April 11, 2021

How One Act of Kindness can Disarm our Triggers.

I had a rather striking déjà vu moment while making my latte this morning.

I have two Dansk canisters in my pantry; one holds ground decaf and the other stores my packets of chagaccino. They say it takes 44 or is it 60 repetitions of an action to create a new pattern. Without fail, each time I reach for a canister, I seem to choose the incorrect one.

On a good day, it’s a bit of a game, like the seed under the walnut game. I tell myself that the coffee is closer to the machine in hopes this will create a memory thread, and by the next morning, that golden nugget is long gone. I am having the same experience with the two half-moon shelves I hung by the front door. They have a specific purpose, and it’s day 51. I’ve yet to consistently conquer that one either. But I’m staying the course and it’s coming together.

What was remarkable about this morning was that in the instant I reached for the wrong canister, I became that afraid little girl in Jenkintown, PA. The girl who was playing outside in the yard when her dad asked her to turn on the faucet for the hose. I had the same phenomenon with the hose. She heard him yell from the backyard, “turn it on,” and she froze. She knew that he had zero patience, and this was her trigger. With shaking hands, she turned it on, hoping for the best. He was yelling from the yard and she was panicking.

If you notice, I recalled the story in the third person. I referred to myself as “she.” This is helpful when reviewing trauma from the past. It takes you out of the equation and eliminates the reliving of the experience. This is a technique I learned from my mom.

I think about it now as a parent and I wonder why my father, a child psychologist, didn’t instinctively think to walk over and teach his scared little girl a mnemonic like “rightie tightie, leftie loosie.” These opportunities to teach are abundant in parenting, and yet, I am left with a hole in my soul that caring and tenderness should have filled. Sadly, for that little girl, this was all but a daily occurrence with him.

I have often pointed out to my husband that he can be impatient. He likely missed some teaching opportunities as our kids grew up, not in an abusive or unkind way, but was reacting in moments when redirecting was in order. It could have been something as simple as my daughter asking about tire pressure on the car when she was away at school, or my son not knowing how to add antifreeze to his car during the winter in Chapel Hill. There was no drama, but I could see his lack of understanding that they wouldn’t know something he did. It’s empathy. It’s a muscle he needs to train till it becomes a habit. These are the moments when we get to make our difference in life.

I remember helping a flustered older woman with her money while attempting to pay for groceries. I did it in the most respectful way. I recall walking an old man who was lost and disoriented on Atlantic Avenue three blocks to his son who was waiting for him. What I really remember is the relief in his son’s eyes that I was holding his father’s arm and turning him over safely. I was making my difference and demonstrating my values for my children—do as I do, not as I say.

There is no place for impatience in our world. It only takes a moment to turn discomfort into a connection that someone might remember for a lifetime. At the same time, overlooking that chance to help someone may leave a scar that stays for life, just as this 58-year-old woman was transported back to that fourth grader only moments ago. Anytime I feel pressure to get something right, I feel like that ten-year-old girl. It’s a trigger that takes me right back to the faucet and sometimes to my knees. I continue to work through it.

I often have to remind my husband to be more tolerant when his instinct is to be impatient. This is a trait he grew up with and could have easily become his legacy. Lucky for him, he picked me to teach him the things he hadn’t mastered yet. I won’t accept that behavior, no matter the origin. Alan’s impatience also comes because he is brilliant and does not comprehend when something simple doesn’t come simply.

Triggers take us back. They either take us to our knees, or we can redirect them to take us somewhere new. I make it a point to stop whatever I’m doing and offer support when I see someone struggling.

Think about the difference a patient cashier can make in someone’s life. I vividly remember the first time I went to Whole Foods by myself during my illness which brought high anxiety a few years ago. I was trying to find my Amazon account on my phone and I was putting undue pressure on myself. The cashier said, “Take your time; you’re okay.” What she didn’t know was that those five words were a life raft to someone drowning. It made me cry and I shared with her what I’d been going through. Her kindness melted away my fear as the sun does to a snowdrift. That’s just how it happens.

Make today about being someone’s hero. Soften someone’s edges and sprinkle your kind of magic wherever you go. I’m not talking about corn syrup here, just genuine goodness. Whatever you put out there will come back tenfold. You’ll see. It doesn’t cost you a thing, but it will make someone else feel rich. Hold a door to someone whose hands are full, send a kind glance to someone who appears lost, smile with your eyes, or use your voice to soothe frazzled nerves.

The world is full of struggling and suffering. It’s a fertile ground for your seeds of change. Plant them, water them, and watch what grows…in you.


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