Creation of Meaning

The creation of meaning is an essential and unique human function. Because meaning is not inherent in any action or event, it must be constructed in the mind of the participant or observer. The comprehension of past events provides the context for decision making for present and future behavior, as well as individuals’ current sense of identity.

In the context of psychotherapy, creation of meaning is a change process in which clients construct the meaning of emotionally charged experiences by putting them into words. Creation of meaning involves perceptual, affective, and cognitive processes. It refers to the creation of language that helps clients know what they feel. It is the cognition of emotion. Because it functions as a critical within-therapy change event, creation of meaning is a key component of psychotherapy process research.

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The following is an example of how creation of meaning can have far-reaching consequences for an individual’s quality of life and level of success regarding age-appropriate developmental tasks: A 10-year-old boy suffered the loss of his mother when she died in a motor vehicle accident. He then interpreted his mother’s death as an act of abandonment; he felt unsafe to form close emotional bonds with others, particularly women. Twenty-five years later, he sought help from a psychologist for difficulties with committing to an intimate relationship with a partner. These issues created great distress for him and his partner. In the process of psychotherapy, it was discovered that he was still angry about his mother’s death and that he held onto the belief that his mother’s death was an act of abandonment, which led him not to allow himself to be emotionally attached to anyone. Psychotherapy proceeded to assist this client in achieving an awareness of multiple possible alternative meanings regarding his mother’s sudden death (i.e., the motor vehicle accident was an accident, not his mother’s deliberate act of leaving her young son), so that his range of choices of behaviors in relationships could become both expanded and conscious. For instance, he could choose women who are capable of forming a long-term intimate relationship, or he could learn to work through conflict instead of ending a relationship at the first sign of a problem.

Creation of meaning occurs in various psychological treatment approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral, experiential, and psychodynamic. It has been identified as a factor in the treatment of many psychological conditions or disorders (e.g., anxiety, depression, or posttraumatic stress disorder). The change processes involved in successful creation of meaning have been demonstrated in research to include both a cognitive and emotional dimension. successful creation of meaning involves emotional, experiential exploration of the original event. In unsuccessful creation-of-meaning events, clients do not go through a process of exploring the origin of the belief or emotion in a highly experiential way. Therefore, emotion and cognition need to be linked in designing therapeutic intervention to facilitate successful creation-of-meaning episodes.


  1. Clarke, K. M. (1996). Change processes in a creation of meaning event. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64, 465—170.
  2. Sarri, C. (1988). Interpretation: Event or process? Clinical Social Work Journal, 16, 378-390.
  3. Von Glasersfeld, E. (1984). An introduction to radical constructivism. In P. Watzlawick (Ed.), The invented reality (pp. 17—1-0). New York: Norton.

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