Most of us have real anger and suffering living inside us. Perhaps in the past we were oppressed or mistreated, and all that pain is still right there, buried in our store consciousness. We haven’t processed and transformed our relationship with what happened to us and we sit there alone with all that anger, hatred, despair and suffering. If we were abused when were young, every time our thinking mind goes back over that event, it’s like we’re experiencing the abuse all over again.– Thich Nhat Hahn
The #MeToo movement, including Dr. Ford’s testimony on the Senate floor in 2018, was an eye-opener for many of us. Even though I personally had experienced sexual assault and figured others had too, I was not prepared for the staggering number of brave women and men who publicly came forward to share their experiences of pain and violation. I also wasn’t prepared for the amazing feeling that this movement could actually change the climate that our daughters and sons grow up in.
By the time most of us reach adulthood, we have experienced some form of trauma, ranging from heartbreak to the more intense physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Though the actual trauma may have been experienced decades ago, often there are hidden tender and hurting spaces in its wake.
Healing is a lengthy process, even years after the event, things can happen that “trigger” a traumatic response. That is, current events in our lives that are not directly related to the trauma we experienced can evoke a reaction that is more intense than the situation at hand deserves. What happens when we are overreactive is that we are no longer in the present. However, by being aware of when we are triggered, and working on maintaining our calm and presence, we are, in fact, helping our children and ourselves.
Psychologists who study the long-reach of trauma will note that when your child enters the age that the parent was when they experienced a traumatic event, a deep part of them will relive the experience. This is beyond a simple remembering of the event — it is as if we’re actually re-experiencing the trauma. This is critical to keep in mind so that we are not blind-sided when the kids reach that age in which we experienced a significant loss or abuse.
I believe the human system is built this way so we can heal unresolved issues from our earlier wounding. It also may be a survival mechanism, in that our hypervigilance helps us protect our children by warning them of dangers in their environment. However, like most automatic survival mechanisms, these processes can take on a life of their own. That is why it’s critically important to use these uncomfortable situations as opportunities to set the course for the next generation. To harness the hidden power in these circumstances by becoming aware of when you’re triggered and before stepping into overreaction, use the trigger as a signal to get centered.
How do you know when you’re triggered? For me, all of a sudden I feel overly anxious, overly angry, or conversely, like I want to withdraw and hide. I examine whether or not a real danger is evident. In nearly every single case of being triggered, there actually is no real danger (if there is, please address it immediately and maybe even get backup help).
If there is no real danger, this is the critical moment. Breathing deeply and naming feelings “worried, scared, agitated”, can lead to healing. Yes, it’ll reduce the likelihood that you’ll act from the wounded place, but it will also help you soothe the hurting places. As if you were a loving parent to yourself, nurturing and healing the wounded places.
I’ve noticed that being kinder to myself reduces the likelihood that I’ll act out from the painful residue of the trauma. It’s an act of cultivating unconditional friendliness towards ourselves. We embrace the scared and vulnerable parts of ourselves, instead of pushing the challenging emotions away through reacting or overreacting.
When I am in a triggered phase (which when it is really bad, can last for most of a day and even span a couple days), I start my day by talking to the wounded little girl inside of me. I place a hand on my heart and on my abdomen (the Grounding Hand Posture), and I tell my younger self that I (the adult protectress) am here now. I comfort those wounded places within me with the knowledge that I am present and in charge, and that I will guide the hurt parts of myself with my mature wisdom, with strength and with kindness.
By emotionally taking care of ourselves through tending the emotional wounds and anxieties, we are less likely to act from the painful residual trauma. And we begin to remove the fear of our own emotions, which only serves to separate us from our self and those we love.
Use your triggers as an opportunity to deepen your friendship with yourself. Call upon your courage, which you likely have in spades. You’ll be more connected to the reality of the present moment. This, in turn, will increase the likelihood that your actions will arise from the most centered part of you.
Compassionately paying attention to ourselves has added benefits — of interrupting the transmission of trauma between generations, and of drawing any lingering shameful feelings out of the darkness and into the light. These earlier challenging experiences can become our opportunity to embrace ourselves with unconditional friendliness, to change the social climate that our children grow up in, and to powerfully reclaim our truth as we stand in solidarity.