When we work with clients whether individuals or groups, the first session(s) generally includes a discussion around self-awareness. We may think we know ourselves well but there is always more to find out particularly in relation to past experiences, how we have processed them and the impact they have on our current behaviour.
Like me, you may have been surprised or shocked by your own behaviour at times and wonder where it came from or we may be impacted upon by someone else’s behaviour and not sure what to do about it. Recognising that we all have personal triggers and are human and therefore perfectly imperfect is a good start to gaining insight as it helps us not only discover more about ourselves but also builds awareness of others. That aware-ness offers deeper understanding, acceptance and appreciation of ourselves and others.
We all have what I call ‘triggers’, we may not be consciously aware of them but they are there all the same; both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’. Created from past experiences that felt enjoyable and pleasurable or hurtful and dam-aging; we all have both. It’s the negative ones that we need to understand more about as they can trip us up unexpectedly.
An example of a negative trigger may be a significant traumatic event (abuse of any kind, accident, near-death experience etc). Or a seemingly small event, a passing comment or look from someone we love or look up to that we take to heart and can set up a disempowering belief about ourselves or the world in general. All are stored in our unconscious, (our hard drive or filing cabinet for all that has happened in our life so far),so we’re not consciously aware of them, but the impact of those triggers is felt, and also stored, in our body.
How does any of this drive our behaviour? Here is a simple example.
If we have experienced a volatile environment at any time, maybe an angry, unpredictable or controlling parent for example, it would have felt threatening and unsafe, particularly at a young age. Depending on the situation, we created a strategy to feel safe; perhaps it was to run away or hide or be well-behaved and compliant so as not to rock the boat, or pushed back on the world in some way. We see it as fight, flee, freeze or appease.
Fast forward to the adult and you work or are partnered with someone who’s behaviour reminds you of your angry, unpredictable or controlling parent. Similar looks, words, comments or general behaviour are picked up as a feeling (a physiological sensation in the body) even before we know what’s happening which triggers past hurt or pain which gives rise to emotion which drives our behaviour. Before we know it, we have reacted, often in a similar way to our younger self in a similar situation; run away (physically or emotionally), hidden, been compliant or pushed back.
It’s not our parent in the current situation and we are not five years old, but we feel the same and react similarly even though we may not realise it.
In any given situation, we have a choice; we can react or we can respond. Based on what I’ve offered so far you may realise reaction is driven from emotion which has been created by us as a result of what we think is happening now, anchored in past experiences and negative triggers. A response is the result of us recognising we’re triggered and about to react but realise that it would be ineffective to do that and we instead find a more rational and effective way to handle the situation.
We have all been and will be reactive at times, particularly if we are carrying a large emotional load, feeling stressed, anxious, fatigued or unwell. Once our brain’s limbic system is agitated, trying to stop the reaction would be like trying to stop a stampede. It would serve us well to build more response-ability by developing our awareness of what situations, events or people may trigger us and create a different strategy to cope, observe vs engage, get curious vs judgmental, stay calm vs get agitated.
In other words … Stop. Feel. Think. Choose. Respond.
Like any habit it takes practice, but choosing to respond and not react brings many benefits.