“I’m triggered. You’re triggered. She’s triggered.”
It’s prevalent right now in the world of personal development.
My partner, James, and I just spent a glorious week in the mountains of Colorado with Jeff Foster and Matt Licata at the “Falling In Love with Where You Are” meditation retreat – where, yes, we got triggered with each other a few times.
James spilled water on the dresser in the dark and made an attempt to clean it up but didn’t realize that he didn’t clean it all up. I found the mess later in the day and realized that it had leaked into the dresser and gotten a bunch of my stuff all wet.
I got triggered. My Little Girl made his mess mean that he acts like an irresponsible child, that I’m the only one conscious around here and I’m going to have to deal with his chaos my whole life. (Big story, huh?)
“Chaos” is key word here. I had a very chaotic childhood. Lots of drama (I grew up in a theatre family and the drama did not stop at the end of rehearsal each night). Lots screaming and fighting and alcohol. Very messy. After big blow outs my mom would often leave for long periods of time. So for me, or more particularly, for my Inner Child, messes and chaos can trigger the feeling for my Inner Child that it’s not safe, everything is going to fall apart and I’m going to be left alone to pick up the pieces. This trigger can show up in lots of cunning, baffling and powerful ways. This time it showed up as anger.
Later that day, I strongly disagreed with something that James said. He heard Jeff Foster say one thing. I heard it differently. Instead of just agreeing to disagree, we argued about it.
He got triggered. His Little Boy made it mean that I don’t respect him, that I was dismissing him, and that I’m a big hypocrite because I’ve complained about him dis-validating my reality in the past. He expressed his anger in the moment and my Little Girl got triggered again.
Our Inner Children were activated and we had the beautiful, uncomfortable opportunity to work with what came up for us. (I’ll share more about that in a minute).
Triggers usually feel totally irrational and they happen all the time to otherwise highly functional and loving people (that means all of us!)
Jeff Foster and Matt Licata focus on turning towards our triggers with gentleness and compassion, ending the exhausting aggression we constantly enact upon ourselves with negative self-talk, and learning to love and embrace ourselves in the present, exactly as we are. Their work deeply resonates in my heart and soul and feels like a beautiful deepening of the Inner Child and Shadow work I have been using in my own life and teaching for ten years.
Our triggers are the voice of our Inner Child, asking for our attention and love.
If we can stay present with them, they often become portals to freedom. Freedom to be all of who we are – not freedom from feeling uncomfortable feelings.
Here’s how it works. . .
When we were babies and little children, we felt pretty much everything – the full range of human feelings and sensations – totally unfiltered. Feelings would arise in response to life – joy, excitement, anger, sadness, terror, tingling, tightness, whirling, pounding, etc. – and we had no way of understanding or coping with any of it. Our little brains had simply not developed enough yet to be able to process what we were feeling.
Feelings and sensations are often uncomfortable and intense and so we naturally learned to move away from them. We repressed and denied feelings like anger, hatred, fear, sadness, shame, anxiety, depression, disappointment, confusion, numbness and overwhelm because our families and our culture did not accept them. We got the message early and often that if we felt those things we had failed somehow as human beings.
We got very good at disassociating from our bodies so we wouldn’t have to feel all those unacceptable feelings and risk rejection by our loved ones. And we learned how to manipulate, control and try to get other people to change so that we wouldn’t have feel whatever we were feeling.
But here’s the thing: all of that unresolved stuff from the past is still alive and well in our bodies.
Even though we got pretty good at not feeling those things in the moment as they were happening – our bodies and nervous systems actually stored all those feelings to be felt later when we could handle it.
So now, as adults, when something happens that remotely reminds us of the ways we have been hurt or disappointed or criticized or dismissed in the past, we get “triggered” – meaning those repressed and denied feelings from the past come up.
When we humans are triggered, the fight/flight/freeze function of our nervous system gets activated. This is because the mind thinks that we are about to get hurt again – and we will do anything we possibly can to avoid getting hurt. When triggered, we often unconsciously either start a fight, run away from intimacy and connection, or shut down and feel numb.
In any case, this is an exhausting way of dealing with life and enormously limits what we can experience.
When our uncomfortable feelings arise, we have an amazing opportunity to turn towards ourselves, to feel whatever is there, to allow the sensations to move through us, and to be a place of gentleness and compassion for ourselves.
When I got upset with James for spilling water on my stuff, and when he got upset with me for dis-validating his truth, my anger came up.
I don’t love feeling angry. It feels awful. And yet, there it was, pulsing through my body whether I liked it or not.
I’ll admit, at first I tried to not be angry. I tried to just get over it and move on. But my nervous system had already gotten triggered. So I went for a walk.
As I walked, a part of me was still trying to get rid of the anger, to work it out through exercise, make it go away. This did not work. At the same time, I was also trying to be with it, to feel it, it allow it to be there.
