There are few issues related to dialogue more annoying, more prone to misinterpretation, than interruptions. You’re happily sharing the latest and greatest from your mental repertoire, only to have it suddenly sidelined by a variable completely outside your control. It’s like that moment when walking down a city street, minding your own business, when an invisible crack in the concrete trips you up. Heart-racing, arms akimbo, head whipping around to see who saw, any shred of the thinking you were just engaged in shattered.
Art of the Conversation
Interruptions are a great way of showing what dialogue is largely about. Contrary to a common notion of it being an exchange of ideas, dialogue is far more concerned with the desire to be heard. If dialogue was really concerned with an exchange of ideas for the purpose of growing our knowledge-base, we’d be in a fight to see who could stay silent the longest. On the contrary, the struggle in dialogue is usually about who can say what more often, in the most witty, ear-catching way, particularly if it leads to the other person repeating what they just heard. This brings to mind the old advice we all got from our wise grandparents, that if God wanted us to talk more She’d have given us two mouths instead of two ears. Unfortunately, it’s more the case that we have two ears precisely because we want to make sure we hear ourselves talk.
We don’t share our opinions or behave the way we do without a bone-deep belief in the rightness of our actions. Having others acknowledge our words and actions, even at the cost of another person’s equanimity, is a small price to pay, in our eyes, for continued confirmation.
In short, the experience of being right is imperative for our survival, gratifying for our ego, and, overall, one of life’s cheapest and keenest satisfactions.Schulz, Kathryn. Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error (pp. 4-5). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
The Power of Being Heard
Interruptions serve another purpose as well: acknowledgment. They’re a tacit, and sometimes not so much, attempt by the person doing the interrupting that they consider themselves and what they have to say as at least as important as whatever the other person is doing. I hazard to guess that interruptions occur far more regularly from bosses to their subordinates and, in the case of children interrupting their parents, is about asserting their importance. The vast number of stories about bosses getting in the way of work and children getting in the way of parental social situations seems to bear this out, albeit anecdotally.
Some, reading the above, may believe that what is truly going on there is about power. However, acknowledgment doesn’t necessarily have to be about power, or at least not at its most basic level. Power requires a certain social structure to be played out. Instead, the focus here is more generally a concern of existential angst, or, in other words: the need to be seen.
We really, really, need to belong. It’s why there’s never a waking moment when we aren’t considering, at some mental level, who we are in relation to something, someone or some group. And at the heart of that need is a concern with our continued existence. This is why banishing or ostracism has been such a powerful tool for punishment and social control. We crave the continued acknowledgment of our social ties because being alone or cut off is a yawning abyss.
Seen in this light, interruption is a great indicator of one’s anxiety, connected to whatever relationship is currently being attended to. Rather than seeing it as some great social affront or pointing to a lack of care for the other, the broader concern for connection, being seen and knowing one belongs, can be acknowledged. Not every interruption points to a narcissistic pathology, sometimes, if not often, it’s simply about being human.
Featured photo by Asa Rodger on Unsplash
Our feelings are not very tidy when it comes to staying within the bounds of what makes us comfortable. What to do when feelings persist after the form of relationship they’re associated with has ended? Often we may feel elation when it is considered more proper to feel chagrin. At other times we will feel sad when socially it’s expected we should be happy. When it comes to matters of the heart, it is indeed those pesky feelings which seemingly lie to us and set us down paths of confusion.
Feelings are Selective
Let’s start with assuming love still exists after the ending of a relationship. Such an experience doesn’t require any particular behavior on your part. It’s a feeling, an assessment by you about the person, selecting particular parts of them and the history you had. Unless the time was an unmitigated disaster in which every moment was epically painful, there were then periods that were good and provided the means for there to be love.
Those times are what your mind is drawing on and from those memories, there is likely going to be feelings of loss. This is completely normal. Again though, this doesn’t require any particular behavior from you. Accept the feelings as part of being human, of acknowledging there were good times and you miss those. Call it love, call it whatever you want, but none of this requires anything out of you.
