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Shattered Assumptions Book Summary – Ronnie Janoff-Bulman

What you will learn from reading Shattered Assumptions:

– The three fundamental assumptions we all make.

– How experience of our own fragility can lead to trauma and anxiety.

– How the essence of trauma is linked to someones assumptions being shattered.

Shattered Assumptions Book Summary:

Shattered Assumptions is a life changing book. It explores the core assumptions that we as a culture have absorbed, the key concept that is when our assumptions are shattered we are at a loss to explain reality. Our world collapses around us as we realise what we believed to be true about the world is no longer true. Sound deep? That’s because it is, when peoples assumptions ‘shatter’ it causes great pain and a lot of soul searching.

This is a fantastic guide to understand those who’ve experienced traumatic events and even help you explore your own trauma. A must read to truly understand how we experience the world and how we are often left blind sided by things we don’t forsee.


The Three Fundamental Assumptions we all make about reality:

Most generally, at the core of our assumptive world are abstract beliefs about ourselves, the external world, and the relationship between the two. More specifically, and most simply, Ronnie proposes that our three fundamental assumptions are:

The world is benevolent

The world is meaningful

The self is worthy


Experiences inform assumptions:

In considering the benevolence of “the” world, people are actually considering the benevolence of “their” world. Generalisations move outward from experience, such that our own experiences with people and events form the basis for more general assumptions about the world. Things that happen to us are typically good, and thus the world that is relevant to us is characterised by positive outcomes. People around us are decent and caring, and thus people in general are good. But, this is a dangerous assumption to make as not everyone will have your well being in mind.


Seeing meaning in everything:

We believe events in our world are meaningful, that they “make sense.” Our fundamental assumption about meaning involves not simply beliefs about why events happen in our world, but, more specifically, why these events happen to particular people. We seek to understand the “distribution” of good and bad outcomes, and in the service of meaning we recognise or impose seemingly natural contingencies between people and their outcomes.

A meaningful world is one in which a self-outcome contingency is perceived; there is a relationship between a person and what happens to him or her.

The distributional principles of justice and control imply a sense of order and comprehensibility. Randomness essentially denies the meaningfulness of events. There is no way to make sense of why particular events happen to particular people; it is a matter of chance alone. In recognising randomness, an individual must accept that ultimately there is nothing one can do or be that will serve as a protection from misfortune or a guarantor of good fortune; the person is not involved “in shaping one’s own destiny as well as one’s daily experience.”

Thus, we believe we are good people who live in a benevolent, meaningful world. These three positive assumptions co-exist at the core of our assumptive world. They are not narrow beliefs, but broad, abstract conceptions that are also emotionally potent. Clearly, it feels good to believe that we are decent and the world is benevolent and meaningful.

Our basic beliefs do not exist independent of emotions; rather, positive feelings are inextricably tied to our fundamental assumptions.


How the benevolence assumption is formed:

The child’s view of self, world, and their relationship originate in the infant’s early experiences, which center around interactions with a caregiver (or caregivers), usually the mother. In these early preverbal interactions, we begin to establish expectations about our world, about the nature of our caregivers, the nature of ourselves, and the nature of the interaction between the two. These early representations are thus apt to be closely related and mutually dependent, a conclusion mirrored in Erikson’s view of early development.

From the perspective of our fundamental assumptions, trust is actually the label for three intersecting representations derived from the child’s earliest experiences. In the presence of a responsive caregiver, the child’s earliest needs are met; the child’s “world,” represented by those caring for the child, is a benevolent one.

A responsive caregiver is one who responds to the infant’s behaviours (e.g., crying), and thereby provides the basis for the child’s earliest understanding of person-outcome contingency. In the very act of providing care and meeting the child’s needs, a responsive caregiver also provides the infant with the basis for self-worth, for the child begins to understand the he or she is worthy of care.


