The Space Between: Finding Freedom and Connection in Relationship
You know that feeling when you get “triggered?” When someone you thought cared about you suddenly acts like a complete jerk? “Why on earth would they say that??” you think. And then you start to feel the heat rise in your chest and smoke comes out of your ears, and you imagine yourself as a cartoon. If that’s never happened to you, then you probably don’t need to read any more of this post. But if it has, you might be wondering…
HOW CAN I STOP THAT PERSON FROM ACTING LIKE A JERK
WHY AM I SO TRIGGERED BY THAT PERSON?
Spoiler: trying to change another person is pretty futile, so that’s not what I’m going to write about! That might make you want to stop reading….but — If you’ve continued reading, that means you might be CURIOUS, which is a fantastic start to understanding why you are getting triggered - and how to help yourself.
The truth is, all humans want to be in connection with the people we care about. We learn about connection in relationships based on our interactions with our primary caregivers. Whatever we got from them - or didn’t get from them - informs how we orient to relationships throughout life. It’s actually a biological NECESSITY to be in connection with the person who is feeding us and keeping us alive. IF THEY LIKE ME, I WON’T DIE is kind of the message our tiny selves ingest when we are completely dependent on someone else. So, we develop ways to be liked, and therefore to be kept safe. And, sometimes when we don’t feel safe or well cared for, we shut down our hearts and shift into “protection” mode. This happens automatically, without warning. When you are triggered, something inside you says, “I’m unsafe.” This is your sympathetic nervous system preparing your body for intense physical activity or for playing dead and is known as the fight-or-flight response.
The problem is, if you’re in protection mode, it’s biologically impossible to be in connection mode because your executive functioning is forced to go offline. If you feel unsafe, you cannot also be seeking social connection.In protection mode, your nervous system has one goal: GET SAFE. So you respond to the person’s (jerky) comment by yelling, running away or shutting down. It’s impossible to have an adult conversation when you’re fixated on just getting safe.
However, when you get some space between the trigger and your response, you have an opportunity to get yourself back into CONNECTION mode. With time and regulation, your parasympathetic nervous system comes back online, which relaxes the body and inhibits or slows down the need to do all the reactive things we do related to survival threat, that tend to push people away. Your frontal lobe can work again and you can think like a grown-up. Viktor Frankl said, “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.” Power and freedom are things adults have, and babies and children do not. When we are thinking clearly, we can be empathetic, understanding and loving adults. To be clear: this doesn’t mean agreeing with what the other person said or did – but it does mean that you now have a CHOICE about how you will respond so that you can communicate clearly and calmly and the other person can then hear and understand your point of view.
So how do I DO that, you ask? Here’s how.
MAKE A GAP. Take a deep deliberate breath.
FIND where this part of you that is getting triggered is INSIDE OF YOU. (Scan your body and/or your surroundings.)
WELCOME the feeling (aka part). (I know, this might sound odd, since it’s likely a feeling you don’t like. But trust me, the more you push it away, the more fierce it will become, so see if you can give this a whirl.)
LISTEN to see if this part has anything to say about why it’s there. It has a STORY and you may find out this part has been inside of you since you were young and small.
SPEAK FOR the part, not from it. (i.e., there’s a difference between saying, “There’s a part of me that’s feeling really angry” vs “I am SO ANGRY!” The first way keeps you open to connection and is less likely to trigger the recipient’s protective response, whereas the second way automatically puts the other person on the defense.
RETURN to the part later. After a part of you has shared its story with you, it’s going to want to know that you heard it and understood. It wants reassurance that you’re still there and still listening. Some ways to do this:
Lying in bed or in a comfy chair, tuning into your body sensations when you think about this feeling
Taking a walk and imagining the part walking alongside you, holding your hand like a small child
Drawing what you’re feeling (it’s the process, NOT the product that matters!)
Journaling about what you’re noticing.
Caring for yourself in this way is an act of self-love. Although trying to change other people is a losing battle, you can make a choice to get curious about yourself and why you behave the way you do, say the things you say, and feel the way you feel. When you have this kind of curiosity and loving energy inside yourself, directed towards YOU, it can’t help but seep out into your relationships and have a ripple effect on the ones around you. Try it, you might like it.
Written by Rebecca Geshuri, LMFT, PMH-C