From: Return Of The Ex and Hope For Rebirth
“The loss is often so large, so ridiculously painful, not because the other person wasn’t worth it (though let’s face it, there really isn’t anybody worthy of invoking the feeling of soul-spasming pain felt by romantic loss) but because in a very real sense the world created by the connection was torn away. This isn’t poetic license, this touches upon attachment and how our minds work, giving us a bit of insight into why even after all the tears and sorrow there’s a part of us that leaps for joy at the possibility the ex may return.”
Feelings Have Many Stories
This is why labeling our emotions as ‘positive’ and ‘negative,’ ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ is so unhelpful, it’s an attempt at making the nuanced, the complex, into a simple subtraction problem. Surely, so the thinking goes, without x-person in my life, we can subtract any associated y-emotions. Life doesn’t work that way however. Just as the initial attraction and shared experience drew on individual histories, social context and future desires, so then any emotional experience that comes after will draw on the same. That there will overlap to some degree allows for our internal stories to have coherence, but it also provides the space to make connections we don’t have to hold onto.
Our thoughts/emotions are not the sum total of who we are. Nor do they guide all of our behavior, not in any one-to-one sense. Spend a moment considering just how many thoughts/feelings you have that you don’t act upon or don’t do so in a particular way. You’ll quickly see that your life is far larger than any simple causal relationship between thought/feeling and action.
Relationships change/end for any number of reasons, from the obvious to the subtle, from the clear to the obscure. Very rarely is it because there was absolutely nothing good going on. Welcome to humanity, where the breadth of our relationship potential is as wide as there are people to connect with. Embrace the feelings, during and after, just know that what you do with them is up to you and the story you have about them is only partly about the person your attention is currently on.
There’s a sense of empowerment in describing a personal experience as unique, special or otherwise different than anybody else’s. In particular when it comes to difficulty, a unique status builds a space for dismissing the wisdom of others and provides the ground for accepting its potential insurmountable quality. How often have we heard someone, when confronted by clear objective advice, say: “yes, but my situation is different”?
Certainly each situation, difficult or easy, is different in the sense of being built out of the particular variables in your life. However, at the level of principle, at the level of usable and workable life-skills, the differences are far outweighed by the similarities of both being human and living in a generally homogenous society.
People are Unique, Relationship Skills are Not
Which brings us to how particular forms of relationship are somehow intrinsically different than other forms. As a starting place, let’s consider ‘relationship’ as any form of interaction between two or more people and/or objects. The qualities that change are the depth of the connection and the extent of the effects. Because of those changes we apply different labels and judgments as to their meaning and importance.
Let’s be clear: you have as much of a relationship, at this base level, with the chair you’re sitting on as you do with the person you’re having sex with. If you don’t believe me, imagine that chair suddenly disappearing and you having an immediate intimate connection between your backside and the hard floor beneath you. Yes there was a relationship involved and just because you took it for granted doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. In fact, that very lack of awareness is often at the heart of so many difficulties in any form of relationship.
Monogamy vs Polyamory
With this understanding of ‘relationship’ in mind, we can look at two general labels or forms of relationship: monogamy and polyamory. Broadly speaking, the difference between the two is the latter allows for, if not is always engaged with, more than one sexual partner, usually with the intention of doing so within an agreed-upon level of commitment. That latter point of commitment distinguishes polyamory from, say, swinging. Honestly, there are numerous ways of looking at this and the point isn’t to get bogged down in minutiae.
Below, you’ll see a Venn diagram of “Relationship Problems” within monogamy and polyamory. This is not supposed to be indicative of how everyone views the differences, it’s just an example, albeit one with a list that seems to be offered up quite regularly.
Relationship Problems = Being Human
Let’s get the conclusion being offered here, contrary to the diagram, out of the way: there is simply no relationship problem that is different in kind between any form of relationship. The differences are always the particular variables involved, not some issue uniquely found within a particular relationship form. Further, the skills needed to address problems are generalizable across all the forms.