How early experiences are abstracted and generalised:

According to Stern, when an infant experiences similar episodes, he or she begins to form a generalised episode, “an individualised, personal expectation of how things are likely to proceed on a moment-to-moment basis.” He uses the example of the “breast milk” episode: being hungry, being placed at the breast, rooting, opening mouth, starting to suck, getting milk. The generalised episode for “breast milk” is no longer a specific occasion, but rather an abstraction of many specific memories, each of which is slightly different. It is “average experience made prototypic.

Episodic memories of particular interactions are combined into RIGS. In turn, RIGS are combined to form working models or theories. These models are generalised memories derived from particular episodes and are our earliest representations about ourselves and our world. We develop such working models of the self, the mother (or caregiver), and the nature of the interaction between self and mother, and these models are the origins of our later assumptions about ourselves, the world, and meaning.


Feedback and level of assumptions:

A key to the good life might well be illusions at our deepest, most generalised level of assumptions and accuracy at the most specific, least abstract levels. Most feedback we get relates to particular tasks and abilities and should be registered at the narrower level of assumptions. Illusions are least likely to exist here, primarily because of the numerous possibilities for direct behavioural feedback.


We live in our own substitute worlds:

As Prescott Lecky wrote: Immersed in an environment which he does not and cannot understand, the individual is forced to create a substitute world which he can understand and in which he puts his faith. He acts in consistency with that conception, derives his standards of value from it, and undertakes to alter it only when convinced by further experience that it fails to serve the goal of unity. Since this self made scheme of life is his only guarantee of security, its preservation soon becomes a goal in itself.


We deduce not induce:

In a very real sense, we are deductivists not inductivists in our approach to the world. We do not simply gather data and draw unbiased conclusions; rather, we have prior information and theories that guide data-gathering and interpretation.

Observation is selective… for the animal a point of view is provided by its needs, the task of the moment, and its expectations; for the scientist by his theoretical interests, the special problem under investigation, his conjectures and anticipations, and the theories which he accepts as a kind of background: his frame of reference, his “horizon of expectations.”


Schema and social categories:

Schemas underlie not only our common object categories but our social categories as well.

Is Mr. Jones an introvert, eccentric, schizophrenic, sophisticate, or sage? We maintain organised knowledge structures about people, including ourselves, and categorise ourself and others along a number of descriptive dimensions.

We hold schemas for social roles, too. In other words, we have knowledge structures for the behaviours and norms we believe are appropriate for membership in a particular social group, and familiarity with these schemas provides a basis for understanding the nature of stereotyping.


Cognitive Conservatism:

In light of our very clear biases to conserve our cognitive structures, how can we best understand the changes in our assumptive worlds or schemas that do commonly occur?

Two characteristics seem to define them. First, change most often occurs at the level of our narrower schemas or mini-theories rather than our most fundamental assumptions. Second, change is gradual and incremental rather than sudden and swift.


The Rational and the Experiential:

More recently, psychologist Philip Brickman distinguished between two types of validity-inferential and phenomenological that correspond to ways of knowing in science (i.e., careful calculation, typified by experiments) and in personal experience. Similarly, Scymour Epstein maintains that we have both a rational and an “experiential” mind. The former expresses itself in numbers and words and is logical and analytical, whereas the latter is connected with emotions and represents reality largely through images.

It is interesting to speculate about the significance of the experiential mind for changes in our fundamental assumptions. The power of one directly experienced, negative event is “real” in a way that the written word, for example, cannot approach. Such traumatic events no doubt involve some type of emotional encoding, in addition to any rational, more verbal encoding, of the experience.


Experiencing our own fragility:

We have built our lives on assumptions that enable us to feel safe and secure; we tend not to concern ourselves with our physical existence as much as our psychological existence. And yet our fragility as physical beings becomes painfully obvious through traumatic events.

These are occasions when we are forced to recognise the real possibility of annihilation, of serious injury, and our own mortality. Our own survival-or that of those we care deeply about-becomes seriously questioned.

These examples of the “death imprint” represent victimizations in which there are clear instances of physical injury or death. One’s physical integrity has clearly been compromised.

