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When Triggers Happen: Listen and Love

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Trauma is a word that gets tossed around more often now but do we really understand what trauma is? It turns out that there are different kinds of trauma but they all have one thing in common: The capacity to manage what is experienced has been exceeded and this person is stuck in perpetual pain not knowing how to resolve the flood of feelings and thoughts that are running amok inside them.

If you aren’t prepared then you’re left feeling powerless and confused.

Trauma happens to us when what we experience cannot be integrated or understood and our nervous system is overloaded to the point that is shuts itself down and takes our brain and nervous system offline. When this happens the part of the brain that enables us to make meaning of what is happening and integrate it so that our nervous systems recognizes we are safe and OK is temporarily disconnected from the rest of the brain.  This is basic hard-wiring and what has kept us safe since human life began.

For some lucky people who have not experienced much or any trauma, this system is used less. For others, it has been the norm throughout their lives and, where it once helped, now more often tricks us or causes more problems.

Dr. Dan Siegel has a great model for this phenomena you can find it here: Flipping Your Lid: A Scientific Explanation

Basically when we experience a trauma trigger we are in a state of fear and the part of our brain that allows us to create context and meaning out of what we experience – the pre-frontal cortex –  is no longer available. It has been taken offline so that all remaining function can be directed toward safety and survival.

This type of event can occur in one extreme shock or it can occur over time by the accumulation of many momentary threats and wounding that reinforce the feeling of being unsafe.

Think of it as one BIG “T” or a mountain of little “t’s” the result of which is overload, shutdown and trauma.t79851-wood-blocks-3d-2

So that happened now what do I do?

Well, trauma is a package deal because it comes with TRIGGERS. These are reminders and familiar things that we recognize – sometimes consciously, sometime unconsciously, as familiar and “like the trauma” but to another person witnessing it in this time and place, it may not appear like anything traumatic at all. It can be very confusing.

One of the most difficult challenges for someone who has experienced trauma is the feeling that no one understands or believes them.

For the person experiencing the traumatic trigger, it does not matter one hoot to their brain and nervous system that other people aren’t seeing the same thing – they feel it as true. The physical body merely alerts us and because the brain was unable to create meaning at the time the trauma occurred, time and place become irrelevant and it is true as much now as when the trauma really happened no matter how long ago.

The best metaphor that I use with my clients is to think about trauma as a disease just like diabetes and the triggers like sugar. For someone who doesn’t have diabetes all the sweet things are just fine and no problem at all. But to someone with diabetes, a little bit of sugar is life threatening.

It’s the same thing for a trauma trigger. Common every day slights and upsets would be easily brushed off by someone who doesn’t have the triggers.  But for someone carrying trauma, it sends us into shock and we need something added to bring our system into balance. For a diabetic it is insulin. For traumatic trigger recovery it is attunement and acknowledgement  – validating the feelings and naming them that creates a sense of calm and safety.

As Dr. Siegel says, name it to tame it.

So this brings us to you – friends and family of someone you love and who carries trauma.

It is very confusing to us when someone we love lashes out at us for seemingly no reason or freezes and withdraws or abruptly gets up and walks out. The behavior feels deliberate and hurtful to us*.

So what happens is misunderstanding and further withdrawal and trauma – now passed between each other and reinforcing that the world is not safe and I am not safe with you.

What can we do?

Well, first thing is to recognize that the person is struggling with something they cannot control. They may work very hard to manage it but until real healing occurs and the trauma is integrated as meaningful and contextualized life experience they will fall short.  So when triggering occurs, they slip into the least helpful behaviors that make you not want to be near them.

“Allow this behavior to be accepted as a temporary bump in an otherwise loving road.”

The following are suggestions to help you and your loved one have tools to break the cycle of re-traumatization and form deeper connection for healing in the relationship:**

Step 1:  Don’t personalize.
Recognize that this person you love does not want to hurt you, but is triggered and needs your help to regain a sense of safety.

  • What you see – my sister is yelling at me/him/her, my brother is leaving the dinner abruptly,  my mother is crying, my father has a glazed look in his eyes and doesn’t seem to hear me.
  • What they see/feel – I am not safe here, I am not wanted, I don’t belong, a barrage of negative self talk and a flood of emotion or perhaps just fog and numbness.
  • What they need to hear – It’s OK, I am here and I want to understand what is happening right now. What do you need? Tell me what you are feeling? How can I help you?

Step 2: Listen
To the capacity you can, just listen.  If you can’t stay present for whatever reason, let them know you love them but need to take a moment (good modeling) and that you will be right back.

Acknowledge their feelings and reflect what you heard – keeping your voice relaxed and low and, above all, remaining calm.  You may hear blame or other messages that make you uncomfortable.  They may express exaggerated feelings or emotions – things that seem nonsensical to your own experience of what is happening. Above all don’t argue or contradict them. Just keep listening.