All of the problems here indicated are quite possible in any relationship between two or more consenting human beings. What the form of relationship will change is the quantity of the type of problem being dealt with and differences in the, hopefully discussed, agreements made between those involved.
Take for instance ‘hierarchy,’ a problem that supposedly only exists in polyamory. The complaints that “he’s married to his job” or “I’m a gamer widow” come to mind and those are just two. The inevitability of making choices concerning the priorities of interests is not solely the purview of a particular relationship form. The type of choices available will change, but that’s true of every relationship.
Unfortunately, there are any number of people in monogamous relationships who believe they’ll never have a problem with their partner loving someone else more or having to deal with being a priority.
On the other side, take “wanting to be intimate with other people.” To say this isn’t a problem within polyamory is to offer an idealized form rather than any practical reality. One of the stereotypes often encountered by people who label themselves polyamorous is the assumption they want to have sex with any and everyone. Not only is this not true, but typically the desire, when it does arise, is not immediately acted on without concern or discussion with the others involved. In that sense, the desire (a profoundly human emotional inevitability) is a problem, it’s just being handled differently and, hopefully, with a lot less melodrama.
Unfortunately, there are any number of people in polyamorous relationships who think they’ll never have to worry about being bored, or being concerned about whether they or one of their partners is getting too close to someone else.
What a Different Form Can Help With
The issue here is one of exclusivity, a belief that a form of relational connection cuts you off from potential struggles of being human. The problem with a hyper-focus on differences in relationship forms is two-fold:
One: there is much wisdom to be found from people engaging in different forms that can be of immense use in whatever form you’re currently involved in and…
Two: believing the form of relationship you’re in excludes you from having particular problems will result in being blindsided when they do happen.
What a look at different forms can give us is an appreciation for the vast potential in human connectivity. It is truly beautiful and wisdom is found in seeing how different forms deal with problems that arise. There are undoubtedly numerous behaviors that can be used in your form of relationship without compromising the agreements you have with your partner(s). Taking a look can be part of any journey you’re on with whoever is with you.
Triggers are a fascinating part of our humanity. Mentally, a trigger is a perception inspiring an emotional and cognitive assessment. Externally, triggers are any act or situation that provokes a perception. Importantly, what we perceive never holds the entirety of a situation. We only see what fits within our worldview. From this, a trigger is as common as the air we breath and the blood coursing through our veins. Unfortunately, because our minds evolved to be more wary of potential suffering rather than pursuing potential enjoyment, triggers get associated with what leads to heartache and uncertainty. A great deal of difficulty results because we do not separate our perception from the event itself, believing that what we see is all there is.
Down the Rabbit-Hole
Our stories or personal narratives provide the structure for our perception. They guide which parts of a situation are selected to support a particular trigger’s continued empowerment. Combine this with the human need to feel each and every opinion is right and the result is an enormous barrier to individual change. Ruminating, spiraling or obsession are only excessive forms of actions we all do. An event happens, we’re triggered, the story we have about it reinforces our response and that behavior inevitably supports the whole process. We simply don’t act unless doing so supports our narrative about the situation we’re in.
A result of focusing so strongly on negative assessments from triggers is moving away from self-reflection. The external object, whether event or person, bears the burden of responsibility. Lost is the other side of the relationship, that of the person doing the assessment.
Pushing Away Suffering
Pain is inevitable, suffering is the product of recurring focus. To get rid of pain is a fool’s errand, but suffering can be mitigated when we see our own role in its perpetuation. When triggers are viewed as inherently negative and we cease questioning our role in the perceiving end of the relationship of suffering, the result is an abdication of any responsibility. The other person holds all the cards, they possess all the power. Everything they do carries with it an inevitable connection to our hurt and limitation of self.
