Originally Published in The Good Men Project
You can make the choice to defuse and unravel the emotions that keep you from your deepest joy.
We all have emotional triggers. And as a relationship deepens into intimacy it’s almost inevitable that both of you will set off one or more of the other person’s alarms.
You know you are being triggered in your relationship when you are repeatedly experiencing the same intense emotional reactions that result in painful and frustrating interactions. This will often include feelings of anger and/or emotional and physical withdrawal.
This is like two minefields walking across one another, so heart-based vulnerability and receptivity is what’s needed.
While there are various ways to heal emotional triggers, many of these have in common a coming into awareness of an earlier emotional wound that is resolved through compassion and self-love. The process described here is a way to work through emotional triggers with your loved one. It is often necessary to spend time in self-exploration, e.g., journaling, before engaging in, and along with, this process. When done patiently and compassionately, including with self-compassion, this can be part of a conscious healing relationship.
It is difficult to impossible to work through and heal triggers when you are in the middle of reacting, so taking time to cool down, which often includes getting some space, and even brief time apart can be essential. Otherwise you are just reacting and can get into a mutual-triggering-cycle. This is like two minefields walking across one another, so heart-based vulnerability and receptivity is what’s needed. Remember, your triggered response is a defense that is there to protect you, so be gentle and appreciate your triggered defense, it has served a purpose that is no longer adaptive and prevents you from getting the love you want.
If you feel a lot of anger or are stuck in anger while alone, it can help to release the anger by pounding a bed with a pillow or your hands and screaming and cussing, and this itself may bring up some memories. (Note: If you have a history of anger management problems, any anger work should be done under the direction of a mental health professional.) Once the anger is released often other emotions like sadness and/or fear emerge and you are already into the next stage of the work as described below. It can also be good to have a pre-established agreement that when things get heated, you will take a time out, so that no one feels abandoned in their hurt.
Once you’ve moved through the initial anger, fear, or sadness you can come together and calmly discuss what occurred. Using the principles of Nonviolent Communication can be helpful. (Harvel Hendricks book Getting The Love You Want also has some good strategies.) Always deal with only one partner’s trigger at a time. You can go through one after the other until there is resolution; though you probably don’t want to do too much at one sitting, or even in any few day period, as this work takes time to integrate.
You have penetrated the defense, you have some intellectual understanding, but have not yet healed the wound that is being defended.
Through the calmness, as you talk, you will notice the rise of emotion that, unchecked, becomes the triggered reaction. This is when it is important to allow for some “contained reactivity.” Observing practice can be helpful here: Observe the emotion arising, without being in the emotion. Then, gentle pointing for your partner, and gentle insights for yourself. Ask “what is this?” as you explore each emotion, one at a time. Keep curious and ask questions of yourself and your partner—what is the basis, what’s really going on, when have I felt that before, and before that, and before that? You can trust yourself to follow the right path.
Once you have some understanding, it is important not to stop there. You have penetrated the defense, you have some intellectual understanding, but have not yet healed the wound that is being defended. This is like getting your hands on a great treasure box, and never opening the box. To open the box, you have to go further into the emotions and the historical interactions that brought about the reactive emotion.
At this point, it is necessary to feel the fear, pain, shame and other difficult emotions that you have been defended against feeling. (My wife, Elicia, does great inner-child work with her clients to heal at this level.) Sometimes, it’s just emotion, and you will have no idea where it came from, because it may have been preverbal. No worries, the healing is in the emotion, not so much in the memory. Feeling and expressing your emotion, with your partner, not just talking about the emotion, is a powerful way to heal through these deep-seated emotions. It may take added courage to ask, gently and specifically, for what you want, and even ask again if what was offered doesn’t feel quite right, e.g., “just listen and acknowledge me,” “hold me.” Practicing this will assure that you get what you want in your deepest relationships.
You may also become aware of various limiting beliefs that sort of “ride along” with the emotion. For example, “I am unlovable,” “I won’t get what I want.” These can be moments of great insights that you can challenge as they arise in awareness in the future. While changing these beliefs is part of the process, it is the emotional release that really heals. This is why affirmations alone rarely work.
Regarding shame, there is a saying, “We are only as sick as our secrets.”
One big one for me was feeling shame, with an associated lack of self-love. So, I would get triggered whenever I felt I wasn’t doing something right. This includes times when I was just being offered support, because instead of feeling “here is some support,” I was feeling, “you dumbass, you are so incompetent, you need help.” I would come back with sarcasm or more overt snappy anger. So, I was cutting myself off from support and getting pissed when support was offered. Unfortunately that’s how we roll sometimes, making sure we don’t get what we really want, arghh! Furthermore, adding to our difficulty, when I got pissed, even a little bit – to cover my hurt – this would trigger her issues around her raging father. So she would withdraw, and then that would trigger my abandonment feelings, and we were off and running; there was layer upon layer of trigger/defensive protection.
Regarding shame, there is a saying, “We are only as sick as our secrets.” Shame’s directive is “hide” and so it has its own defense, never to be revealed. By sharing in the uncovering of shame with your partner, your are disarming shame’s main defense. Through the process described above, we got to my reactive shame response that was at the base of some pretty nasty and undermining behavior.
While my issue is largely resolved, I still sometimes have to breathe and pause when feedback and support are offered, or at worst, I catch myself almost immediately when I am reacting. In our potentially conflicted interactions, I stay calm, and wow, this is a great and empowering feeling compared to getting triggered!
All in One Love