Triggered but Conscious

by | Aug 1, 2017 | Nonviolent Communication

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Showing up like a grown-up is so challenging when we are triggered.

I was recently reminded of this when something unexpected happened in an important relationship, and I felt that intense WHOOSH rush up through me.

An unwelcome visitor to my inner sense of equilibrium.

The WHOOOOOSH can really mess with all my good intentions and throw me back through history into old patterns of reactivity.

These are the times I am most likely to behave in ways that I will later regret.

When we are triggered and unconscious, we resort to fight, flight, freeze and fix strategies that we inherited from our families and cultures.

And for most of us, these involve some sort of domination/submission, rightness/wrongness, and desire to exert control over the situation.

We often resort to the 4 D’s of Disconnection: Language that blocks compassion and increases interpersonal violence:

  1. Deserve Langage: We link behavior to rewards and punisments, implying that if we feel bad we must have done something wrong, and perpetuating the belief that human beings learn best through suffering. Here we think through concepts like “What comes around goes around” or “They did something wrong and deserve to be punished.”

  2. Demands: Attempting to take choices away from others and coercing them into doing as you wish without regard for their needs. This usually results in rebellion or toxic submission.

  3. Diagnoses: Talking about who and what people ARE instead of what they do; this includes moralistic judgments (lazy, greedy, liar), analysis (she is just attention-seeking and needy), criticism (you are always doing this the wrong way and can’t learn) or comparison (your sister is able to get straight A’s so why can’t you?).

  4. Denial of Choice/Responsibility: Here we take a victim position, asserting that forces greater than ourselves “made” us do something: “You made me angry,” or “I don’t have a choice, I have to follow the rules.” It leaves us feeling disempowered and stuck.

Making a commitment to living an empowered, nonviolent, compassionate, healthy life, however, invites us to become aware of the ways in which we use language-tools to control and hurt each other, and to choose a new, relational way of showing up. 

An often unfamiliar way of being.

So, if you’d like to break out of old patterns and habits, and are ready to start working with the WHOOOSH differently, here are some practices that I have found useful in my own imperfect journeying.

I think of these as ways of being triggered, but conscious:

1. Practice getting aware of the times you are triggered, and make a commitment to manage your internal reactions differently. Breathe, slow down, disengage – do whatever you need to do to stop old scripts from playing out destructively.

2. Track your own self esteem: are you Spiraling down into Shame or Spiraling up into Grandiosity? Reacting out of either shame or grandiosity is toxic. You are not THAT Bad, but you are not THAT Great either. Aim to get yourself back on an “eye to eye” level with other people – you are neither better nor worse than everyone else. The sooner you see yourself back as a part of the imperfect human race, doing the best you can, the better.

3. Honor Your Limits and Boundaries: When we aren’t able to enforce healthy boundaries for ourselves and others, two things could happen: either you allow people to verbally abuse you and berate you, thinking that you are just supposed to “take it” and you experience yourself as unable to protect yourself, or, you invade other people’s boundaries by raging at them and trying to impose your will and subjective reality upon them.

Neither of these approaches will help: you fall into victim or perpetrator consciousness, and regret it later. Are you too flooded and activated to move out of default fight/flight reactions and into aware, choiceful responses? If so, disengage.

Give yourself and others some time to self-regulate. Engage in self-empathy and self-compassion if you need to. Get empathy from another source if needed.

4. Practice Emotional Responsibility: Take a risk and simply say “I feel hurt, vulnerable, scared …” and then tie these to the universal human needs that are up for you at the time. There is a big difference between saying “You never understand me and never listen to me,” and saying, “I have a longing to be heard and understood right now, can you reflect back what you are hearing me say?”

5. Keep Your Focus on What Might Help: Avoid the trap of analyzing what is wrong with you or someone else. It will just keep you stuck in suffering. Instead, attend to the important information that is needing to be heard, acknowledged and received in the moment. Listen deeply – to both yourself and the other person. Take your time and slow down in conversation: savor the micro-details as you go. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to fix things or come to premature agreements.

We will continue to be triggered. Accept that.

However, we have the ability to choose how aware we are willing to be about what is arising internally, what we want to do with our new awareness.  We can notice our defensiveness and realize that is not “who we are” but rather what we were taught to do.  Once we disentangle our identities from our actions, we are far more able to grow, learn and improve.  We are far more able to grow up, mature and chill out.

1 Comment

  1. Laura Hedlund

    I love the phrase “own your bristle” that you wrote in another blog. Learning to own our bristle in an emotional responsible way creates many opportunities for mistakes. Fully feeling the bristle sometimes means disengage – Are you too flooded and activated to move out of default fight/flight reactions and into aware, choiceful responses? If so, disengage. Listening to Oneself.


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