In an attempt at turning the table, the other person ceases being a person in their own right. Gone is any attempt at understanding the nuances of decision-making. Absent is any consideration of enlarging one’s own view of the situation. Instead, responses are automated and centered on demanding dismissal of the perceived offensive act. Further, anything contributing to the negative trigger must be removed. This, regardless of any functionality or worth the action of the other may have.
This isn’t an excuse for horrible behavior. This recognizes the varied relationship between an act and our reaction to it. When the perception of the hurt person is all that matters, simply by virtue of their suffering, there is no room for personal growth. It’s easy to look at verbal abuse and say the reactions of the person its directed at should matter. What about when it’s not abuse? What happens when it’s another person’s success or achievement?
Removing the Positive
A person who strives to better themselves is not concerned with the perceived grievances of others. Nor should they be. Engaging in exercise and losing weight to contribute to a greater self-image is not a knock against those struggling with eating disorders. Working hard to achieve business success is not a mockery of those who are poor and disenfranchised. Simply having been born in a family with greater access to societal resources is not an inherent slight against those who weren’t.
An exclusive focus on being negatively triggered by looking at success and achievement diminishes the legitimacy of any work that went into those results. Further, it closes us off to a more nuanced look at the systems in place which facilitated personal progress.
Moving from Value
We can maintain or regain a sense of empowerment without dismissing or belittling what another person has done. This involves turning back to the other player in this drama, your own self. Nobody gets upset about something they lack concern about. Flipped on its head, we only get triggered over the perception of things we care about. Here is where strength can be found:
- Identify the core Value being violated (or supported).
- Reflect on why this Value is important to you.
- Assess whether what the other person has done takes away what you Value.
The easy answer to that last question is: it doesn’t. What the other person did is far less important than you being a person who Values what is important to you. Further, by reminding yourself of what’s important, the space is open to search out what may be learned from the other person’s successes. You may not want your life to look completely like theirs, but there are many ways to express an appreciation for what you Value.
If you’re finding yourself faced with difficult emotional reactions and want to live a freer, more expressive life, I can work with you to achieve that goal. Check out Counseling or Coaching.
For further exploration, check out the podcast episode covering triggers: Our Humanity Is Being Triggered
Popular sayings and cliches abound. Songs are written as odes to and diatribes against. Lives are made and destroyed in its embrace. The forms it takes are at the center of social debate and religious theological musings. The nature of love guides, shapes, cajoles and inspires a host of behavior. Yet rarely does any of it bring us closer to an understanding of just what it is. Like referring to sleep as that thing we do when we’re not awake, noting the behavior inspired by love gives us much to discuss, but seeing any commonality is a bit more difficult.
What makes the situation even more compellingly frustrating is there exists no commonly understood definition of emotion either. With this in mind we can turn to a discussion of emotion by Daniel Siegel as it relates to attachment in his book The Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology. For Siegel, emotion serves the purpose of linking differentiated, or separated, parts. As in psychology with the linking of child to caregiver, or the sociological linking of individual to group, emotion is the process of binding these disparate and differentiated parts into a coherent whole. How this is applied to love as a particular manifestation of emotional energy is where we turn to next.
Love Binds What Is Thought Separate
When we love we are not simply noting the casting outward of a feeling but acknowledging a recognition of union amongst differentiation. What love is, is a counter to disillusionment, the opposite of dissociation, the cure to ennui and it knows only expansion. When we see union as the fundamental ground of our being-ness, love provides a space for certain behavior to emerge from it. Life-giving and respectful, cherishing that which helps life expand and progress. Differences become variations of unity rather than held up to show separation. When loving another it is within this unity, a conscious recognition of an interconnected existence. We celebrate in all their nuances the person in front of us just as we celebrate those around us and she or he who stares back in a mirror.
I have loved many people, just as I am quite certain those reading this have loved many as well. I love my family, I love my friends and lover, those who are no longer in my life and those who are merely tangentially connected to it. I love the song I Won’t Give Up by Jason Mraz and how when the subject of the song is shifted from a singular person in front of you to humanity as a whole there is only an expansion of meaning rather than confusion, a quickening desire to not give up even as the skies get rough, to make a difference and not to break or burn, learning to bend and acknowledge who each of us is and what each of us isn’t and who I am even in the midst of it all.
