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Archive for Empowerment

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.

Cultivating Healthy Relationships

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Here are some great habits to cultivate a healthy relationship with yourself which will naturally extend into the rest of your relationships.

DAILY

  • Tell the truth
  • Take 2 deep breaths before you answer yes or no questions
  • Make your daily maintenance a first priority
  • Start walking (or exercise of choice) 30 minutes a day
  • Express something you appreciate about yourself to yourself each morning
  • Express something you appreciate about another person to him/her/them directly each time you connect
  • Stay curious about your feelings: (Are you angry? Sad?  Try to identify what need is not being met)

AS OFTEN AS POSSIBLE

  • Schedule an evening alone to do anything you want
  • Meditate on your own or in a group
  • Start a gratitude journal
  • List 10 things you like and appreciate about yourself
  • Repeat for all the important relationships in your life
  • Listen to Dr. Dan Siegel’s Wheel of Awareness guided mediation
  • Take up a hobby you’ve always wanted to try
  • Take a day off from social media
  • Have a party celebrating a milestone—not your birthday or anniversary
  • Regularly audit your relationships using the Relationship Boundary Model

One of the most important things to do first – when you realize that there is something you want to change – is to start with yourself.

How Do I Create a Healthy Relationship?

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When we are growing up we learn how to be in relationship from the family and community we are raised in.

As an adult we repeat these relationship patterns in the community and family we cultivate.

How do we know if we are creating healthy relationships? If we know we are not, how can we change it?

The experience of connection with another human being is the most primary of motivations. We are hard wired for this connection and it is how we experience our sense of self in the world.

What are my relationships reflecting back to me?

Ask yourself these Questions:

1) Do I feel able to express myself fully?

2) Is there space for my feelings and experience?

3) Are my choices supported?

4) Do I trust and feel trusted?

5) Can I say no without argument?

6) Am I keeping secrets ?

7) Am I safe to be vulnerable?

8) Am I safe to express anger?

9) Can we disagree?

10)  Do I feel respected?

Communication is the most important skill in relationship. How you are able to express yourself and how others communicate with you can tell you a great deal about the health of your relationships.

In the list above, if you answered yes to most of them you are doing well. There is always more room to grow but you are on the right track. If you answered no, then there are things you can start doing now to cultivate health in your existing relationships and attract new ones.

First and most important step: Start with yourself—Take time for yourself and make knowing yourself a priority. When your emotional tank is empty you are unable to be fully available and present because you are not in touch with what YOU need, feel and want. Knowing yourself is the most important and healthiest way you can express authentically in relationship.

Audit your boundaries: Are you safe? Are the places where you need more space and control of your life clear and intact? If not look at how to change the amount of time, space or investment you have in areas of your life where you feel insecure or off balance.

Express early and often: Often we hold back on telling our friends and family when we are unhappy or don’t like something. We may second guess ourselves or minimize the issue as way to avoid conflict. This actually creates more conflict.

One great skill to develop is to pay attention to your body and when you feel that twinge that you are not sure you want to go along say “I’m not sure” or “I need to think about it” This is not a NO but it sends the signal that you need more time to decide. Then you are more able to give an authentic YES or communicate clearly what needs to be adjusted for you to be OK.

Forgive your mistakes: You will always have room to grow, make mistakes and get it wrong. This is part of life. The key to health and happiness is to remember that it is a journey and an ongoing process, there is no final destination but the goal is to have as safe and enjoyable a journey as possible.

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.