Acknowledgement does not mean you accept blame – but you can say “I understand” and “I appreciate you telling me.” with the intention to talk more later.

It will take some time for them to calm down depending on the trigger and the circumstances. Allow them to step away and recover, or hold them close and let them cry, or give them space but stay present with them. To the capacity that you can, give them what they ask for. Above all listen. The objective is to attune to them and love them through this moment into safety and calm.

Step 3: Believe Them
What they say may trigger some feels of your own and you may feel the impulse to defend. Try not to because this is not about you and it won’t help anyway. Let them know you believe what they say is true. This doesn’t mean you agree or align with their point of view, but you are allowing them to have the experience they are having without shame or judgment and this is a very important element to the healing process. You may also gain insight which allows you to see their pain and have deeper empathy. Remember even members of the same family can have very different experiences of the shared relationships and events.

Step 3: Problem Solve
After you have listened to what they feel and need it is important to back it up with real behavior change. Talk with them about how to help them avoid the trigger in the future. Listen to what is causing them pain and hold the request with appropriate concern and urgency.  Negotiate a solution and adaptation where you see opportunity for that.

Step 4: Be an ally
Encourage and model for others in the family or community how to remain calm and manage it when future events occur. Allow this behavior to be accepted as a temporary bump in an otherwise loving road. By doing that you will find that the person will gain a sense of trust in the connection and feel triggered less frequently as a result.

Recognize that although their behavior makes you uncomfortable and anticipating their moods can impact your own enjoyment of the community or family – the best way to correct it is to deepen the connection with them, if possible. Allowing them to have their experience and you sharing yours. Giving each other a chance to understand the differences and shared perspectives.

Most importantly,  avoid the temptation to scapegoat or join in conversation about the person that furthers the negative stories about them.  These stories reinforce that they really are unsafe and erode trust for everyone.

The more shame and judgment allowed, the less safe people feel.

Notice common ways of relating in your family or community that may be contributing to the dysfunction and impacting everyone as a result. Remember we all play a role in the health of every relationship, family or community in which we are a member.

*Of course it hurts and it is important you know that your feelings matter too and must be acknowledged but for the sake of healing the time for that is when things are calm not in the middle of the triggering event. If you are triggered yourself, then seek support first!
**DISCLAIMER: These suggestions are intended to assist with mild to moderate triggering events where emotions are the primary expression. If you feel you or the other person is in immediate physical danger – call 911.

How Facebook helped me find my voice

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Like many people who were well into middle age when social media exploded onto the scene, I joined Facebook kicking and screaming in 2010. I resisted for a long time, joining the complainers that opined about how much time it took away from other things and kept them up late at night.

Truthfully, that is exactly what happened to me but you’ll never hear me complain. The reason is that Facebook helped me find my voice.

  • Before Facebook I didn’t know I needed a soapbox.
  • Before Facebook I didn’t know I cared about politics.
  • Before Facebook I didn’t know many of my friend’s birthday or that I would care that people acknowledge mine.
  • Before Facebook I had never heard of a flash-mob or why it is important to see cute animals at least once daily
  • Before Facebook I thought I only had a handful of friends, now I have many many more and I am glad to know them.
  • Before Facebook I had never experienced bullying online or felt the satisfaction of seeing someone’s mind change and soften after a heartfelt exchange.
  • Before Facebook I had never shown my sadness to anyone that wasn’t my closest confident and then had my feelings confirmed and supported in a few words by a group of people who really want me to know they care.
  • Before Facebook I didn’t really understand the huge racial divide that is breaking my heart and that I am now dedicating my life to heal.

I learn new things every day from blogs, pages and people whose thoughts and concerns I admire. Some of whom are people who I have never met who know me through a friend of a friend connected to an organization I care about. Oh yeah and and some really old friends who I haven’t clapped eyes on in 30 + years.

Before Facebook I would never have imagined that I could comment on something wonderful and enlightening posted by a total stranger from across the world. But now I can and I do. I feel connected to the world in a way I could never have been before and I love more, I feel more open-hearted, more curious and I care about what happens to people I have never met because I see a little more into their lives.

I feel more empowered to act on things because my friends care too.  When I see something wrong and it changes how I see the world, I can do something.  It is not nothing to have changed the conversation, to have planted seeds, to have opened up and let people know what I think and why they should consider thinking about it that way too.

Facebook helped me find my voice. I would not call myself an armchair activist because I am also involved in real organizations that exist outside of social media.   But even if I only spent time on Facebook, who says I don’t really have skin in the game?

Slacktivist is another term that gets tossed around. But I challenge that label and here’s why: Facebook gives me access I would never have on my own. I am more informed about what’s happening around the world and I can speak, write, email and share what I hear with my expanding group of friends.

So thank you Facebook and all the people world-wide who are shaping me and influencing me and who I hope are benefiting from my own unique lens, experiences, challenges, reactivity, appreciation and loves because you heard and felt my voice.

