Defining Triggers and Trigger Culture
A “trigger” is hard to define. Though this word has made its way into the regular vernacular of emotionally attuned communities, I don’t believe it is often used in a helpful way. I refer to these communities as promoting a trigger culture. In these communities, when someone says, “I feel triggered,” this definitely signifies a relatively strong emotional reaction, usually followed by blame and projection.
Generally speaking, triggers are internal or external units of experience, that align in some way, with our previous traumas. These triggers lead us to begin to re-experience the pain, confusion, and compulsions to protect our self, that accompany conscious, or partially unconscious, traumatic memories. Triggers usually go hand in hand with defenses (or defense mechanisms), in that people often consciously or unconsciously employ defenses, before, during, or after triggering circumstances or people, in order to prevent or mitigate feeling discomfort, anxiety, fear, pain, or an actual abreaction (PTSD episode).
When someone announces the experience of being triggered, there is often the implicit message that whomever or whatever was triggering, must stop being triggering somehow, or they/it will be distanced from. Rarely is a trigger used as an indication that one must go inward, figure out what is being triggered, and then resolve or heal it, while releasing the other from being responsible for the pain.
I believe this is part of what annoys people on the Right end of the political spectrum, in the US. They refer to Progressive, emotionally nuanced people as “snowflakes”, partially because they see our tendency to make others (overly) responsible for our pain and discomfort, whenever we get triggered. I have some criticisms that align with the way people on the Right side view Progressives, for this same reason. Before you come back with a rebuttal, I also have my own challenges with both the Left and Right’s projections and blame, and what I view as dissociation from deeper emotion, and thus the susceptibility to destructive beliefs and lifestyles, and to being emotionally manipulated by media and government. There is a whole lot of blame and self-righteous victimhood happening, while not very many people coming forward with accountability for their own triggers and experience. This is not something specific to a political party, but instead a human issue, in my humble opinion.
Triggers Within A Context Of Accountability
To get further to my point, around taking accountability for one’s triggers, I want to share two metaphors that came to me recently. But, first, let me explain the conflict laden context from which these metaphors around accountability for triggers, arose.
I was in a trauma fueled, trigger-fest, with a close person in my life. We were in what seemed like one conflict after another, for a total of about 36 hours. I was exhausted. I kept noticing I was triggered, yet couldn’t quite become clear enough within myself, about what was going on. Instead, I just felt like he was triggering and deeply upsetting me, so I blamed him, and I felt compelled to protect myself.
My worst triggers and defenses together, usually make me a cold, un-empathetic, hyper-intellectual person, whom over-analyzes the (triggering) other, to the “nth” degree. Clearly, people don’t like this, and feel I am somewhat intimidating and ruthless, but in a very intelligent-sounding way. Let’s just say my years of psychology training have made me a force to be reckoned with, in these times. When in these complex conflicts, reaching exhaustion and with many layers of trauma resurfacing, I embarrass myself and cause emotional harm, due to how self-righteous, stubborn, and Narcissistic I am toward the other. I am working on it, and don’t go to this desperate place very often, but sad to say, at my worst, I resort back to this behavior.
This time, something clicked in my overall awareness around accountability, and for this, I am grateful the two of us struggled together for these 36 hours.
At around the 34th hour into this conflict, I was sitting alone in meditation, feeling the acute pain, fear, anger, and strong survival responses in my body. I noticed the narrative I built around how this person was victimizing me, and how I should distance from him, and perhaps remove him from my life. I then stopped paying attention to the narrative, and instead noticed the block in my heart, and the simultaneous numbness and internal chaos inside. My proprioceptive ability (e.g. the ability to sense internal sensations and energy, usually related to affect) was impaired, with my awareness feeling rather diffuse and obtuse, rather than focused. I know this experience to be characteristic of dissociation. I was determined to gain back my capacity to feel, have clarity, and be focused. I did what I know to do to recover, and I noticed a softening in my heart area. I then immediately began to access gratitude for the other, and was able to see them in a more nuanced way. I then also began to connect the dots around how this person repeatedly triggered my early childhood wounding, in regard to my mother.
Once I made that connection, I began to fully experience the structure of this defensive, self-protective pattern, which actually runs in the background, like the main software or processing system to a computer, creating the foundation of my experience of self, others and life. In fact, this is one of my most central of woundings and triggers, and has done a lot to re-form and reinforce my trauma-based internal hardware, so to speak. I could see that this structure in my self sits perpetually waiting for something to trigger it, so it can take over, and protect me. In many ways, I have experienced this structure, running in the background, as me.
Being able to fully experience how this wound pre-dates this person being the trigger for it, really shifted my perspective and allowed my heart to open further. I could begin to take accountability for something that I ultimately caused first. He just brought it out further.
The second metaphor, I used to describe my experience when he and I were resolving, and processing together.
I helped him see that my trauma, this structure and the initial wounding, are like a physical imbalance within my system. This imbalance is something I formed in childhood, as a means to cope. This imbalance has largely become a default for me, without my entirely being aware of being imbalanced. My being accustomed to this imbalance, has led me to being largely symptomatic (and aware of it) only when a triggering other or situation has entered my experience. When I become symptomatic, I also end up sick, so to speak.
We could feel blaming or angry with a common cold or flu for invading our body system, but this cold/flu is simply symptomatic of a preceeding imbalance within. Viewed in this way, we realize blaming or hating a cold or flu, is misplaced attention and energy. We don’t get the flu or cold, in our normal day-to-day environments (for which we have built up immunity), unless we are imbalanced, and unable to thus keep fighting off pathogens that are always there to threaten our body system. It is silly to deny that there will ALWAYS be pathogens. It is completely unreasonable for us to expect we can control the environment enough to completely destroy pathogens, in order to avoid our imbalance thus becoming symptomatic, through illness.
To be very clear, those who do triggering things, have some level of responsibility. However, it is important we realize that the trauma and the self-protective structure it has formed within our being is always there, and this pain has very little to do with the triggering other.
Further, when we are triggered, we are compelled to make others responsible for bringing us out of our triggered reaction, by forcing them to become even more apologetic, caring, sensitive and/or perfect, in order for us to feel safe to regulate ourselves, and be open again. Yet, if we aren’t dealing directly with healing this wound within us, this becomes a trap. Others become subject to preventing our triggers or catering to them, and instead of us doing the work on ourselves to not be triggered anymore, the other becomes solely responsible for our lack of trust or availability, and ultimately for determining our overall well-being. This is like expecting pathogens in our environments to entirely disappear, in order for us to not get sick. Since we cannot have ultimate control over others, or the pathogens in our environment, this is an impossible task, that results in us repeatedly getting sick/triggered.
The Result Of Being Accountable For Your Own Triggers
When I announced my new understanding of triggers to this person, he immediately softened, and came forward, taking responsibility for his own triggers. We then resolved rather quickly.
Paradoxically, when we take full responsibility for our triggers, we free the other person from being obligated to exist solely as our emotional servant, and they are more likely to reciprocate vulnerable and authentic accountability, while offering empathy and understanding. When we can first soothe ourselves, and gain a deeper awareness and presence with parts of us that are in pain, it is amazing how a conflict shifts from projection and blame, to mutually sharing love/care, insights and accountability, and thus, transforming together.
So, next time you feel triggered, perhaps try my approach, and see how this shifts your experience of self, others, and the circumstance.
Now, go transform!