All of this, all of these manifestations of love are encapsulated within a singular term and yet at no time is there a flatland of feeling, a singularity to how such a feeling of love is to be felt. There is instead an allowance for gradations, for nuance and depth. Love is joyful exuberance within the process of this celebration, bound with the threads of our relational reality. We hold that space and by doing so find that love brings peace, a commitment to growing understanding and an expansion of life’s expression.
Further explore this topic through the podcast episode “What’s Love Got To Do With It“
Emily Dickinson wrote: “Anger as soon as fed is dead – ‘Tis starving makes it fat.” In these days of political polarization and the dissolution of relationships based on singular points of difference, it seems on the face of it that anger is quite glutted. On the opposite side of the self-reflective spectrum, anger is looked upon as being wrong or an indication of personal failure. Statements like “I lost control of my anger” or “I was overwhelmed,” are common. For both the path of gluttony and the path of scarcity, the unhelpful assumption is a lack of separation between the emotion of anger and the actions it is seen to support.
Take A Breath: Anger is Ok
Last time I looked in the mirror, talked with friends and relatives, and people-watched through office windows and passing vehicles, I noticed we’re still all human. Remembering that means recognizing we’re all in this world attempting to live lives of meaning and purpose, while doing so in as consistent a way as any of us know how. The initial step on this journey is identifying what’s important to us in any given moment. The means of doing so is the automatic system of emotional valuation.
What our emotional system does is remind us both of our shared humanity and our care for how that humanity shows up in action. Certainly there are variations of depth in our caring, with some situations or moments standing out more than others and at different times changing in intensity and focus. This is due to the way our minds frame our experiences, consider it like the lines on a connect-the-dots puzzle. What we’re concerned with here though are the dots, or immediate emotional judgments.
This immediacy and inherent humanity of our emotional valuing is why, looked at alone, there’s nothing wrong with anger or any other emotion. They just are. You or anyone else is not broken or damaged goods because you get upset about an action or experience. This can be difficult to accept because we’re so quick to connect our feelings with particular behavior, but this fusion does not have to limit our self-reflection, it does not have to lead to condemning our capacity to care about our lives and the world around us.
Take A Breath: Anger Is Not All You Are
The immediate danger of looking at anger as bound to particular behavior is how easily it then becomes to define the whole of who you are by a single internal reaction. I’ve lost count the number of times someone has said “I’m just an angry person.” When caught up in the moment, when not pausing to reflect, when not taking a breath and remembering the width and depth of our humanity, this statement makes a certain intuitive sense. Sadly, it sets the stage for seeing only those times we’ve acted in ways outside of the best versions of ourselves. It removes the branches of our individual life-trees and leaves only a long stump of bitterness and regret.
Pausing to take a breath is the first step towards mindfully reflecting on ourselves as whole people, possessed of many thoughts, emotions and a near-infinite potential for behavior. Doing so can be done by following basic instructions:
- Identify the feeling and say it out loud or to yourself, using the affirmation: “I’m feeling angry (or any other emotion) and I’m ok.”
- If able and safe to do so, close your eyes and take a breath, holding it for a brief moment and then letting it go
- Repeat step 1 and 2 while noting all the other thoughts clambering for attention as they speed by your awareness
- When caught up in one or more of those thoughts and emotions, calmly bring yourself back to a focus on the breath and the affirmation
- With each breath, be aware of how you are observing these thoughts and emotions but are not bound to them, for they pass you by and you remain
Take A Breath: Release
Pausing before further action does not mean you no longer care about what triggered you. Breathing is not a replacement for engaging in an effort to change what is considered unhealthy or a violation. There is the world and there is the way we hope the world, or even just our little part of it, would be. Being angry is a reminder of that hope. What mindful reflection provides us is the space to release our automatic or habitual behaviors and explore ways to engage that reflect the best versions of ourselves.