There are numerous traumatic events that do not seem to involve explicit instances of injury and death, and yet the threat of survival nevertheless underlies their power to strike our fundamental assumptions about the world and ourselves. Thus, certainly: “Robbery is not as devastating as rape, but it is a defilement. As in rape, the robbery victim has the feeling of being close to death. ‘I could have been killed,’ is a common response to a robbery experience.”


The physical world vs the symbolic:

The two sides of our existence-physical and symbolic, body and self-are typically not considered with equal case or fervor. Our positively biased assumptions about the world and ourselves enable us to maintain illusions about our safety and security. We take for granted our biological existence and dwell primarily in the world of symbols.

We are not always comfortable confronting the biological side of human survival. Thus, Sartre sees us as hopelessly confused and deluded about our true condition; each of us wants to be a god with only the equipment of an animal, and thus we exist on fantasies. As Kierkegaard argues, it seems like some hoax that we can have consciousness, deep feelings, and self-expression, yet also be creatures that die. This is the paradox of the human condition.


When assumptions are shattered:

“It can’t be stressed, one final time,” says Becker, “that to see the world as it really is [is] devastating and terrifying… it makes routine,  automatic, secure, self-confident activity impossible. It makes thoughtless living in the world of men an impossibility. It places a trembling animal at the mercy of the entire cosmos and the problem of the meaning of it.” In writing this, Becker was not referring to trauma and victimisation but rather presenting a philosophical position to account for our denial of death. Yet this terror is the lot of trauma survivors, who have been forced to “see the world as it really is,” or can be.

Nothing seems to be as they had thought, their inner world is in turmoil. Suddenly, the self- and world views they had taken for granted are unreliable. They can no longer assume that the world is a good place or that other people are kind and trustworthy. They can no longer assume that the world is meaningful or what happens makes sense. They can no longer assume that they have control over negative outcomes or will reap benefits because they are good people. The very nature of the world and self seems to have changed; neither can be trusted, neither guarantees security.


The essence of Trauma:

The essence of trauma is the abrupt disintegration of one’s inner world. Overwhelming life experiences split open the interior world of victims and shatter their most fundamental assumptions.

Survivors experience “cornered horror,” for internal and external worlds are suddenly unfamiliar and threatening. Their basic trust in their world is ruptured. Rather than feel safe, they feel intensely vulnerable. For victims, the “Under Toad,” as Garp called it, is all too strong, powerful, and threatening; traumatic life events provide powerful evidence that the world is a frightening place in which they are not protected.

Traumatic life events provide powerful evidence that the world is a frightening place in which they are not protected. Suddenly the victim’s inner world is pervaded by thoughts and images representing malevolence, meaninglessness, and self-abasement. They are face to face with a dangerous universe, made all the more frightening by their total lack of psychological preparation.


Types of Self Blame:

The distinction between these two self-attributional strategies is represented in the differences between the following two statements by rape victims: “I should not have gone back to his apartment” (behavioural self-blame) and “I am a very bad judge of character” (characterological self-blame).

Although both involve person-outcome contingencies (i.e., nonrandomness), behavioural self-blame also invokes beliefs about control. There is something one could have done differently to have altered the outcome.

Behavioural self-blame reflects the reestablishment of meaning primarily through control-related attributions for the victimisation. Further, the behaviour is not generalised to the whole person-that is, it is as if the person made a mistake, or did a stupid thing, but is not a bad or stupid person. The former are relatively narrow, specific assessments that do not describe oneself in the present, whereas the latter reflect a present self-definition, a more general, global assessment of themselves.

These reactions suggest similarities between survivors of group disasters and the reactions of victims of individual victimisations. Both scan behaviours for acts or omissions that could have altered the outcome.