Strengthening Your Sense of Self & Identity

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Our sense of self is molded by the things we see, hear and feel throughout our lives. In early life our identity and sense of self comes primarily from the relationship or attachment we form to those closest to us. Our parents, family and community created a “climate” for our inner development to adapt to and take shape.

Later in life, as our experiences extend beyond the confines of our immediate relationships, we start to add and subtract beliefs and habits to form our own identity. These may be healthy or unhealthy choices depending on our ability to understand and express the feelings and emotions we experience. Where there is no language or space to be you and express your wants and needs, and most importantly, have them be validated, we rebel. If you won’t accept me I will find acceptance somewhere else.

Trauma, at any age, distorts our experience of ourselves and the world and in order to make sense of these distortions we create meaning that explains why they occurred. The younger we are the more likely that story places us at the center and we fully accept the shame that comes with it. I’m bad, I’m wrong, it was my fault, I asked for it, if I were different, if I had known and on and on – we accept the labels, blame and shame as our own. From there we perpetuate those beliefs through unconscious choice making and relational patterns that reinforces that story over and over.

The process of reclaiming and rebuilding a strong, healthy sense of self requires first and foremost looking critically at your life. What is your life reflecting back to you and where are you focusing your attention?

What is the common story you tell yourself when things go right?
When things go wrong?

Your life is like a mirror reflecting back to you the life you either created or agreed to. It is mostly unconscious. The way to understand and change it is to stop, look and listen.

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Reclaiming your power.
“…no one gives you power, you just take it” Rosanne Barr

If we grew up in an environment where power was abused through force we learned that power is something some people have and others don’t. We learn that power is what you need to win and someone always loses. But power is much more complicated than that. Personal power is everything and nothing. It is not authority, which is power entrusted. It is not force, which is power stolen. Power is equally strength and restraint. True authentic power is knowledge, wisdom and understanding about ourselves and the conviction that we know who we are.

Unveiling and Rewriting Your Story: What are your core beliefs?

Core Beliefs – “Unconditional beliefs that serve as a basis for screening, categorizing, and interpreting experiences. For example, “I’m no good.” “Others can’t be trusted.” “Effort does not pay off.” These often operate outside of the individual’s awareness and often are not clearly verbalized.”  Source

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  • What do I believe to be true about myself?  Where did it come from?
  • What messages have I claimed for myself
  • What messages have I accepted to belong or survive
  • What assumptions am I operating from as a result of these beliefs?
  • How do these beliefs effect my thoughts feelings and behaviors?

How do I know what is really me? And what is not me?

As you move through each day, stop, look at what is happening in this moment, and ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I like it?
  • Do I want it?
  • Why is it good for me?
  • What do I need right now?
  • How do I feel?

As you take the time and allow yourself to REFLECT, ASK and ANSWER these questions you strengthen self knowledge.  You won’t get it right every time especially at first. That’s okay – keep going.  As you learn to trust yourself it will become more automatic and you will gravitate toward the answers you know you like. It is not selfish to take the time and space to discover what you need and feel- that is part of your responsibility as an adult.

It is our responsibility to create the environment
in which we can thrive

My world is a reflection of the choices made by me or for me. Do you feel empowered? Are you thriving? To reclaim your power and control in your own life you have to know how to make choices that you can not only live with, but be happy with.  Choices that lead you to effortless happiness. That is thriving. Start simply and pay attention to each choice.

Every day try to reflect on these three questions:
What choices did I make today that feel good?
What choices did I make today that are leading me where I want to go?
What am I most grateful for today?

As you strengthen your knowledge about who you are and what you want you will drop the need to justify and explain or apologize when your needs and wants do not appease others.  All healthy relationships allow space for negotiating wants and needs and when that isn’t allowed, your new empowered self will make the best choice for you.

As you turn your attention to what is working you will find it easier and easier to make that choice.

That is where you find happiness and where you will THRIVE!

 

It always starts with the first thing…

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Welcome to my new blog. I had been thinking about getting this going and, as my title suggests, it just takes one simple thing to get you moving in a new direction. In this case, a new friend wanting to connect on LinkedIn, which caused me to review my profile, which led to reviewing the “new” features on LinkedIn which include linking your blog, and here I am with a new blog to share my professional insights with the world. That’s how change happens.

Why today? I don’t really know. I have the time, I suppose. But I am aware that my judgmental thoughts are creeping in saying things like..”you’re late, you should have done this two months ago”…”you should be taking a walk right now”…etc.etc…These thoughts are so unhelpful and if I let them, they could rob me of the satisfaction and joy I would like to feel now that I have done this thing that I had set a goal to do. And here I am and it is done. Yay me.

So when you are thinking of all the things you want to do remember it just takes a simple act of following the impulse in the moment. It can come from anywhere, even a list you are making right now. It doesn’t matter. It just matters that you allow the impulse to take you.

I’ll be back!