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
In the movie “Cast Away,” Tom Hanks portrays a character who, upon being stranded on an island for several years, forms a deep relationship with a volleyball. The depth of this connection is hugely disproportional to the objective nature of the object in question. A volleyball is quite incapable of interactive communication, however strong a desire exists during a game to be able to do so. Despite this fact of reality, Hanks’s character draws a face on the ball and proceeds to converse with it, forming a bond that, when the ball is lost at sea, results in profound emotional pain. Whatever can be said about this Hollywood depiction of human psychology, the need to have relationship bonds is something we all share due to our inalienable humanity. Further, that need can and will, when unfulfilled, push us to project a connection that exists only in our imagination, even to our detriment.
Research out of Dartmouth College, published in Psychological Science, notes that a belief in loneliness or isolation lowers the threshold at which people declare the presence of animation or humanity in slowly morphing facial images. Confronted with the same progressively morphing images, those who believed they possessed secure attachments required far more human features in the morphing images before declaring they were alive. The alarming part of this was that typically people are far more cautious when declaring the existence of a face being animate or alive. The strength of this finding is that regardless of the people’s real-life relational world, the mere projected belief that such was absent caused this caution to diminish. This says a great deal about how powerful the stories we tell shape our perceptions.
What is not explored are the ramifications for negatively impacting the ability to discern the existence of empathy in others. Empathy is the felt feel of another’s experience. It is the grounding, combined with imagination, of the ability to be conscientious of another’s suffering and react accordingly. Generally speaking, the existence of empathy is negatively associated with behavior that is harmful or negatively impacts another. Further, empathy and its accompanying imaginative component combine to create a resonance or atunement within a relational context. Not being able to sense the depth of someone’s empathy can lead to catastrophic results including abuse, neglect and falsely associating a positive feel to a relationship form that is anything but.
The Relational Principles of RDIIT (Relational Dynamics In Identity) I’ve developed, help in broadening the understanding of human relational reality. In this case, the two Principles concern the subjective nature of perspective and how relationship is the foundation of our existence. Put together, these lead to a recognition that our relationships form out of the contextual nature of the stories we embody. From this, the practical result in everyday living is that our relationships are only as honest, open and beneficial as the breadth of our stories allows. At face value this may not seem all that big of a deal, but when relationship is considered as the foundation of our existence the ripple effects are indeed enormous. There is never a moment in our lives that we are not in relationship to something or someone. While it is socially acceptable, even mandated at times, to speak of relationship as only pertaining to the romantic and/or sexual, the fact remains that as a general term for a connection between two objects, we are always in relationship. All that changes is the form such takes.
Back to the Research
Regardless of objective reality, the mere projected story of loneliness or lack of emotional attachment leads people to see human-ness in faces where few real characteristics are actually present. When it comes to judging empathy, when it comes to determining the safety or care that another person is giving, the accuracy of such judgment becomes less and less as we do so from a place of loss or lack. The question of “how did I not see it?” in relation to abuse, neglect, or the myriad iniquities that occur in our relational lives is here answered. We don’t see it because of the story we are living from within.
Caveats are plenty of course, notably that our personal stories are not the only variable involved when it comes to falling for unhealthy relationship forms. That there are many aspects of any context is simply a part of living, but with each variable being better understood we become better at constructing the lives that lead to growth and expansion of our selves. The rush of a new relationship bond is certainly not helpful in allowing the cool quality of rationality to intrude, but by reminding ourselves of the reality of our relational existence and the power of our stories, we can begin being more careful in our decision-making when dwelling in narratives that lead us astray.
Faces Are More Likely to Seem Alive When We Want to Feel Connected
There comes a point in life, indeed many points if one is dedicated to constant reflection, where what was once thought no longer seems quite as neat and tidy. Front and center for me now is the oft-repeated notion people use for making decisions, dedicated as they are to the continued existence of a particular connection and thus guide their life “for the sake of the relationship.” A healthy skepticism easily emerges from seeing far too many examples of people making decisions to continue with a relationship that has long since become destructive, and yet the practice continues. What I want to note here is that this continuation has less to do with people not being cognizant of what they’re doing and more on the inevitability of any decisions occurring within a relational matrix. The problem with this statement is not that people make decisions for relationships, it’s rather that they believe it’s an act of one ball, in this case the “I” making a decision to effect another ball, the “relationship,” but the reality is there was a relational existence already there.