Survivors’ self-blame is an early response to victimisation, virtually a knee-jerk reaction of an organism that has believed so fundamentally in personal control over outcomes, enveloped in a culture that has powerfully reinforced such a belief. In the face of the traumatic experience, the victim reviews his or her prior behaviour to see what could have prevented the victimisation. Again, this is not to suggest that the victim is to blame but rather that the victim is trying to hold onto beliefs about control and a nonrandom world.


Reinterpreting trauma for lessons / meaning:

By engaging in interpretations and evaluations that focus on benefits and lessons learned, survivors emphasise benevolence over malevolence, meaningfulness over randomness, and self-worth over self-abasement. Such interpretations are extremely important components in the successful rebuilding of nonthreatening assumptions, and contribute significantly to the resolution of the survivor’s existential dilemma.

Although there may be numerous possibilities for positive interpretations of traumatic events, two types of interpretations are particularly common.

The first involves evaluations of the victimisation in terms of important lessons learned. Such interpretations entail perceiving the victimisation in terms of benefits for oneself.

The second entails understanding the traumatic experience in terms of its longterm benefits for others. This involves turning the victimisation into a personally altruistic act. Both categories of interpretation provide a response to the question “For what end?” and thereby enable some survivors, ultimately, to make sense of their powerful, painful experience. It didn’t happen for nothing; it served some purpose.


Reconsidering what’s important:

The experience of victimisation often leads survivors to a reconsideration of life and what is important. The confrontation with physical and psychological annihilation essentially strips life to its essentials, and for many survivors becomes a turning point from the superficial to the profound.

Life takes on new meaning and one’s own life is often reprioritised. Survivors, in essence, possess a new kind of wisdom, achieved at great cost, providing a sense of “enlightenment” about what is truly worthwhile in this world.


Trauma and adaptive Cognitive strategies:

Adaptive cognitive strategies such as downward social comparison, self-blame, and finding benefits for self or others are not used or used equally by all survivors. Thus, work by psychologist Roxane Silver has shown that some incest victims were still struggling to make sense or their victimisations as much as fifty years after their experience. These women were unable to find meaning or see any good in their experience, and psychologically they remained distressed even years later.

Traumatic victimisations are unwanted and unchosen. Yet the cognitive strategies used by trauma survivors attest to the possibility of some human choice even in the face of uncontrollable, unavoidable negative outcomes. These choices reside in the interpretations and reinterpretations, appraisals and reappraisals, evaluations and reevaluations made of the traumatic experience and one’s pain and suffering.

Ronnie loves a line written by psychologist Philip Brickman, which better captures the reality of victimisation: “Though not the master of one’s fate, one may still be captain of one’s soul.”


Social integration post trauma:

Victims are threatening to nonvictims, for they are manifestations of a malevolent universe rather than a benevolent one. They are regarded as “deviants” because they have been marked by misfortune. In the overwhelming majority of cases involving traumatic life events, survivors do not physically appear different from before.

Yet all too often their victim status sets them apart; it is information rather than appearance or behaviour that typically marks them as different. Victims carry with them a social stigma, for they are now viewed as somehow flawed or blemished. Victims are stigmatised because they violate the expectations established by people’s illusions.


Do you recover from Trauma or adapt?

The term recovery, however, is somewhat problematic when applied to trauma survivors. In one sense, it is quite appropriate, for recovery connotes health. In another sense, however, it is inappropriate, for it suggests a return to one’s previous condition, to where one began.

Trauma survivors return to a state of health; they do not, however, go back to where they began.

On the basis of his studies of bereavement, Robert Weiss questions the usefulness of the term recovery for those who have suffered a severe loss. He claims that “adaptation,” “accommodation,” or even “degree of damage” might be more appropriate.

Trauma survivors no longer move through life unmindful of existence; they can more readily relish the good, for they all too well know the bad. They have made their peace with the inevitable shortcomings of our existence and have a new appreciation of life and a realisation of what is really important. The wisdom of maturity, which acknowledges the possibility that catastrophe will disrupt ordinary routine, replaces the ignorance of naivete. And the trauma survivor emerges somewhat sadder, but considerably wiser.