Triggers. Old wounds. Outdated stories. Whether we know it or not, our actions are often reactions, informed by past hurts, betrayals or beliefs about ourselves and the world around us, rather than conscious choice based on information provided in the present moment. While often distressing or confusing, these reactions also offer us a trove of information about ourselves and the opportunities that we have to heal. Below, I’ve detailed some of the questions and strategies I use with clients to facilitate an exploration of the triggers, beliefs or stories that might be influencing problematic behavior.
First, it’s helpful to know a bit about how the brain operates. Since our brains seek order and familiarity, we are constantly, and usually unconsciously, identifying patterns, grouping objects, people and situations into "like" categories and then projecting our own meanings (based on our thoughts, feelings and impulses) onto novel stimuli. Why? For one, it saves time and energy. If we met every single experience and interaction with fresh eyes, we'd be perpetually bombarded by new information, with little brain power left for anything else.
This is great, since it’s often a highly effective and efficient system. Where we get into trouble, however, is when we confirm what we already believe by selectively interpreting situations based on old, outdated “stories”, or if the current person or situation is reminiscent of a past hurtful relationship or incident; a trigger. Our brains want us to be right and stay safe, even when the old story is hurting more than helping, or if these triggers cause us to act not based on present information, but on past hurt.
Let’s break this down with an example you might relate to: You send your friend a vulnerable email or text, wait to hear back, and...nothing. You are confused and hurt by the absence of a response. This feels familiar, and you start to remember other times people have disregarded your feelings, becoming angry. Before she writes back an hour later with a kind and loving message, you have already come to the conclusion that she is thoughtless and doesn’t care about you. Have you leaped to conclusions like this before? When a reaction, in hindsight, seems out of proportion to an incident, offense or situation, that's the tell-tale sign of an old wound being activated, and a prime opportunity to zoom in to gather information.
- Start by seeing if it's possible to look closer at the trigger or original wound: What does the situation, person or interaction remind you of? Have you felt this before? If so, when?
- Then, ask yourself: "What am I making it mean?”. In the example above, perhaps you have a deep belief that you are unworthy or unlovable, and the silence confirms this. Perhaps you are making it mean that it's useless to be vulnerable because no one can handle your true feeling. Perhaps you make it mean that she's mad at you, and the friendship wasn't as strong as you thought. As we discussed, your brain is trying to save time and confirm your stories. By asking this question, we can slow down this automated process and create a bit more room for mindfulness and curiosity to consider other options that allow for less reactivity and save us some of the pain caused by assumption.
- Finally, ask yourself what you need in the moment. This helps to create a little distance from the knee-jerk emotion/reaction, which is being influenced by the past, and allows you to access agency and self-care in the moment.
From here, with this new information and insight you have gathered, you have choice. Rather than reacting from your past, how would you like to choose to act in this new moment? Our old experiences may have informed our past actions, but by uncovering the unconscious influences on our behavior, we can find freedom in how we act and interact moving forward.