Is there someone in your life, maybe from your past, whose company sets off strong and difficult feelings over which you don’t seem to have any control, no matter how much “work” you’ve done and continue to do? If so, you’re not alone.
In part 1 of this two-part series, I described the frustration, confusion, and pain that certain people can trigger in us, sometimes for an entire lifetime. Often, these people remain in our lives because they’re family or part of some other important community. Sometimes, we even want to see these people for other reasons, because, as human beings, we’re complicated and contradictory by nature.
It’s a challenge to keep a sense of calm and inner peace with someone who triggers you if their very presence sends your nervous system into a code-red emergency. I’m often asked whether there are ways to stay grounded when faced with the people who trigger us and whether there are strategies for making these triggering interactions less painful and disruptive even if our nervous system is telling us that danger is imminent.
In working with clients on some version of this issue for nearly three decades, in addition to working with my own triggering people along the way, I’ve discovered a few practices that are immeasurably helpful.
1. Investigate Your Feelings and Beliefs
This practice is about getting curious and precise about the thoughts and feelings that this person’s company triggers in you. We tend to assign blanket descriptions to our experience, such as “She makes me feel anxious” or “I hate being with her” or some other generalized description of an emotional experience that’s really quite subtle and refined. Often, this experience contains a whole life story.
It’s important to get under these blanket descriptions and into what exactly you feel in this person’s company. Is it shame, guilt, humiliation, sorrow, inadequacy, helplessness, or rejection? What’s the felt sense? And what are the narratives and beliefs that echo in your mind as a result? What specifically do you believe about the world and yourself in this person’s company?
The purpose of getting specific about these thoughts and feelings isn’t to better figure out what this person did to you; it’s about opening up a deeper level of empathy, compassion, and understanding for yourself. To truly empathize with your own suffering, you have to know what you’re offering empathy for and sometimes even how and why these specific emotions and narratives came into existence.
Once you’re aware of the direct experience being triggered in you and the exact nature of the feelings you’re reliving, you can be compassionate for yourself and even hold onto that self-loving energy as you’re being triggered.
On a practical level, when in this person’s company, you can literally and symbolically hold yourself by putting a hand on your heart or belly, perhaps casually enough that it isn’t noticeable, as a gesture of kindness toward yourself. This is a way of saying to yourself, “This is hard, I’ve got you.” You can acknowledge silently (or out loud in the bathroom) what’s happening inside you.
Also, in getting ready to see this person, remind yourself that being in their company will probably kick off these feelings and that you may not feel like yourself again until you’re out of their company. Wish yourself safe travel and passage. You can say something such as this: “Remember, sweetheart, being with her sets off that feeling of shame and guilt—for something unknowable. It’s OK; it’s just an old tripwire. It will happen, and it will pass.”
Or maybe, “There wasn’t any reason for you to feel ashamed then, and you have nothing to feel ashamed of now.” Or a straightforward “You’re not guilty, you’re not guilty, you’re not guilty…” What words would have helped that younger version of you that was originally triggered so long ago? What did she need to hear and know? Tell yourself that now—with love.
2. Accept the Experience
A critical part of process is also acceptance—accepting that these big and sometimes overwhelming feelings are going to arise with this person. That’s just how deep pain and emotional trauma work in the body; it’s not something you can talk yourself out of or convince yourself not to experience. To do so would be like trying to figure out how to not pull away when you touch a burning hot pot. The part of the brain that holds these painful memories and emotions essentially hijacks the person you are now.
Consequently, your brain and body can no longer distinguish between what’s happening now and what was happening when the trauma was actually occurring. The triggering person initiates a kind of nervous system hack, an internal code red in which your neurological channels get short-circuited and the emotional emergency system takes over. In your brain and body, you’re deposited back into the scene of the trauma—as if it were happening now.
No matter what you may know is appropriate or needed for the situation at hand, in that triggered brain, the same states of feeling and survival strategies that existed then are what are present and available now.
Remind yourself that this is just how the body works; it’s not up to you and it’s not your fault.
The return of these strong and painful feelings and the helplessness they sometimes initiate isn’t a failing on your part. Remind yourself, too, that these feelings will pass. This is just how it goes when you’re a human. Becoming aware of the specific feelings that this person triggers in you and how these feelings came to be and then offering yourself unconditional compassion and understanding is step one. Step two is expecting and accepting that you’ll be triggered by this person, regardless of whether you want to be, and that it’s not in your control. And there’s also a third step to consider, and it may be the most important step of all.
3. Surrender and Move On
You’re taught from the time you’re young that showing up for these difficult relationships is meaningful and valuable. Showing up is a testament to your strength, open-heartedness, and character—your willingness to evolve and forgive. You’ve been taught to believe that you should continue to see this person and that you should be able to see them without getting triggered.
If you look closely, there’s often a buried hope that no matter how many times you’ve gone to the stove and gotten burned, this time will be different. You hope you’ll be different or that they’ll be different or that reality will be different.
The third step is surrender, which may not sound like a positive or strong thing to do. In truth, it’s often the best and most freeing thing we can do for ourselves. Surrender is giving yourself permission to stop touching the stove, to stop putting yourself in this person’s orbit and experiencing this feeling of danger. You accept what reality keeps showing you, that this person generates pain for you and that it’s not your fault.
Regardless of why or how or whether it should be happening, the reality is that when you’re with this person, you feel bad again and again. You’ve tested this system enough times, played out enough strategies, exhausted enough hopes and prayers, and fought with this reality long enough. You’ve felt the same fire burn you the same way enough times. It’s OK to surrender to reality and choose a different path. It’s OK to not see this person anymore and stop putting yourself in harm’s way. It’s OK to say “no.” You may believe that you have to keep trying to change what makes you uncomfortable, to make it different from the way it is, but, in fact, you don’t have to change it, and you don’t have to keep trying.
It is the way it is.
You’re allowed to stop trying to prove that you can keep this person in your orbit and be OK with it. You can acknowledge that this isn’t even something you want to do. It’s a powerful practice just to honor your wish to not suffer anymore.
You’re not necessarily earning any points by putting yourself in situations with people who make you feel bad. The harder and more spiritually challenging and transformative choice may, in fact, be to stop trying to have a different experience. Instead, what if you were to choose to do the really challenging thing and be fiercely kind to yourself—to give yourself what you actually want and live by what feels loving and supportive? Do you have the courage to make that choice?
There comes a time in life when we’re ready to let go of the endless attempts and demands to be the person we should be. We wouldn’t judge an alcoholic who doesn’t want to go out to pub night with friends after work, so why would we judge ourselves for avoiding a situation that triggers a similar intractable habit of being? Maybe you can let yourself just be and can welcome and love the whole miracle and catastrophe that you are.