In any relationship there are times to talk and times not to. If you are mentally present and open, it may be time to talk. If you are distracted or triggered its not.
How do you know if you are mentally present?
Your mind is on what is happening now. What is being said, what is being done, what is so. If your mind is on the past (even 5 minutes ago) or the future, you are not mentally present. Your mind is not on what is happening now. You are distracted by the past or future.
How do you know if you are mentally open?
Your mind is in receive mode. You are listening with curiosity and interest. If you are listening just long enough to insert your own agenda (control mode), or to argue (I’m right and you’re wrong mode) or to teach (I know mode), you are not mentally open.
What does it mean to be triggered?
I and most of my clients have unresolved hurts just waiting for an opportunity to be resolved. We don’t know we do. We would like to believe that they are in the past. I like to think “I’ve already done my work on that” because I’ve been to lots of therapy and have had a lot of coaching. The truth is, I have done a lot of work. Many of my hurts have been healed. But I’m not even aware of hurts that haven’t been healed until I get triggered.
Here’s how it works.
At some point in life I get hurt but don’t let myself feel the hurt. I just bury it. Hide it. Pretend like it didn’t hurt. Rub some dirt on it. Or I keep it alive and make sure everyone knows who hurt me. These are all strategies to deal with unfelt and unhealed hurt. These strategies are designed subconsciously to protect me and to make sure I don’t get hurt again.
Because the brain is apparently designed to automate what we repeat often enough, the strategies I use to avoid future hurt became habits. Habits are unconscious and automatic. I unconsciously and automatically protect myself.
These strategies work. Until they don’t.
When life brings the perfect situation and starts getting close to the unhealed pain, my body remembers and reacts. This is what it means to be triggered. Once I am triggered it may not be the best time to talk. Unless I know what is happening and can report so accurately. If I can do that, then it’s a great time to talk!
Imagine someone says something that angers you, hurts your feelings, or scares you. That you are angry, hurt, or scared means you are triggered. Let’s assume you aren’t in danger of physical harm and that you are dealing with a sane person. If you aren’t sure about whether you are in danger or if the person you are dealing with is sane, run away. Survive the moment.
But if you are safe and they are sane and if you are committed to a functional and healthy relationship with the person who triggered you, get curious about your internal reaction. Take the focus off the other person and focus on what’s going on inside of you. Report your internal reaction to the other person without blaming them.
Let’s look at an example of how it goes when you blame and react and an example of when you get curious and report.
Blaming and Reacting
My wife and I were in the kitchen. We live in a small house that has a smallish kitchen. We are often in the kitchen at the same time. She was putting away some dishes I had washed and began re-washing one of the pans. I was instantly triggered. I felt angry. I asked, “Didn’t I get that clean?”
“It still had some food on it,” she answered flatly.
“I guess I just can’t do anything right, huh,” I heard myself say. I wanted to hit rewind immediately.
I had just blamed her. Immediately my internal trigger triggered her. The air was full of tension.
I got triggered and I blamed her for triggering me and told her so.
Curiosity and Reporting
The kitchen seems to be a great place for me to get triggered. We were again sharing what I call our one-butt kitchen.
I was cutting up some ingredients for an omelet. After pulling a knife out of the silverware drawer, just below the counter where I was working, I left the drawer open a bit. I don’t know why. Maybe because I thought I might grab something else I needed. But my wife was concerned that some food might drop in the drawer and she asked me to close the drawer. She is very kind but direct with her request. There was no look on her face, no edge to her voice. But I was, once again instantly triggered. This time, I waited a moment. I closed the drawer and continued to slice the ingredients.
After a few moments, I said, “When you asked me to close the drawer I got triggered. It’s not your fault and I’m not blaming you for how it felt. You didn’t do anything wrong. But now I’m really curious about what just happened. Why would your simple and reasonable request trigger me to feel angry? I felt defensive and wanted to blame you for how I felt but I know better. Looks like I have some work to do.”
The significant people in our lives have a tendency to trigger us. They seem to be better at it than anyone else. Often, we get into an unconscious dance with the important people in our lives. We trigger them, they trigger us.
We unknowingly create dysfunctional patterns that we easily fall into. To break that pattern, acknowledge it and make an agreement to break it.
How do you acknowledge the pattern?
Although understanding the moving parts of the pattern can be very helpful, you don’t have to have it all figured out to acknowledge it. The moment you feel triggered, report it. It might sound like, “I just got triggered.”
If you have previously discussed and agreed to reporting your triggers with the other person, this will immediately alter the course of the next few minutes, hours, or years.
How do you make an agreement to break the pattern?
Are you in one of these patterns with someone? Do you get triggered and then hold the other person responsible for how you feel? Do they get triggered and then hold you responsible for how they feel? Before the next trigger, tell them you have something important to discuss. Tell them that you recognize a pattern that the two of you are stuck in.
Then describe the pattern.
“I recognize that I automatically protect myself from being hurt or scared. Sometimes you do or say things that trigger my defenses. I don’t even know I’ve been protecting myself until I feel hurt, angry, or scared. When that happens in our relationship, I automatically hold you responsible for how I feel and try to retaliate or get you to change.”
And make a proposal about how to change the pattern.
“I don’t want to do that anymore. It isn’t working and its hurting our relationship. I want to break the pattern. I want to take responsibility for how I feel and for my defenses. To do that, I will just report that I am triggered when I am. I will acknowledge when I’m triggered to interrupt our pattern and I request that you do the same.”
Let’s assume that the other person agrees to this proposal. With commitment and practice, your relationship will improve.
Rather than defending, arguing, blaming, and harboring resentments, you may now have a friend who can support you as you do your internal work and heal the hurt that started the pattern in the first place.
By the way, the other person doesn’t have to agree to the proposal. You can still change your own behavior even if they don’t want to change theirs. Either way, the relationship will get healthier for you.
I get that this isn’t easy or simple. And you may not be able to do it without some help. If you have a therapist or coach, ask them to help you break out of this pattern.
If you are committed to healing, you have your work cut out for you. But alienating the people close to you by blaming them for your reactions creates even more work.
There is a time to talk and a time not to.
When you catch yourself defending or blaming, stop. Acknowledge the pattern and ask for support.
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