If you are wanting help in this journey of releasing yourself into a greater appreciation of who you are and what you are capable of doing, please contact me for therapy or coaching.
Of particular difficulty in a world of constant social media presence and information overload is how areas of life bleed into one another. We carry with us the news, analysis and opinions of those around us and the globe in the palm of our hand. Each tweet, news headline and status update pulls associations from within us every moment of the day. Separate personal life from work? Not when every drama and emotionally-laden piece of the lives we connect with are popping up on screen after screen. Focus on just one person? Not when we’re over-saturated with the need to form quick opinions on everything from someone’s dinner to geo-politics.
This isn’t a call to limit technology, the reality of our world is a digitally connected one and comes with a great many advantages. Rather, it’s a recognition that in an informational age we rarely stop to consider how our minds are attempting to work within it. Our brains have not evolved in the past 50 years as we’ve gone from newspapers and church gossip to 24-hour news cycles and pop-up filters. The same mechanisms of association and narrative construction continue to operate.
Picture the process of association as the building blocks of narrative construction. Pieces of experience are linked together to form a whole picture, a narrative, that helps us select our behavioral responses. This way of ordering chaos allows for a nearly unlimited number of variations in our personal story-telling. The areas of our lives, work and personal, are short-hand for a collection of those narratives. They are not hard and fast boundaries, however, think of sponges instead of brick walls.
The permeability of the areas of our life means any attempt at completely avoiding spill-over is not only impossible, but fundamentally contrary to our human nature. A study on how the practice of therapy changes the therapist offers a path for consideration:
Instead, the researchers describe how clinicians “acquired a capacity to exist in parallel realities, and that one of the ways in which they accomplished this was to co-construct, with others in their lives, a set of practices that enabled them comfortably to move across contexts, such as the shift between work and home.” (Shannon Peters)
This “set of practices” is behavior set up to remind us of where we are currently at and avoiding behaviors that sends our mind elsewhere. It is based on the notion of our lives as whole creatures who just so happen to have various areas of focus. These areas shift in importance based on social context and since context is set up in part through intentionality, we therefore have the ability to direct attention to what we feel to be important or Value.
Figuring out how to direct one’s attention is about exploring social context:
What building or space are you currently in? Which Values are most important to you in that space? Is the space set up to do the work that’s supposed to occur there? Do you find yourself getting bored and wanting more/different stimulation? Are there means of alleviating that feeling in line with the Values associated with the space?
What form of connection do you typically engage in within that space? Are you keeping in mind those Values the structure supports when you’re in communication? If you find yourself being bored and in need of distraction, what is it about what you’re currently engaged in that is drawing you to disconnect?
If we begin with what is in disarray or start with the area itself, we create artificial boundaries within the central whole of who we are. These questions are based on a grounding within personal Valuation, or what is important to you. From that ground it becomes possible to direct attention and guide the internal mental associations that serve to create a narrative. This then guides the selection of behavior for the purpose of making an area of your life functional and fulfilling, a reflection of the whole of you, not just a part.
© David Teachout
The Effects of Practicing Psychotherapy on Therapists’ Personal Lives. Mad in America: Science, Psychiatry and Social Justice.
“Fierce Conversations” by Susan Scott
The future contains the present that the past was preparing for. Consider that for a moment. For all the time and resources spent preparing for a potential future, it will never be more than what was possible in the present. For all our lamentations and considerations about the past, it held within it the potential of the present we’re experiencing. The past and future are indelibly connected to what the present holds or becomes, yet we typically spend more time considering either than being thankful for the moment we currently reside in.
Bring to mind driving and, if that doesn’t have too many anxious associations, remember a time when you suddenly ‘woke up’ and realized several miles had gone by without full conscious awareness. Whether it was a focus on what was coming, that meeting or event, or what had happened previously, a missed opportunity or action unfulfilled, the present in which all that thinking was occurring slipped on by without your noticing. What sights were missed? Who passed us by? What dangers did we ignore? An entire section of life, a whole area of living, passed in a blur of contemplating everything but what was happening right in front of us.
