... There is hope for us! The adventure started when I saw a slow-moving object…
The wonderful thing about triggers…
Triggers. We all have them. Anyone who came through childhood has them, which I assume is pretty much all of us. Someone says or does something – looks at us with a certain expression, uses a tone of voice, criticizes us unfairly – and we are off to the races! We are actively creating all sorts of stories and beliefs in our minds; so many that sometimes it can feel as if we are tripping over them. We are CERTAIN beyond any kind of reasonable doubt that we KNOW precisely what the other person MUST have meant! The did it ON PURPOSE and with full malice aforethought. They hate me. They are MEAN. I MUST have screwed up. I must have done something to deserve this (whatever “this” is). And you can just feel the tension in your body rising. Heck – my tension is rising just writing this! My jaw is clenched – my fingers are stiff – my shoulders are now positioned somewhere up around my ears and they may never come down again. Oh, joy of joys – there’s that sour feeling starting in the pit of my stomach.
Triggered emotions can overwhelm us; thoughts race and add fuel to the fire. Somewhere deep inside, we know that our reaction just might be a teensy bit out of proportion to the event in front of us (ya think?). Yet we feel powerless and out of control.
Being triggered is at best uncomfortable and at worst a feeling of such dread that you almost wish the world would open up and swallow you whole. You are in full-on fight, flight, freeze or faint (yep – there are 4 “f’s” now). What makes it even scarier is that you don’t always know how you got to this point. All you know is that you are a mess, your panties are in a bunch and your nervous system is pounding on overdrive.
Often – and especially when we are much younger – we become quite frightened by the reactions inside of our bodies when we are triggered that we don’t understand – the flushing warmth, the shaky arms and legs, the tongue-tied inability to speak – as well as still being upset by the event that triggered us in the first place. To cope, we develop all kinds of strategies to ignore, evade, and outsmart these feelings and reactions because they are so uncomfortable and scary. At least, that’s what I did. Two strategies in particular were (and sometimes still are) “favorites” of mine. Perhaps they will resonate with you as well:
- Push it down deep and bury it
- Enlist an accomplice to take responsibility
Let’s take a closer look at how these two “solutions” impacted my life.
Push it down deep and bury it
My logic went something like this: If I deny my feelings and reactions, they won’t exist. So, that means if I double-down on myself with talk like “suck it up” and “I’m just being too sensitive” and “I shouldn’t feel/think like that” – and I just keep repeating those kinds of messages internally as I push the “unpleasantness” (see how I just minimized my own experience) and fear (that’s more accurate) deep down inside – then everything will be alright. Deep. Down. Inside. I won’t have to deal with this ever again. Having been called “too sensitive” a lot as a child, I often felt the need to hide that I even HAD a trigger. What triggers? What reactions? What emotional upheaval? Nothing to see here – move along, thank you!
While I might have thought this was working for me at the time, there was an unanticipated (although in hindsight obvious) side effect. Buried emotional triggers soon become landmines. Over time, with no conscious map reminding me where these little treasures are buried – even I “forgot” where they were. And when my body would start to tense up and emotions would bubble up as they inevitably do, I’d have that sensation that something was lurking… something awful… underneath. My solution? Easy peasy. Push it further and further down and cover it with heaps of blame and a dash of shame. In the process, I was convincing myself that I was somehow deficient in some way to even be having these feelings in the first place.
And before long, some unsuspecting soul would step on one of my buried landmines. The internal explosion would be really big – sometimes catastrophic to my wellbeing. The thing is… I mostly tried to contain the explosion. Like holding in a sneeze. I didn’t want anyone to know or see what was happening inside me. I couldn’t bear for them to know. There were times when there’d be an outward blow-up with tears and anger and snot, but mostly I shut that down as soon as I regained a slice of control. Somewhere along the line, I formed the belief that it was best if I kept my reaction a secret. People might think I was crazy or being melodramatic. Keeping all of this bottled up was exhausting. I needed another way to cope – and so I decided all of my troubles would go away if no one stepped on my triggers or pushed my buttons.
Enlist an accomplice to take responsibility
At the time, I believed I was seeking help. There were some triggers that I was painfully aware of, and I came up with what I thought was a brilliant solution. I would tell some people what “sets me off” or “makes me feel bad” – and it would be their job to help me avoid those things. To do this FOR me – to be vigilant on my behalf. I thought this would keep me safe. But then the story I started telling myself was “if they loved me, really loved me, they would always remember to stay clear of my triggers and landmines.” What would happen if they accidentally “forgot”? No! The very act of someone forgetting to be mindful of my triggers became its own triggering event. It meant they did not love me enough.
While avoidance and enlisting others in avoidance might have had some short-term benefits to my psyche by keeping me from having and dealing with certain thoughts and feelings I wasn’t yet ready to process – it is NOT a very effective long-term solution. It most assuredly did not result in a fully thriving life. Quite the opposite. I became hypervigilant and always on-guard. Truth is, it’s not just your triggers that get buried. Your emotional life suffers, and your energy seems to always be focused on the negatives… fears…doubts.
Giving someone else responsibility for the care and feeding of your triggers ends up making them responsible in some way for all of your feelings. Tying their ability to do that for you all of the time and calling that “love” – well that’s a really bad plan. Because now you’re adding more triggers and potential buttons – and more scary emotions like helplessness and resentment if they happen to forget or miss something.
