Getting Triggered in Relationships
The word ‘triggered’ has been around a while now. Originally the word was used in clinical contexts to describe responses arising from complex trauma and PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) such as complicated behavior, chronic anxiety or panic. While its clinical meaning hasn’t changed, it’s used more colloquially to describe emotional responses to everyday ‘challenges’ in relationships. In common verbiage, the gravitas has shifted from chronic and complex trauma to a general discomfort with managing interpersonal relationships. Sometimes its used as a way of minimizing confrontation at best ( e.g. “Don’t say that – I get triggered!”) , or manipulating and silencing others at worst (“When you do that, I lose my shit and I can’t be responsible for my behavior because …I’m triggered”).
People who experience and live with actual PTSD often feel invalidated when the word ‘triggered’ is used to commandeer everyday experiences – so to be clear, this article is not referring to the clinical meaning of the word nor downplaying real PTSD. Instead, I will use the word ‘challenged‘ to make the distinction, and offer some information on managing these challenges
Feeling challenged in relationships is normal, and simply means you are feeling uncomfortable. And despite the discomfort, there is an opportunity for healing and for growth.
This is simply being alive.
Feelings are notoriously difficult. Pleasant feelings, uncomfortable feelings, big feelings, sad feelings. Feelings are part of life and not something we can avoid with any consistency nor grand outcome. We may be able to block them out for a night, a week, a couple of months, or even years – but eventually they will creep up on us. In other words, what we resist – persists.
This is when we are more likely to feel challenged. When we have spent so long avoiding something that eventually catches up with us, our discomfort can be rough. We usually don’t have the skills to manage it, so we ‘act out’ to protect ourselves or ‘withdraw’ from others to protect ourselves.
Big feels and feeling challenged can be especially tough for people living with unresolved chronic trauma, and even still, being challenged is our body’s way of telling us STOP – Pay Attention.
In intimate relationships, we are very likely to feel uncomfortable with things our partner/s say or do. These feelings are opportunities to grow past our edges and into our feelings to ultimately create deeper connections. Our discomforts are an opportunity to ‘lean in’ and feel ourselves without getting lost in the pain, nor the pursuit of escape. We can numb ourselves out with substances, food, shopping, sex, exercise or the pursuit of perfection. Sometimes we choose partners, friends or lovers who are perpetually agitated as a way of distracting ourselves from our own feelings and attending only to theirs. Either way there is no opportunity for growth or developing relationship skills when everyone is busy being reactionary or putting out spot fires.
Growth happens when we use our sensitivity to attend to the difficulties within us – with kindness. Being uncomfortable is a sign you are alive and your feelings are communicating with you. If you are experiencing chronic, exacerbated responses to feeling emotional, learning to regulate your nervous system through yoga, bodywork and therapy or coaching is crucial – not optional. If your responses to emotions are to escape, avoid (see above) or catastrophize (tantrums, ultimatums, outbursts etc – even violence) and make excuses for poor behavior, instead try ‘leaning in’.
‘Leaning in’ is the opposite of extravagant behavior. It’s a practice of slowing down long enough to feel the discomfort (the trigger) and acknowledge its presence without trying to make it go away, nor blaming others, or having outbursts for what you are experiencing. When we spend most of our time trying to control the world and the people around us rather than ourselves, there is a pretty good chance we are doing so at a cost of developing the skills to manage ourselves, our feelings and the depths of our inner world. To be clear, this is not a case of relinquishing interest in social issues, community wellbeing and political action, but recognizing we are of more use in our relationships and communities when we are taking care of ourselves first, to then be of better service to others.
Being in relationships is not easy, but neither should it be a living hell. Discomfort will most strongly get-up-in-our-faces when we are trying to connect with others in love, sex or friendships and this is the perfect place to use the opportunities to grow and develop new self-regulating skills. It may not be easy, but it’s easier than being in a perpetual state of anxiety and tension.
Struggling in relationships, life or sex? Reach out and ask for help to develop the skills you need to stop struggling and start loving.