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A question from Eva-Sophia from Idaho:
I’d be interested in reading your thoughts on triggers: how we respond to our own triggers when we’re alone, and how to communicate our triggers to the people around us.
On a related note, I find often when we express a difficult emotional experience, the person we’re confiding in can take it personally as though they are the root of our distress, and it’s their “fault” we’re hurt. Then we’ll refocus our energy on making sure our confidant is ok, making sure they’re not self-blaming, etc. This seems to be especially true with romantic partners. On the flip side, how can we be supportive/compassionate to the people around us without taking on their pain in unhealthy ways, for example blaming ourselves?
Thanks and looking forward to reading whatever comes next! Hope you’re getting some great suggestions.
Thank you for your questions. Please feel free to comment or follow-up with another email.
For our purposes I am going to address triggers from the colloquial perspective rather than the one of traditional PTSD. I am defining triggers as the reactions (not responses) we experience following interactions with particular events, people, situations, and/or dynamics, that seem automatic, feel painful, and are rooted in a conclusion from the past.
The ability to communicate our triggers, and anything about ourselves becomes more available as we develop our sense of self and re-train ourselves to honour our feelings. Too often we repress our emotions, ignore our desires, and dismiss our questions as not worthy of attention. Triggers in particular can be difficult to communicate when we don’t understand them ourselves. When talking about our triggers it is important to have compassion for ourselves even if we don’t understand them yet.
When you are confiding in someone it is possible to set off one of their triggers. The fact that it bothers you when your partner self-blames, is also a sign of a trigger :) I would ask you why is it so important that your partner does not self-blame? The dynamic they are perceiving could have been painful for them in their past, and the dynamic that you are perceiving (or even the consequences that you fear as a result of this dynamic) could be painful for you.
Chances are that if we are sharing an experience with our partners, we have some common skeletons in our closets. It makes sense that we would trigger each other. It’s an opportunity to heal together. If your partner responds with pain, I encourage both of you to explore both issues – if they are coming up together they are likely complimentary to one another. Try to pay attention to the dynamics of the situation rather than the cold facts on the surface. What is the underlying need being expressed by both parties? Acceptance? Reassurance? Safety? Love?
If we are trying to express ourselves and simultaneously coach our partners, we may end the conversation feeling unheard. It would be more kind to both you and your confidant to not go into their self blame.
If your confidant is drawn towards self-blame, it is a pattern with its own underlying belief structure. It would likely be difficult for you to convince your partner that they are not responsible. Keep in mind that it is very difficult to receive a message perfectly clearly, most of us wear a few filters of which we are not aware. Instead of forgetting yourself to take care of your confidant, I would try to explore the dynamic together.
Often defensiveness is a sign of a fear of punishment and even further of abandonment and death (which is what abandonment means when you are dependent on a care-giver) – imagine a little kid who denies s/he knocked the glass off the table. Noone wants to be “bad.” But noone IS bad intrinsically, this idea is an overlay, often the result of punishment oriented parenting where children come to believe that they are bad, rather than their behavior has been hurtful. More here: Give up the battle because you’ve already won.
DEVELOPING A GROUNDING PRATICE
Developing a grounding practice helps us to identify and work with triggers. It elevates us from being the road kill of our reactions to be being the observers and directors. A grounding practice is a way to condition the nervous system to physiologically encourage a responsive vs reactive state. (I also highly recommend lowering caffeine intake, which does amplify any nervous system arousal responses.)
Most importantly practice abdominal breathing. Abdominal breathing stimulates the vagus nerve which tells the body that it is safe to rest (opposite of the fight or flight response).
- Choose a seated or supine position and get comfortable.
- Close your eyes.
- Bring your attention to your belly. You can even place your hands gently on the belly.
- Slow your breathing rate down to about half of its normal pace.
- After a few slow breathes, exhale once forcefully. Return to slow breathing.
- On the inhale, fill the belly gently as it rises. Next feel the chest expanding within that inhalation.
- Allow the air to leave the chest, then belly as the chest and then the belly lower.
- (Belly rises on the inhale, belly falls on the exhale)
- Continue with this exercise for as long as you like.
Following this exercise we can link the state we achieve through grounding practice with a physical posture (hands on heart or planted feet for example) or with a word, or a colour. Later, at the time of a trigger, you can recall this state with the link you created. More about this here: The imaginary body
You can also try any of the techniques following the abdominal breathing exercise here: Refreshment Stand
CHANGING THE PAST
When we come to conclusions about ourselves in childhood, very often we neglect to re-evaluate them and travel on auto-pilot.
Many of our reactive states come from conclusions that we came to through our childhood experiences and un-integrated (rejected) emotions from that time. Children tend to process life more through the emotional body than the mental body, and with ‘child logic’, so it may seem like your reactions are irrational, but remember that it was very valid when you were six.
It is VERY important to integrate the emotional experience as OK to have felt then and be feeling now, and then replace the understanding you came to with a new one from your new perspective. I personally find it very healing to imagine the grounded and unconditionally loving version of myself comforting my past self during such recall.
We change the past by replacing the conclusion we came to at the time the trigger was created with a new perspective from a current (grounding practice) state. Approve of yourself unconditionally, again, it is VERY important to integrate the emotional experience as OK to have felt then and be feeling now.
Most importantly practice regarding yourself with compassion and kindness. Also relevant here: The imaginary body
EXERCISE TO REVERSE ENGINEER YOUR REACTIONS
Try to be spontaneous with your answers and open to whatever answers come out. When doing this exercise, keep going and continue asking the questions even when the answer feels like social anathema. This is a safe exercise, in which there is no need to act on the answers. The point is only to get to the core belief.
1) State the dynamic: “When I am expressing a difficult experience to my partner, and I notice that my partner believes that I am blaming them I want to coach them into not self-blaming”
2) Ask yourself, “What does it mean to me when my partner self-blames in response to my expression?”
3) In response to the answer to the question “what does it mean to me…” ask “and why would that be so bad”
4) Keep going with this line of questioning until your answer reaches the end. Usually this will feel like an ‘aha!’ moment, and/or have no more wiggle room. For example “what would that mean to me”…”I would die.”
This understanding usually results in a feeling of relief and freedom from the habit. Once you get to this place you will have new understanding of why you responded in the past in a particular way, and be able to have more compassion and understanding for yourself and for your partner.
MORE ON WORKING WITH PAIN:
Please comment and keep the suggestions coming :)