Walking in a Minefield
‘This is it’ is now a running a joke between my girlfriend and I. Whenever we get a strange pain somewhere, a series of coughs or sneezes that seem a bit too violent, or just watch humanity take another seemingly step backwards, ‘This is it. This is how it ends.’
Now, if we were totally healthy, strong and beautiful as we once were, we wouldn’t have the pains and coughs to laugh at. However, for better or worse, that along with our occasionally impatient temperament with our fellow humans, we can’t help but laugh, and to be perfectly honest, slightly worried or anxious at the possibility it really could be the beginning of the end.
If we were more enlightened or more logically sound, we would only respond to the present moment in and of its own terms. We wouldn’t get worried or angry or anxious about what could happen or what has happened. We would only allow the current situation to dictate how we should truly feel about something rather than allowing our thoughts to travel time to scary and unrealistic places.
But we aren’t sane, most of us aren’t. We respond way too disproportionately to certain events or bits of information, much more so than if we just simply followed the facts in front of us. Be it about your partner, your career, or the state of the world.
In my casual attempt to become more cool and hip to gain readers, I’m going to adopt this word that seems to keep popping up everywhere: trigger.
If I had lived in my own country this past decade, I’d understand the triggerness of the current trigger phenomenon, but for now, I’m going to use it in psychological terms and hope the SEO of the word trigger, triggers me some new trigger-happy troops and their trigger-sensitive victims.
Jokes aside, what seems to grieve us is that we are wired to be so. Wired with a short fuse to feel and respond to precedent rather than actually taking in the present and judging or evaluating that present without passion or hysteria.
We gaze down those emotional tracks of the midnight train into the distant past. That dark and lonely past where we were once victims of some unusually painful experiences that causes us to panic or become miserable. All of which is unhelpful no matter how we try to justify it.
(To continue my amazing SEO to attract a new demographic…) We become easily, much too easily, ‘triggered.’ In other words, we allow details of a past we have mostly forgotten or never truly knew to become the most distinct perception we have in our current and only reality.
In our relationships, we allow their independent past overshadow the now calm and loving attempts to cuddle with us on the couch on Friday night and be close to us. Or we let a past of choosing career over love blind us from all the choices made for us rather than his or her career.
At work, an email that was written in a hurry seems short and hostile, so obviously this means our new job is going to be just as short and hostile. Or that speech you have to give at next week’s meeting frightens you more than the flight over the Bermuda triangle with a drunk pilot and a single-serving friend sitting beside you constantly mumbling angrily in some foreign language.
On the world stage, the regular but always shocking latest speech from the president who is worse than the last one that will surely cause nuclear missiles to be launched. And how scientist say there is nothing that can be done to stop the world from ending due to our way of life.
The ‘triggering’ can happen so quickly we don’t even see how we lost track of our perception of time. We’re no longer in the present, we are in the past. The dark cave of the past with no light. We are lost and we’ve never been good at left and right, much less having any real bearings to guide us through this now flood of panic and anger and frustration. Bye-bye faculties of reason, I’m engulfed in a sea of misery that I unknowingly dove into.
… If only we had tied a rope to objective reality before jumping in. Now we’re going to be lost down here for days.
Know Your Prism
We all approach the outer world through a prism of our inner world. And there are a lot of things to bounce off of in this prism of our inner world. We have an incredible amount of expectations created from our unique lives of experiences in our prism. It is a repository of working models or ‘best guesses’ of what the outer world will be like.
This plays its role in how we see everything; chances of succeeding in a challenging endeavor, how someone will respond if I say a particular something, or how much attention you feel you should give in order to please someone.
Obviously, we are missing the big, foamy, finger waving right in front of us; that the inner world is not the outer world. Our inner world has generalizations and extrapolations from a part of our life and imagination that is most likely far harsher, hideous, and threatening than the present.
There is a nice little trick that psychologists try to teach to shine some light on our disproportionate reactions: if we are feeling stressed or emotional more than a 5 out of 10, chances are our response is likely not from the problem before us. Most likely, it is from a past that we are overlooking.
And well, it wouldn’t be psychology if we didn’t blame our parents, so let’s say that we’re always afraid of being abandoned, because one of our parents left us at a fragile age (even if only for a short while), or we always accuse our partner of cheating on us because we know or suspect one of our parents were unfaithful.
Measure Your Fuse
Great. So what do we do then?
The easy and difficult answer is to just become more aware of how eagerly we become triggered, be it our partner’s habit of leaving the cereal box open or the last report of the national debt rising and near due date. We must learn to become more suspicious of our first impulses so as not to become so overwhelmed with fear or anger as immediately as we do.
This is not to say there is nothing frightening or worrisome in the outside world. We shouldn’t ignore the past and we should definitely learn from it. Having said that, we must bear in mind that there is a very good chance that our reactions could well be out of proportion and without thoughtful calculation of the current reality.
Another way to think about our overreacting and to also give ourselves a bit of a break is to remember that we aren’t just a one singular, individual unit that came out of the box just like we are now. We weren’t exactly ‘made’ this way with ‘perfect’ design, nor are we defected and should be sent back to the manufacturer.
We are a collage, a collection, a cocktail of all the different selves we were dating back to our first breath.
Perhaps that part of us that’s scared of public speaking is the 2-year old version of us screaming when someone new stares at us. How could they leave such a daunting task in the hands of a toddler? But they did, and now we’re crying.
So rather than asking what are we afraid or angered by, we should ask what ‘part’ of us is worried about dealing with a distracted partner or power-hungry politician or an inappropriate co-worker. What would we say to a child version of ourselves to help calm and soothe our volatile emotions?
Oh God, Am I Maturing?
Growing up doesn’t have to be boring. It can in fact make life more fun and pleasurable. Understanding what triggers us and why, and then making the effort to alleviate the worst, most harming (to ourselves and others) responses, we can appreciate more of what we have and stop worrying so much about what we missed out on or what might become of the future.
Whatever our past tells us, however the outer world looks after passing through our inner world prism, we are most likely not about to experience a catastrophe. Being killed or even worse, suffering unbearable humiliation, will probably not come to us the way we think it will.
Our gut reactions may have once been necessary for survival, but unless we are lost in the Amazon with no means of escape, we should maybe learn to ignore these all too often and exaggerated alarms and understand to recognize and make allowances for ourselves and others.
The trigger is just that... a trigger. It is the straw that breaks the camels back, the last nail in the coffin. The trigger is nothing but a faint click with no harm if there is no gunpowder. Clean away any old gunpowder lying around and your trigger will just be a click away.