The negative quality of making decisions “for the sake of the relationship” is a decision-making model that places all other considerations below that of a particular relationship, usually romantic. This model is often cited, usually unconsciously, whenever someone notes to a friend or themselves that they “did it to save the relationship” or “I’ve put so much work into it to give up now.” Just what “it” is, is as varied as there are forms of relationships. Giving up personal goals, decisions, hobbies, or anything that at one time felt like an important piece of identity, is often what “it” ends up being, placing on hold desires and goals for the sake of pursuing the current emotional connection.
Who among us hasn’t either said or heard someone declare “yes, well, I wanted to do it but I decided not to in order to focus on us.” Notice though that what is occurring is a behavior predicated upon the notion there exists an “I” which somehow rests in a space absent of mitigating variables who then decides to selectively choose to participate in a relationship such that personal desires are replaced with those of the relationship.
Truly this is a potentially negative situation to create and is the root cause of a great many people’s willingness to continue in connections that are no longer healthy. However, focusing on this decision model is not helpful in the attempt to change that influence because it isn’t real. There is no “I” deciding to engage in a relationship, there was always a relationship.
Try for a moment to think of yourself lacking in connection to anything or anyone. When this inevitably fails, try to imagine an aspect of your self that isn’t immediately connected to a situation, experience or person. Note that even if you decide to consider yourself in empty space, you’re still defining your existence in light of that space. Gautama, the first Buddha, noted that the self, while not exactly non-existent, was not the monolithic thing western philosophers were so enamored of. It was, in fact, merely one stream in a multitude of narratives, at times being ridden more often than others, but still only one among many. The truth of this insight can be found in any of those moments where upon reflection it is noted “that wasn’t me doing that” or “I can’t believe I would do that” or “where did that behavior come from?” We’ve all had those times and usually brush them off as aberrations from the central story we have ourselves, rationalizing such behavior away in light of extreme circumstances, lack of sleep, or in some cases even demonic possession.
Unless we wish to delve into bodily possession, which even at face value seems more self-serving than a real explanation, the hard truth is that in those situations there is nobody but us participating in the behavior. From this understanding can only come the conclusion that there exists any number of potential behaviors that, while not common, are still capable of being fulfilled with these bodies we, with childlike innocence, think we control more than we do.
Relationships, of any form though the romantic type gets most of the press, are the means by which these varying narratives, both the ones that are the “true me” and the aberrations, are instantiated. Daniel Siegel, in his work on interpersonal neurobiology, posits a triune understanding of the human person: the brain, the mind, and relationships. Neither of the three are subservient to the others and the triangular connection formed neither indicates a tempestuous union like Freud’s theory of the self nor does it point to a situation where one can be studied without referring to the others. The mind here is not a disembodied thing, but a descriptive term referring to the energy and information flow that is at the heart of all connections. Relationships then are the relational process of energy and information flow whereby two or more physically instantiated beings connect in a reciprocal matrix. Change is inevitable as is a relational dynamic at the heart of who we are as individuals. The centralizing concept of “I” is here no longer an existent thing in its own right but merely a pointer, a lexical device noting the presence of a particular narrative taking center stage.
We act and wonder at times where our behavior comes from, the arm-chair inner psychologist ruefully reminding us of how Mom or Dad did the exact same thing. We see one who we love in front of us as we engage in an activity otherwise never considered and reconcile the anxiety by dwelling within the connection or in other words “for the sake of the relationship.” Relationships, whether the initial attachments formed during childhood, or the adult attachments later based on them, provide avenues for energy and information flow and therefore the expression of ourselves. Some of those trails are similar to what has come before, some are grand diversions from where we thought we were going. However, none of them are happening as different streams we jump into but as the very means we live our life.
“We are like the company we keep,” is more than just philosophical observance or parental admonishment, it is the central fact of our lives. While there is certainly still much to be said about ignoring once cherished ethical concerns or ideological positions when in the service of maintaining a relationship, we would do well to remember that who we are requires relationships to be known. There is much we are capable of doing of which we are unaware simply because a relational dynamic has yet to emerge which would allow the space for that particular behavior to manifest.
When making decisions for the sake of a relationship, it is important to recognize that you were never not in a relationship, thus any decisions made are contextually shaped not only in their result but in the very reasoning that goes into deciding what to do.
© David Teachout
Cellphones, GPS units, the ubiquity of cameras, phone applications that can track where people at to near pinpoint accuracy. These are merely the personal technologies that the general populace has to expand an already over-burdened anxious mind with more information than it can take. When considerations are made concerning this type of technology at the national stage and how we are inundated with analysis of its meaning for our rights and privileges, with spy satellites, street cameras, and drones, there has come to exist a mentality that everyone is and should be watched, monitored and minutely considered in their every action. This social spy-state of affairs insinuates itself into our consciousness and finds itself manifesting in individual relationships, both friendly and romantic, such that trust is no longer an issue of identity but a contingent commodity that begins at a loss and rarely rises to a positive.