Without a clear sense of where we currently are, what shape our life is in, it is profoundly difficult to engage in that nourishing practice called gratitude. Rather than simply a declaration said over the dinner table or engaged in on Thanksgiving, gratitude can be a lifelong practice reminding us to not lose sight of what’s directly around us.
The past is a recall of events seen through the lens of our current situation, removing us from contemplating what we already have. The future is a projection of our current hopes and concerns, removing us from consideration of our current situation. Both cast our vision away from the grounded reality of our current relational self, the very narrative that holds the potential to travel these roads in different ways. Think of turning a telescope to look upon a night sky, it is precisely where the lens or present is located that will determine what is seen through the other end. If we forget how powerful the present is, we may never shift our imagination to contemplate the rest of the sky above.
To start with gratitude is to begin with Value, the identification of what we hold to be important. It is to recognize our capacity to care, to connect, to hold the strings of our relational lives in our mind’s eye. To pause in that relational present, to refrain for just a moment from losing ourselves in the past or future, is to hold the now and everything it contains. That now provides all manner of lessons to be learned from what has come before and a growing list of potential outcomes out of what has yet to happen. It is precisely within the universal human process of Value-ing that gratitude springs eternal.
Emotions are the jam in the scones of our life. Slathered in-between the bread of thought and circumstance (or triggers), our emotions are the sticky deliciousness that holds everything together. Granted, they may not be held together all that well and you may very well get a tad messy during the eating or living, but at no point do emotions disappear or become anything less than the powerful bond that keeps us moving in life.
Unfortunately for emotions, they seem to have a rather poor PR budget. Slandered as being unhelpful in such statements as “I was too emotional” or “my emotions got away from me,” the emotional system of our life is often sought after to be diminished, controlled or done away with completely. The notion of “cold rationality” is unhelpful as it in no way pertains to the reality of how our brains work, but the fact that such a phrase is associated with clearer thinking should point to how emotions are often considered: burning fires waiting to singe the unwary.
Our emotional system is the immediate first light shining upon that which we care about. A common way of considering this is to use the word “triggered.” While the term has taken on a great many meanings in this time of identity politics and a hyper-awareness of social power dynamics, the idea of a switch being flipped by circumstance is fairly accurate. Our emotional system has to be fast, near instantaneous, because it provides the direction for our thoughts. Emotions declare with the subtlety of breaking waves upon a beach and the blaring of trumpets that we care about something, that what we are faced with has important meaning to us.
Notice here, emotions do not have an appraisal structure beyond “hey, look here! This is important!” Emotions and therefore the response called “trigger” is not something to judge in itself, they exist on a spectrum as wide as people’s capacity to associate meaning to events and things. If you care about something then you will be triggered because that is what emotions do, they react, instantly and constantly.
What provides the meaning, the structure shaping the contours for emotion to flesh out, is the worldview of the person. Unfortunately in the attempt at attacking “triggers,” we are conflating worldviews and their associated thoughts and collected meanings from a lifetime of experience, with the initial emotional reaction. The result is a dismissal not merely of the emotional response, as if emotions are unhelpful pieces of our lives that should find their proper place, but also of the depth and breadth of meaning that indicates why the event or object or person was important.
We will only stop being triggered when we cease to care about anything, a situation I hope never to see happen. We will only stop providing a structure of meaning for emotion when we cease feeling connected to the world around us, a result all too many are feeling pressured to achieve as their meaning is lumped together with their initial response and thrown out together. Reminding ourselves that there are two separate responses going on, an emotional trigger and the cognitive structure providing meaning, can help reclaim emotions as an important part of our lives and point us to a place where dialogue can develop.
© David Teachout
For more on Relational-ACT, the therapeutic theory behind the services of Life Weavings, check out it’s own page and you can search under the Growing Connections category.