You know the situation: Your partner says or does something and you immediately get hot and triggered. Somehow, that one comment or gesture sent you from 0 to 100 in a blink of an eye. Just as often, you are on the receiving end of your partner’s reaction, where something you said set them off to explode or shut down.
What is going on when this happens?
On this week’s podcast episode, I interviewed Tania Choi, an MFT and trauma specialist who also did our workshop program. She said that any time you have one of those reactions where you go from 0 to a 100 in no time, you’re in trauma. A trauma got activated inside you.
Tania’s brief definition of trauma is “a point in time where you lost your sense of choice”. (Find this week’s podcast episode with Tania here…)
I used to think that trauma was only created by big, violent situations like incest, rape, battery, or war. Whereas those are sadly common, almost every child, even those who grow up in happy, peaceful surroundings, still experiences incidents that are traumatizing; incidents where they feel powerless to choose.
In these traumatic situations, we make decisions and formulate beliefs that shape us. They influence who we become, what we care about, how we feel, and what actions we take. They also become trigger points for us. When we are faced in the present moment with situations that remind us of these painful experiences from the past, our bodies respond the way our bodies responded back then.
We have heard hundreds of these experiences in our coaching practice and workshops. One student, an independent, resourceful, professional woman, shared how as a child, on a Tuesday afternoon after school, her mom gave her the choice between staying home with a bigger sibling to make brownies, or to go with mom and two other siblings to a local theater show.
No big deal, right? The kind of everyday situation that could happen in any family.
Well, as a young girl, she was traumatized by this event. She was torn about what to choose, concerned about missing out on either the brownies or the theater play. She was too scared to talk about her experience. She felt completely powerless and unable to come up with a choice that would prevent pain and loss. She was stuck. Paralyzed.
In that moment, she made an unconscious decision, “It is not safe to choose. No matter what I choose, there will be loss and pain.”
Guess how that’s relevant for her as an adult and in her relationships? Her whole adult life, she’s had a terrible time making decisions. She’s found herself unable to commit to a relationship and unable to end a relationship. She is unable to make a choice either way, always straddling that painful fence of “do I go stay or do I go? Do we move in together or not?” Anyone who’s been stuck in that kind of indecision knows how torturous it can be.
On the surface, it might sound implausible that trauma gets created by such an everyday, un-dramatic event. But for a young child who doesn’t have the wherewithal to look at all the angles and come up with productive solutions, an incident like that gets logged in their internal operating system as a painful “fact”. To this child, and later to this adult, it’s now “true” that making choices results in pain and loss. From that point of view, it makes perfect sense that she would want to avoid making choices.
So when she’s in the grocery store with her partner, trying to figure out which pasta to use for dinner, and he says, “What’s the problem? Just make up your mind already!”, she might have one of those 0-100 moments where she gets mad as hell in no time. Not because it’s a life or death matter if they use Barilla or DeCecco pasta, but because her childhood trauma just got reactivated, and she is back to being eight years old again.
It’s as if this trauma and the associated beliefs create an internal landmine that it is only a matter of time before someone, typically someone close like a spouse, a child, or a family member, detonates by saying, “Just make up your mind already!”
How is this important for you and your relationships today?
Most of our traumas and the subsequent decisions we make and the stories we live are unconscious. To create change and become authors of a new story, to consciously craft a new set of beliefs and behaviors that we live by, we need to bring our patterned responses up to awareness. We can’t change what we can’t see.
Triggers are a great way for us to slow things down and become aware of the landmines that live in us and get at their source. From there, we can decide to not let these past traumas run our lives. We can take the time to unpack and re-work these past experiences, to do “do-overs” in our minds and bodies that allow us to emerge empowered and with a new set of embodied decisions from which to live life.
One of the most popular and effective tools we teach our students is indeed based on these kinds of do-overs.
Brian Lewis, a local MFT and art therapist said that trauma happens when pieces of our soul get snagged on the jagged points of life. (Find our interview with him in episode 24 of our podcast here…).
Those snagged pieces of our souls can be set free and healed. They might have negatively impacted our past, but they need not dictate our futures!
In our workshops, we teach a triggers process that allows people to become aware of past stories that are reactivated in challenging situations. This step-by-step process allows people to move from victim to power, from having no choice to having choice, from not having what they want to getting what they want. It gives people a quick opportunity to turn a traumatic retriggering event into a positive empowering experience. Plus, it gives a way to communicate with a partner or loved one even in the midst of feeling triggered.
You might have heard the saying, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” Well, it isn’t. With support, we can heal and shift almost everything in our past with conscious attention and re-patterning.
For more information on our workshop, go to loveworksforyou.com/gytl