Trust is an elusive and amazing feature of relationships, often mistaken for being given only in the retrospect when it has been broken. By that I mean it is rare for someone to declare “I give you my trust” at the beginning of a relationship, but quite more often is heard “I trusted you and you betrayed me” or some facsimile. We’ve all been there, including myself, and I have written before on apologies (The Soft Tyranny of I’m Sorry) and forgiveness (The Inner Projection Of Forgiveness). Rather than delving into those topics at this time, I want to get further into the mindset of wariness that so permeates our human interactions. Trust seems an issue of identity, we implicitly trust or endorse the honesty of the individual in front of us unless painfully obvious clues lead us to think otherwise, accepting at the very least on trust that the words issuing from their lips mean a particular thing or reference similar thoughts that we ourselves carry.
Trust at this basic level is so pervasive that we rarely give it a conscious thought, leading as I noted a few sentences previously that it is often only in retrospect we realize we’ve gone and trusted. This basic trust is the backbone of all interactions, without it we’d get nothing done or at minimum our communication would devolve into such pedantic utterances we’d never make any progress in conversation. This backbone however is not without some spots of concern.
Those points of concern are precisely what is brought out, danced about and peddled, often for monetary gain, by fear-mongering individuals, organizations and news networks. Shark attacks rarely happen and yet “Shark Week” in the United States is one of the most watched orgies of vicarious thrills on television. Despite abuse and kidnapping occurring far more often by relatives than by strangers (and frankly even these numbers are abysmally low given the sheer number of children out there), playgrounds and grass yards in front of houses are no longer places of enjoyment but anxiety-ridden geographic locations of predatory menace. Fueled by ignorance as to just what sex offenses often are or the context of their occurrence (not at all minimizing the very real horror of the crimes committed under this category), potential dates are looked up on national sex-crime databases open to the public or if you’re really wanting to give yourself a scare you can simply see if one is located near your house, never mind how long they’ve been living there without any difficulty at all. I won’t even go into Google, that social standard of search programs that seems like the holy grail for assuaging or stoking parental fears previous to a child’s date, regardless of how long that child has been an adult.
All of this fear, anxiety and concern is like social molasses, making it difficult to move around let alone swim or god forbid frolic with abandon. Let me be clear here that I am not promoting the abject abnegation of rationality for the rainbows and bunnies of a fantasy world where everyone is completely altruistic and one need never concern themselves with safety. That’s as clearly ridiculous as the opposite existence of constant fear. What I am here noting is being aware of how relating to the world skews our perceptions and this is far more about ourselves than the person we’re engaged with. I’ll back up and explain since this thought is a bit of a leap from where I was at.
Trust, like forgiveness, is an inner projection of a self-narrative. Just as when trust is broken and we feel saddened and morose, often acting out in emotionally self-abusive ways as to how we fell for what now appears as clear fraud, it is this notion of lack and insufficiency that is at the core of the hurt, not the precipitating event. What hurts in betrayal has more to do with an identification one creates with an image of the betrayed, a person stupid and lacking in judgment. Rather than seeing the situation as a source of introspection and reflection on what could be done differently, an all-encompassing identity is made with the lie that is the betrayed. So with trust when acting from a place of wariness and focus on ferreting out potential betrayal we create an environment of lack and emotional insufficiency. This then allows the other person’s actions to be given a greater power over the creation of our self-narrative than our own principles.
In a basic scenario of broken trust the betrayed has two options: one, they can accept the behavior as indicative of the person doing it and reflect upon the exchange to determine what may have been missed or not seen clearly and use this information for future encounters with others; two, fall into despair at the feelings of brokenness and consider themselves foolish for having fallen for the manipulation or deception. The first option is far healthier and less personally destructive and seems more likely to occur when we begin from a position of wholeness and honest self-appraisal. The latter option seems far more likely to happen when we begin from an environment of wariness and constant anxiety, slipping into a story of personal lack and shame because we were already there to begin with!
We are left here then with patterns of behavior to engage with when dealing with any prospective new social connection, from the simple acquaintance to the earth-moving romantic. There is nothing wrong with being aware of other people in our lives, that’s rather the point of having relationships, but there is no necessity and is likely even toxic to engage with these connections from a position of focusing on betrayal. That other person’s behavior says far more about them than it does about you and it is a means of interacting with reality that we can, with intentional awareness, either take on as our own identity or learn from and move on with openness to life and experiences based in a secure self-acknowledgment.