How Triggers Are Gifts You Want To Unwrap
Trigger Warning: I’m about to deconstruct your ability to play victim to triggers.
In part one of this series, we reframed the victim-enabling concept of good versus evil with the relatively new idea of unconscious contributions to behavior. Because the concept of the unconscious is only about 100 years old, and still very much in development, outdated frames for human behavior still persist, and this is remarkably salient when we talk about triggers.
The current cultural phenomenon of the demand for “trigger warnings” is a good example of victimhood and lack of responsibility for one’s unconscious. A trigger by definition is a result of an internal wound, revealed by an external stimulus. The trigger isn’t the cause, in short, so demanding the external stimuli accommodate the trigger is an unmet childhood need expressed by a protector who doesn’t know what to do with it.
In other words, your triggers are your problem, not other people’s. As feelings have become more important and honored in our society (which is good), this concept has been lost (which is bad). It’s a classic case of the pendulum swinging too far to correct thousands of years of emotional repression. But we must be watchful for where the correction turns into deluded indulgence.
The more emotionally triggering a situation is, the more likely our protection mechanisms seek to oversimplify as a way of creating false order amidst unmanageable chaos. This chaos is especially prevalent in intimate relationships.
The physical and emotional closeness we experience as adults in romantic intimacy recapitulates the same from our childhood. This is why we think our partners “make us crazy,” but they don’t. No one can “make” you feel anything that isn’t already there.
That’s one of the first important steps to emotionally mature responsibility.
But people can provide a stimulus that triggers you such that it appears that they “make” you feel that way. And because children are true victims, lacking self-authority, independence, and choice, when someone triggers us, our childhood wound protections blame the stimulus rather than following the breadcrumb trail of the response back home to us.
Please read the last two paragraphs again, because this idea goes directly against our victim-based conditioning about how human relationality works.
In this way, we are not “responsible” for how we “make” other people feel, because we don’t have that much power. We ought to be, however, “responsive” to our impact on others out of love and care.
So if someone calls me “Brillo head,” that would hurt. Does that mean that “they” hurt me? I was teased as a child about my curly hair, which made me feel even more different than I already did. Most of the hurt I would feel would be old, unprocessed pain resurfaced by the trigger.
So is the other person at fault for my hurt? Surely not entirely. In responsibility, I could say, “Ouch that hurts because I got teased a lot about that as a kid, and I guess I still haven’t made peace with how different I feel. You’re not the first person to compare my hair to a scrubbing pad, unfortunately.”
You may not know why you’re triggered and only be able to say “That hurts. I’m confused and overwhelmed by what I’m feeling. I’d like to talk more about this, but I need time to sort out what’s going on without blaming you.”
Sharing your experience invites the other into your world. It’s often said that intimacy is “into-me-you-see,” which is a remarkably instructive mnemonic. Self-revealing is the path to intimacy.
You may be able to go further and add “These feelings remind me of how powerless I felt as a child. I was alone and felt out of control, like I didn’t fit in…” Likely the other person can relate and may say so, ask questions, converse. That’s relating!
Or, you may report the difficulty of opening up: “It’s difficult for me to show you how I hurt, I’m afraid to show you how sensitive I am.” These exchanges are nuanced and delicate, but worth the risk to gain deeper connection, find your voice, gain clarity on your emotions, melt away your stories of suffering, get to better know yourself, and see that others can hurt you, but unlike in your childhood, you are not harmed.
Vulnerability means staying on your side and sharing your experience, giving the other person the freedom to respond, without a demand or a counter-attack like, “Well, your hair reminds me of a dirty llama,” which is likely to escalate.
Vulnerability allows the other to feel the impact they have on you, which may or may not move them to apologize. And this is key: the fundamental basis of relationality is the interest in and ability to feel our impact on the other and let it influence us, as well as find our own oftentimes repressed emotions that cause us to act out in the first place, contributing to the disconnection.
But we cannot blame the other for not caring about our hurt if we haven’t revealed it vulnerably (esp. rather than raging, hiding, blaming, playing victim, etc.), which is scary. But it’s only scary to the degree as children we didn’t get our feelings felt by our caregivers. An adult can feel hurt and go on with their life. A child has to twist themselves into a pretzel to compensate for not yet being able to emotionally digest the hurt. Because children aren’t born with emotional digestive systems, hurt is like swallowing a golf ball. It’s an injury because they can’t digest it. That’s harm.
For a healthy adult, hurt is like swallowing a small ice cube. It’s uncomfortable, but we can manage; the hurt becomes smaller and “melts” to the degree we can digest it. If we can’t, it illuminates issues that were already there: unhealed childhood wounds.
For an unhealthy adult, hurt is like swallowing a hot pepper. The indigestibility of it doesn’t cause permanent damage, but it takes excess resources (drinking water, heavy breathing, tears, etc.) in response to the uncomfortable burn, causing negative behavior changes due to compensation. The illumination of the underlying issues that prevent digestion is what our protectors want to hide, so they blame the other and play victim (it’s the pepper’s fault for burning! Why does the pepper need to be so hot? If the pepper wasn’t so hot I’d be okay. I will never eat any pepper ever again!). This is how hurt is for most people: unnecessarily indigestible.
