As my son’s teacher walked toward my car, I could feel my heart speed up.
The chemical reaction of my body was a familiar one. My thumping heart created an audible metronome to my now racing thoughts.
Time seemed to slow down as my pupils dilated and allowed me to take in every detail of her stormy body language, thundering toward me.
Her body language was a personal trigger, and my body amped up in response.
Nothing had even happened yet. But triggers are not about what’s happening in the present moment.
Perceiving that the chat we were about to have was not going to be a pleasant one, I instinctively and subconsciously responded by retracting my throat to protect against the gravest danger my body subconsciously knew: unmeasured words that might bubble forth.
She approached my car and said, “I need to talk to you.” There would be no escape.
A sword of shame pierced my beating heart, and I slowly opened the car door to face my perceived failures.
Triggers are our present-day adult bodies responding to a familiar set of body sensations: emotional circumstances that we once had as children.
If we deemed we couldn’t earn the attachment we needed from our caregivers in our developmental years because we were either consistently not heard or responded to when we tried, we were forced into a developmental choice.
The path of authenticity led to losing the love we needed, and the path of attachment required finding a coping mechanism in order to keep our caregiving relationship intact.
This capacity for connection to others is prioritized above all else in the human brain, so we all unknowingly chose the coping mechanism.
The conversation with my son’s teacher was short. He had not been excited to attend class that day. She liked neither his tone nor his body language when she inquired if he was happy to be there (he shrugged and said, “Meh”).
To her, this signalled “disrespect,” and the remainder of their time together devolved.
The teacher and I parted ways amicably after we created an agreed-upon strategy for next time. But, the smoke trails of a shame trigger lingered on my body as I reentered the car.
I was a “bad” parent.
I had raised a “rude” child.
I started ruminating. It was her fault, not mine. This was blown out of proportion for a shrug and a half-engaged “meh.”
It was ridiculous how she stormed at me. Why was she blaming me?
And then, I caught myself. I was still thinking and feeling like a 10-year-old. My body state informed my response: a coping mechanism. This was a deeply-rutted chemical response—a groove that I had been repeating for decades.
We revert to child-like states when we are triggered.
Few of us had empathetic, abiding, attuned caregivers to help us process our confusions or navigate through strategies to process our often overwhelming childhood emotions.
Many of us were chastised for having feelings; we were laughed at or punished or sent away to calm down and self-regulate on our own. There was no one to witness our pain.
Instead, we learned how to compress our words and shove sensations into our bodies—to silence ourselves, scream silent indignations, criticise, and blame others.
Once needed to employ feelings of safety, these adaptive strategies—once the wisdom of our childhood survival—are repurposed in adulthood, where they often cause mayhem. For our adult landscapes involve different people and different circumstances than the ones in the environment our young bodies adapted to.
Yet, when we feel the same chemical sensations of anger or fear in our body, our response is often no more developed than it was when we were children.
We still find our hearts beating or our throats closing in situations that have nothing to do with the present moment and everything to do with how we initially learned how to adapt to the emotional circumstances of our childhood.
We simply never developed the skills.
I was 10 when I placed a school assignment on a new marble coffee table in the basement of our home. My dad, concerned that the staple would scratch the furniture, stormed out of his office and chastised me.
As I watched him walk toward me, I knew there would be no forthcoming invitation to discuss what happened. Any words to make myself understood would be met with instructions to “cooperate” or get chastised for being “sassy.”
By the time I was in grade school, I already knew that my voice was not a good tool for responding to my parents. I had already learned to close my throat to avoid getting in trouble and redirect the problem to my brain.
I was a “bad” kid.
And if I argued with my dad, I was a “rude” child.
The teacher’s body language triggered a gun that had lain dormant in my body for decades.
In the version with my dad, there was no conversation. No can I talk to you?
But the same body language coming toward me, the same sense of fear and dread, and the same sense of “oh, sh*t, I did something wrong, and I’m about to find out what it is” brought up the same coping strategy.
It was his fault, not mine. This was blown out of proportion for a stapled paper on a coffee table.
It was ridiculous how he stormed at me. Why was he blaming me?
As a child, all I wanted was to feel loved, and this was the best strategy I came up with on my own.
It worked to generate the love I needed from my adult caregiver.
Decades later, I dragged out my safety technique in a different setting, to a different person.
Custom-created for my childhood caregivers, this brilliant strategy was once effective. My adult responses, however, still resembled those of my 10-year-old self in the basement.
My natural instinct—a learned one—was to invalidate the teacher and process the incident by staying silent and not showing her my emotions.
Our triggers are nothing more than these wounds rearising, begging to be heard, accepted, and respected by a caring adult.
That adult is now us.
I started my car.
I found myself again in the present moment, and I processed the sensations in my body by noticing and naming my emotions.
I told my son how scary it was for me when his teacher approached me. We talked about how our bodies will respond to things that aren’t happening in the present moment.
I admitted that I had been afraid and how I reverted to negative thoughts about her to cope with my shame of perceived failure.
I sat with the sensations in my body, allowing them to pass. I gave them both a voice and some compassion.
As I said the words aloud, I became the adult I needed for myself when I was 10.
And the smoke from the trigger cleared.
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