It wasn’t in the exact words you see in the title, but it was nonetheless a mind-bending day for me when I first encountered this idea. Even considering that it was my untrained self, it would never have crossed my mind that my own sh!t is behind my personal triggers.
“It’s not my fault! X was the one who MADE me upset first.”
“I couldn’t help it. Look at X – isn’t it upsetting?”
While it is perfectly human to have our thoughts and emotions be influenced by events, we need to be aware that people and their actions do not have a specific, inherent quality called ‘meaning’.
Meaning is supplied by the observer. And meaning is formed from the observer’s life experience. Each one of us observers have our own hurts and traumas, ranging in severity. These hurts and traumas influence the way we think and act as much as our positive experiences do.
So if the voice in my head says, X makes me upset, what my mind really means is, X calls up an upsetting emotion for me. What is of interest here is what meaning I put on X, that calls up an upsetting emotion for me? And how do I end up attaching this meaning to X?
X might remind me of something from my past that was unresolved. It could have been an event that left me feeling angered, fearful or sad. It could have happened just the day before, or 10 years ago, but what’s likely is that there was no satisfying closure for me. And now, X comes along and I spot the similarities in some way. My mind calls up my PAST experience in the PRESENT and thus I am ‘triggered’.
Having such awareness typically helps us to minimise suffering for ourselves and others, particularly if X was a person. Being able to separate the Observer (us), the Object (X) and the Assessment (us deeming X as upsetting) allows us to space to process the data and make decisions that are more useful rather than regretful.
Self-work involves arriving at such awareness in the first place, and then training this awareness-muscle through practice, so that it comes up automatically in moments of triggers. Such work is possible through very rigorous self-reflection, or made easier with the support of a coach or counsellor. In fact, this describes all my clients – they are healthy, creative people who are capable of self-work and overcoming their challenges. My role is simply to help them reach their goals more quickly, and with less suffering.
However, for intense cases where trauma is getting in the way of normal daily life, the help of a specialised therapist might be needed as the first step to self-work.
As an aside in closing, it should also be noted that triggers do not happen only in the mind. The body records just as much, if not more information from past experiences. Speak to trauma experts and you will likely hear about the mind-body connection, and how the body can ‘snap’ back into postures that it was holding during moments of extremely intense experience. In my work as an ontological practitioner, I spot such ‘patterns’ in the body of my clients when they recall past experiences; certain facial expressions, tone of voice, movements or postures are consistent with what they recall and speak about. It is a rich source of feedback and a useful tool which has served my clients again and again.
What aspect of your self-work are you most conscious of at this moment? What kind of support would be useful to you? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!