Let’s return to the Brillo pad conversation. If I’m vulnerable and the other is unapologetic and callous, ideally I would say, “Well, I wish you’d felt the impact you had on me, but I’m grateful you helped me feel a long lost piece of my childhood which I now can digest. Goodbye.”
The “goodbye” would be because I don’t choose to spend time with people who aren’t curious about their impact, but I’m not a victim of that moment because I chose to spend it with them, and I got a lesson out of it. It didn’t feel good, but that’s only a problem if you still think the point of life is being happy (dead-end that paradigm as quickly as you can!)
So it wasn’t a nice thing to say about my hair, and that’s their 50% contribution for them to look into: why did they say that? Are they self-conscious about their own hair? Are they jealous of me in some way? Feeling insecure themselves?
My 50% is to look at why it hurts. They poked me, but it hurt more because they poked a wound, and that’s on me to examine. I’m not a victim, I’m responsible for my reactions to triggers.
Because of the ancient, misguided frame of good vs. evil and residual true victimhood from childhood, adults misguidedly hold perpetrator versus victim frames. By default, our protection is far more inclined to assign responsibility in terms of 100/0% whenever possible. But in adult relationships, there is no such thing as a 100/0% responsibility situation. Even in the most egregious actions in a marriage, for example, each person chose to be with the other. Whatever happens after “I do,” you choose until the day you say “I don’t.”
Furthermore, the people closest to us we inevitably and unconsciously draw in order to work out our deepest childhood wounds that can only resurface inside a close physical and emotional bond; i.e. a large part of the purpose of intimacy is to heal childhood wounds, not to live happily ever after.
If you don’t accept this, you automatically play victim.
This means that you cannot be “neglected” or “abused” by your partner because those are terms that apply to parents mistreating their children. Would you cry “abuse” if you got into a boxing ring with the champ? You climbed in. And it’s not like you haven’t ever thrown a punch.
So if you’re not getting your needs met, it’s for you to vulnerably advocate for those needs, while you look at why you chose the person in the first place, and what your symmetrical version is of whatever you don’t like about them. If you want intimacy, you must see that your partner is first and foremost, a mirror.
So in an intimate relationship, if one person feels abused or neglected, their responsibility is to investigate how the situation recapitulates their childhood in some way, use the opportunity to process their wounds, sift through their needs to discover which are healthy and which are codependent, and vulnerably advocate for the ones that are not projections. This process may require the help of a partner, and employing a partner’s help in this way in itself can build the bond. And that’s part of why we seek a partner in the first place, to learn about ourselves and grow through deeper connection with another.
Understanding this takes a little work. Embodying this is, as we used to say in Massachusetts, is “wicked hard.” It takes years.
The (uncomfortable) reality is that relationality is arrived at after countless fights, horrible stress, sleepless nights, and almost always requires help. The key is to remember that strong, flooding reactions that create a me versus you dynamic, including judgment, demands, rage, control, blaming, and/or the feeling of being victimized is evidence of a trigger-reaction that you cannot, in integrity, blame your partner for. And simply sharing this desire to get away from the me versus you mentality and stop playing the blame game offers an opportunity to relate and connect.
No matter what they “do to you,” if you’ve got a reaction, you’ve got something to work and are part of it. Whether you like it or not, your contribution is more than 0%.
Even if one partner has multiple affairs, you could say that (in content) the adulterer is 100% responsible for a rift in the relationship. But in context, the other partner would have to look at how and why they chose that partner, what they needed to learn from the underlying themes of betrayal, how they contributed to driving the person away to seek another, etc.
I myself have a long history of attracting betrayal. Eventually I discovered at age forty-seven, the reason was because my father was not my biological father. I was raised in a nice-looking-outside-but rotten-on-the-inside home where I learned that love and connection meant a dissonance between truth and presentation.
In adulthood, I unconsciously dead-ended the wound-based imprint of that version of love, by drawing betrayal. I needed to give my power away and feel the hurt that echoed all the way back to my childhood as a means to find my own healthy center and heal that buried, old wound so as not to repeat the painful yet familiar cycle.
That doesn’t make the betrayer’s actions okay, it just means I wasn’t a victim because it was part of my own learning path. Something in me chose those betrayal situations, after all! You could call it Divine intervention in the sense that God wants us to be free from our unhealthy conditioning, so presents us with situations that cause productive suffering as a means to clean house and make room for our soulful nature to come through.
This is an example of taking radical responsibility for the contents of one’s unconscious, which most of us are not trained to do. In fact, we’re trained to do the opposite: deny the machinations of our unconscious and blame evil, bad people, poor luck, or otherwise play victim.
In part three of this series, I’ll deconstruct coping skills and show how mainstream psychology isn’t actually about healing, but rather helping you to more functionally repress core emotion.