to grin and bear a friend chirping “everything happens for a reason!” after a devastation.

We talk about finding meaning, or looking for meaning, as though it exists outside of ourselves, and outside of the event, but Andrew asks us what about “forging” the meaning? We can create meaning for a pointless traumatic experience. 

You need to take the traumas and make them part of who you’ve come to be, and you need to fold the worst events of your life into a narrative of triumph.

Andrew Solomon.

We are not becoming what happens to us, no, and that is the fear, but we are becoming how we interpret and respond to what happens to us.

Andrew says “we seek our identities in the wake of painful experiences. When we forge meaning, we build identity.” We look for who we are when something awful happens, we look into ourselves. By forging meaning, we are not finding fault within, or self-blaming, but we are deciding for ourselves what we will make this mean, and we are by default building our identity.

We can forge the meaning, mould it into being a positive contribution to our lives, so that we can look back and think I wouldn’t be me, if it wasn’t for that experience. I’m a better person because of that experience, not despite it. Our darkest moment becomes our most valuable, because it’s the experience that contributed the most in a positive way to who we are. 


It takes courage to build our own meaning and find a way to bring all of ourselves to what happened to us. It isn’t a ‘reframe’ or anything close to turning a negative into a positive, it’s turning a positive through something traumatic. It is deciding the conditions for how this thing is now going to be in your life. It’s telling it how it’s going to go. And it’s not saying it’s okay that it happened; as Andrew says, “forging meaning and building identity does not make what was wrong right, it only makes what was wrong precious” and “we can forge meaning and build identity, and still be mad as hell.” 

It isn’t easy to liberate yourself from an oppressive experience at the same time as resisting fleeing from it – that’s why you need to be courageous.

forging meaning is about changing us, and building identity is about changing the world. Identity should not be a smug label or a gold medal, but a revolution.

Andrew Solomon

It’s taking what happened, transforming it and bringing the transformation into relationship with others, society, the world.

The beauty of it is that these traumatic experiences can help us be better, more empathic people, more compassionate, more resilient, wanting a better world, and working towards making it. I firmly believe that we cherish what we’ve gone to battle for far more than what’s been handed to us. It’s hard to go through this battle and it means being vulnerable a lot of the time as you go through the process, but it’s worth it and it’s important for a deeper, fuller life. It gives our lives a deep urgent meaning and it gives the utterly pointless experiences the meaning that you decided on. You’re in charge of this, of all of it.   

If you banish the dragons, then you banish the heroes. We can be the heroes of our own stories.

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