I was flipping back and forth between trying to allow it and trying to get rid of it. This is what we humans do.
Eventually I got to the top of a hill and I just stopped and breathed. I brought my awareness inside myself, right into the angry feelings and sensations pulsating through my torso. As I sat with it, I could see that this anger was much bigger than the spilling of the water and much bigger than James expressing his anger and frustration in the moment.
I began to see that I have anger stored up in me and that it has been there for a very long time.
It felt kind of adolescent, and kind of like a really young part of me, and kind of like an ancient anger from lifetimes ago – all at the same time. It wasn’t just one age of my Inner Child; it was every age I’ve ever been crying out to be heard and felt instead of shunned and shamed. I couldn’t say what it was about exactly. It felt more like a generalized rage about everything.
I felt ashamed of this anger. I felt angry with this anger.
I wanted to pin it to something, I wanted to say I’m angry because _________ (and to feel self-righteous about that, justified in my anger). I wanted it to go away. I wanted to not feel it. I wanted to not be an angry person. I wanted to be beyond anger. I’ve processed a lot of anger in the past. I didn’t want to do another round of anger work. I kept noticing how my mind kept shaming me for feeling it and trying to get rid of it at the same time. All the while, the anger sensations stayed.
That’s what our un-felt feelings do (and what our Inner Children do). They dig in their heels and refuse to go away until we turn towards them and become present to them.
At some point I committed to just feeling the sensations – not naming them, not trying to get rid of them, not shaming them – just feeling them. I turned towards my anger and said, “It’s okay anger. You can be here. You are here. I hear that you feel angry. I hear you. I feel you. I’m here with you.”
It was intense. The sensations expanded. I felt nauseous and a little dizzy and fierce. I didn’t like it necessarily. But as I felt the sensations, gradually, they metabolized, settled down, dissipated.
When we turn towards the feelings and sensations – raw, pulsating, uncomfortable and alive within our bodies – the sensations may intensify for a few breaths or a few minutes, but fairly quickly they change.
Sensations are not capable of staying the same because they are just energy moving around in the body.
Same thing is true of feelings. E-motions are energy in motion.
When I got back to the retreat center, I was able go to James and share what I’d just experienced. He’d been sitting with his stuff, too. We both still had some activation going on but we were able to be with it and take full responsibility for ourselves instead of blaming each other or trying to control each other. We shared about what had happened for each of us and we re-connected, which ultimately resulted in a really sweet evening together. ;~)
When we turn towards our triggers, we stop wasting our precious energy on repression, denial, self-shaming and exhausting attempts at control. Turning towards ourselves allows us to experience more intimacy, connection, fun, play and authentic self expression in our lives.
It’s a little counter-intuitive, this process of turning towards our triggers.
Of course, we don’t want to feel these things. Who wants to feel anger, hatred, fear, sadness, shame, depression, guilt?
Those feelings are generally so uncomfortable that we will do just about anything to not feel them. We distract ourselves, keep busy, eat, work, exercise, have sex, take pills, engage in social media, video games, you name it – anything but be present with those feelings.
In the end, none of it works.
Distractions might work for a few minutes or a few hours but keeping feelings at bay requires constant vigilance, and more and more of whatever substance or behavior we are using to repress and deny our true raw experience.
Uncomfortable feelings are part of the human condition. They arise in all of us and they want to be felt. Our triggers are like little children within us, asking for our love and attention.
These uncomfortable feelings are essentially our Inner Children saying, “Hey! I’m hurting. I’m afraid. I’m lonely. I’m confused. I’m sad. Please be with me.”
When our Inner Children feel heard, felt and accepted, something deep within us relaxes and it frees up tremendous creative energy. We begin to be able to share and connect and experience less need to push away or control our intimate partners, friends, parents and children. It’s a beautiful and life-giving practice.
The next time you notice you are triggered, see if you can ask yourself, “I wonder what I am experiencing right now?” (Instead of “What can I do to get rid of this feeling or get someone else to change so I can be more comfortable?”)
If you can turn towards yourself and just notice the sensations you are experiencing in your body with no interpretation, your trigger will most likely move through a lot more quickly.
I am deeply grateful to Jeff Foster and Matt Licata for sharing what they have discovered through this practice of turning towards ourselves.
I’d love to hear about what you notice as you turn towards your triggers. Please share on the Shaman’s Heart Sanctuary Facebook page about your discoveries and we can all support each other in turning towards ourselves. This work requires tremendous patience and gentleness with ourselves. And I find that having community to share it with really helps.
We will be exploring this tool and many others for embracing and loving all parts of your self at the Freeing Your Inner Child retreat, May 15-17. We have a few spaces available in that retreat so email me to schedule an interview if you feel like this work could really deepen your relationships and enrich your life. Early Bird discount if you register by April 24.
With love and gentleness,
Founder of Shaman’s Heart Sanctuary