Controlling the trigger finger

I’ve been musing on the phenomenon of “triggering” for a long time now, and I’m still thinking about it.

The intellectual knowledge of this phenomenon/process is pretty simple, really. Something someone says, or does, “triggers” an issue, or a wound, and we feel something – usually anger, or sadness, or simply, hurt. In my opinion, and those of many writers and sages, this is nothing more than the way we’re “designed” for growth – since the trigger is really nothing more than a signpost to something that needs to be healed in us.

Michael Brown, in his wonderful book, The Presence Process, refers to the sources of these triggers as “messengers”, whose primary function in our lives is to trigger our issues. He cautions us not to “shoot the messenger”, since they are merely the person delivering the mail, so to speak.

I’ve developed a reminder thought that I sometimes manage to remember when I’m triggered: “When I’m upset, it’s never about the other person.”

It’s interesting to me to note that pulling the more physical “trigger” results in an actual bullet being fired – so we really do “shoot the messenger” unless and until we learn how to manage our “trigger fingers”.

Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist, philosopher and concentration camp survivor, in his beautiful book, “Man’s search for meaning”, was one of the first contemporary philosophers to talk about the instant, the moment, after we’re triggered. When something happens “to us”, and we get triggered, we then have a choice as to how to react or respond. He posits (to clumsily summarize) that the time and space between the trigger and our response is the point at which we have power, because we are in a place of choice.

When we first start out on a spiritual path, often it will seem as if we have no choice whatsoever as to how to respond when triggered. The instant is too microscopically short for us to be able to choose. So, we lash out, usually in anger – a sort of automatic defense.

As we grow, however, and cultivate the witness within us, that witness is able to recognize that we’ve been triggered, and more and more we find ourselves able to find a little more “control” over our responses.

At this early stage of choice after a trigger, we’re able to resist or refrain from doing or saying something violent or hurtful, perhaps remembering in that moment to take a deep breath, or say a prayer, or use some other mind/body tactic that works. But that will most likely be it.
Yes, this is better than lashing out, but it doesn’t go far enough. The problem is that, in this state, most of us will shut down our hearts in a self-protective reaction.

So, this is for me the next step in this process – to discover how to keep my heart open after I’ve been triggered. Because, I’ve experienced what it’s like to be on the receiving end, when my partner’s heart shuts down, and it’s palpable, and often painful. The psychic portcullis drops down, and even if the reaction is muted and civil, the wall that goes up is nonetheless studded with sharp spikes – those that were built for our protection, usually quite early in our lives.

To stay “in love” when we’re triggered – that’s the final frontier of spiritual growth.

In closing, here are three of my favorite quotes from Viktor Frankl:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Relationships Spirituality

What do you do when you’re angry?

As someone who had a “rageaholic” father, I’ve been dealing with thoughts and feelings about anger for a long time, and it really pisses me off!

Most of us “use” one of two main strategies when we’re angry – we’re repress or suppress our anger, or we release it directly at the person or thing which triggered the feeling of anger.  Reminder – suppressing is consciously “stuffing” a feeling, repressing it is something that has become so familiar and habitual that we are no longer conscious of doing it at all.

Neither of these two strategies works particularly well.  The most common, “socially acceptable” strategy is either suppression or repression.  This will have two negative effects – first it will be debilitating, both emotionally and physically, for the one experiencing the anger.  Second, it will tend to “leak” out in ways of which we are not conscious – little snide “digs” at the other person, or, more subtly, just a feeling that we project and which poisons the atmosphere.   We all feel anger coming at us, whether it’s overtly expressed or not.

Plus, anger unreleased and unexpressed becomes resentment, and to quote Carrie Fisher, “Holding resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die”.  So, we poison ourselves with anger which is inwardly held.

This strategy can also lead to something a therapist friend of mine calls “gunnysacking”.  That’s where we carry a large, imaginary emotional gunnysack around with us, and into which we put every little bit of anger we experience, while showing no outward sign of it.  When the gunnysack is full, we will then use the whole thing to bludgeon the other person.  This is the source of those explosions from “out of the blue” that we sometimes experience from people.

Releasing our anger without restraint is the other common response – for example, yelling at the object of our anger, or perhaps even physically lashing out. While this is often seen as “healthier” for the person who is angry, it can be extremely unpleasant and traumatic for the recipient, and even lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.  This is something I’m still dealing with, as a legacy of the many abusive exchanges I engaged in with my father when growing up.

Ever since the late sixties, there has been a movement within the psychological profession that has held that “getting the anger out” is helpful.  But more recent research has shown this not to be true.  Techniques such as deep breathing, or tensing and relaxing muscles, have been proven to be much more effective in calming angry feelings than things like primal scream therapy, or hitting a pillow.

This has always made intuitive sense to me, and now, with my study of “new thought”, it makes even more sense.  I believe that one of the metaphysical laws is “what you focus on expands”.  So, if you keep focusing on your anger, it’s going to keep expanding…

So, next time you get really angry, take several long, slow, deep breaths before doing anything else.  I’ll be breathing along with you…