Essentially, you are giving away your own power. You’ve removed your own healthy boundaries; not blurred them – they are gone. How you feel, how your day goes, how you show up in the world – is now in someone else’s hands. These are the seeds of enmeshment and co-dependency. A time might come when you can no longer tell where you end and they begin. And all those original triggers? They are all still there.
That didn’t work – what next?
Years of behaving like this – of guarding my triggers and pushing them down – had only made them stronger. It took a toll on my ability to be present for my own life. Living with the fear that you might be triggered and subsequently make a fool of yourself is not conducive to a joyful life. Not that I didn’t have some joys – it wasn’t all doom and gloom. It’s hard to explain. I just felt like I was always looking over my shoulder for the other shoe to drop. I might be happy now, but what if…… Years of repetition of these strategies culminated in my feeling and then fully believing that I can’t count on people and even worse, I could not trust myself. In essence, since no one can possibly monitor you FOR you, you are bound to feel disappointed, let down – and at times worthless and unloved. I had no strategies to handle that. And all of these thoughts had become so engrained in me that I was no longer aware of what started it all in the first place. All I knew was that I was pretty darn miserable. Something had to change. So what to do?
The question that changed everything
During my most recent “growth spurt” I was doing a lot of reading and had learned about mindfulness and meditation. I came across a question, posed innocently enough in a book, that changed everything. It literally stopped me in my tracks and completely flipped my switch and changed my perspective on how I saw triggers. The question was: “What would your life be like if you didn’t have any triggers?”
WHAT? Is this even possible? It would be so great. I wanted that life. What if it was really was possible to work towards softening my own uber-responsiveness to certain stimuli? This is the first time that I really understood that my triggers are – well – mine. No one else’s. So, if they are mine, then I could – maybe – change something INSIDE ME that would help me lead a more wonderful and calmer life. I had been working so hard to prevent and avoid so many things from the outside that it had never occurred to me that I could work WITH them on the inside. A life without triggers and landmines? I wanted to BE that person.
From hot-button to reset button
During my trigger-softening journey I kept a journal, and it is only in retrospect that I can piece together some of the ideas that helped lift me up and out of my downward spiral. The awareness that I had created these triggers initially as a way to stay safe, and I had done so from a very young age, helped me understand that in my brain they had become like a well-worn path through the woods. Our brains love to create shortcuts and make connections for us. This is not anyone’s “fault” and it doesn’t make me deficient – it makes me human. The auto-pilot reactions needed to be re-examined from my now-adult perspective.
My newly budding mindfulness practice became invaluable to me as I learned to recognize what was occurring in my body AND my mind – and to accept it, without judgment. Easier said than done. This helped minimize the feelings of shame that came with the thought “how could I have been so stupid?” Lovely way to speak to yourself, isn’t it? I learned and then grew to believe that I was only doing the best I could with the knowledge and experience I had. Now It was time to stop running from whatever was frightening me and preventing me from being fully present. It was time to turn and say, “I see you – what do you want from me?” To change how I related to my hot buttons. Could the triggers and associated emotions possibly offer me something of value? A clue, of sorts, to something important – something that needed attention?
The wonderful thing about triggers…
Bringing the light of awareness to what I had buried was an essential and painful early step. I had to listen to my own inner dialog. What was the story I had been telling myself – what was that voice in my head saying about me? I had not realized how much “stuff” I had accumulated in my head with lots of rules and beliefs I hadn’t challenged in years – if ever. This was not an easy transition, and I did not go through it alone. I sought help, direction and support from wise counselors and many, many books and classes.
As my awareness of my internal workings increased, I discovered that the person who was being so hard on me – relentlessly judging everything I was doing and how I was “being” – was an internalized voice from somewhere in my past. It was coming from inside – which is good, because that meant I could turn down the volume and soften the tone. Yet we humans really want to hold on to our ideas very tightly. Even if they are hurting us, it is difficult to put down a behavior that has become so habitual. It’s like buying shoes. The new ones aren’t quite broken in and the old ones no longer serve us well – yet they remain in our closet and we still pull them on once in a while.
There is so much power in pausing, recognizing habitual responses and behaviors, acknowledging them, and working through the layers to get back to the core of your “being” – your true self. Because “you” are still in there – that light or seed is still inside. You are NOT the sum-total of your triggers. Let the light shine in. Clear out your inner cobwebs. Learn how to pause, process, and then act instead of reacting. You’ll find you have a choice and can respond differently than you had in the past.
I changed my relationship to my triggers by casting them as clues that can help me discover what I need to let go of – and what I need more of. Go ahead and push the inner reset button. I just noticed that inside of “reset” is “rest.” And resting is one of the most powerful and healthful things you can do. Sure, you’ll be scared … do it anyway. That is the wonderful thing about triggers…. You may not be “trigger-free” but you can reduce their power and use their energy as fuel for growth. Rest. Reset. Sprout new responses. Grow as you were meant to.
Important caveat – I want to be crystal clear here – there are times that are critical periods in people’s lives where avoidance of a triggering event is absolutely necessary to their health and safety. We have “defense mechanisms” for a reason, and there are times when they serve us well. I am not writing about PTSD or deeply buried trauma. If this is your situation, please contact a licensed therapist or counselor. There is help; there is hope.