The single most important investment we can make is to understand ourselves.
For it is through understanding myself more that I understand others. Through loving myself more deeply I love others more dearly. Through granting myself forgiveness I open to forgive others. Through having compassion for my faults I have compassion for the messiness of others.
When I first started practicing mindfulness, I had no idea that the practice would take me on a lifetime journey of self discovery. As I started observing myself, my habits, my behaviors, my thoughts, I discovered some interesting patterns that I didn’t see before. I cracked the depths of the truth of my being open to look beyond the surface level that I knew so well. To meet the neurosis that creep inside, the fears that propel perceptions and actions if I’m unaware of them, and my ultimate “Home” inside the confines of my Heart that I can return to and find solace in.
I’ve been reflecting on just how important this practice is to my life in the wake of post-election politics, reactions, conversations full of tension and laughter. Two weeks ago I was asked to lead a workshop on how to have difficult conversations. Many were concerned about conflict breaking out at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Feeling impassioned to share their perspectives and have relatives understand their side of the story and why they felt concerned, I understood their pull. I too am feeling passionate about policies, officials, and a society that upholds the desire for the happiness and freedom of all beings. Human and nonhuman alike. While I feel like pulling out that soapbox of mine and yelling, I know conversations that feel important to me are productive based on how receptive I and others in the conversation are. And this all hinges on one thing...reactivity.
When we get triggered, someone touches something wounded inside of us, something sensitive. In this moment we become far more animal than human.
Many of us aren’t willing to admit this, but after years of practicing contemplative practices I know that there is a very animalistic part of myself that runs deep when I feel threatened. It not only feels different, it acts different. This is a moment where the tide turns in an interaction with another person and my heart starts to race. My gut starts to clench and emotions start to flare. In these moments, the person we are in conversation with has touched a wound seen or unseen inside of ourselves and our survival mechanism calls out to defend. Sometimes this happens innocently during a conversation, as if to trip over an unseen rock in the road. Other times this happens more obviously because the person or people we are connecting with are already in their own survival mode and this awakens our’s.
Survival mode is chemical. Neuroscience says that the threat center of our brain can get activated when there is a perceived threat. Key word perception. When this happens, it sends signals to the rest of our brain to engage our muscles, to prep the body for fight, flight, or freeze. This animalistic response to survive is sensed by the other person or people in our space. Have you ever been on a train, bus, or in a store where you sensed a total stranger was in a bad mood? You felt it. You knew with every fabric of your being that this person was not in a good place and therefore moved away or became more vigilant/watchful? We’ve all experienced it. In this moment of feeling, your protection mechanism is sensing the other person’s protection mechanism. Without any words exchanged your alarm system turns on.
Enter in the power of words. Letters that can melt your heart or close you off. As I sat with myself reflecting on what was the most important element to sensitive conversations to share at the workshop I knew that we had to start with self-awareness and regulation. Whether it’s a sensitive conversation with your boss, partner, or family member about the future of this country or the promotion you desire, your state of being is the most critical piece to a productive conversation and ultimately, your happiness. It all starts with first knowing when you are getting triggered in the first place.
When we start, continue, end a conversation triggered, it’s likely the other person’s threat system will activate and there is a point of no return. Where listening ends, hearts close, and we selectively hear what our threatened minds want to hear. To solidify our story about why we are justified to be scared, angry, upset. And everything else zooms by. In this moment of constriction, everyone loses. Have you ever gotten into an argument that ended on something as silly as a water bottle? That, my friend, is the work of survival mechanisms. That is an interaction where our animal side intervened, blocked us from accessing the rational part of our brain, and as our shells of protection hardened, limited information that came in had it be so that we became so triggered that the water bottle is worth fighting over. When we are connected to our center, our essence, when we are open, this fight will never happen. It will never devolve to this level of pettiness. But in the fields of threat, anything is game.
For this week’s Joy Tip Wednesday, I want to invite us to get clear about the animal inside of us and what it looks like when it shows up.
To begin to sense when we are moving out of our truest selves and into a shrunken version of ourselves. We’ll start by understanding what it looks like when we get triggered. Here’s how to start learning your own unique alarm bells:
Learn your body signs. For the next week, note, when you are stressed, upset, angry, frustrated, and hurt. Pay attention to where you feel it in your body. Which body parts do you feel it in? What is the nature of the sensation? Hot? Cold? Tight? Gripping? Maybe you journal about this for 5 minutes at the end of every day. Maybe you make a few notes in your phone each time. Get very familiar with the signs of your body because they are some of your best alarm bells that you are moving into survival mode.
Listen to your unconscious alarm bells. It’s often the case that our body receives information that we are triggered before our conscious mind can process it. The most extreme example I often share to demonstrate this is when a former colleague of mine fell asleep in a humvee in a war zone when an IED went off as their convoy passed. In the moment my colleague fell asleep after the bomb exploded, his body decided there was a threat and before he could even process it, the body determined the best defense mechanism/alarm/survival, was to put his body to sleep. Think freeze. Deer in headlights. Luckily he got out safe. His story taught me that whether it is the most extreme situation or in a regular conversation, unconscious biological responses happen underneath the hood of our mind where our body becomes our best ally in tuning us into a shift from centered to stressed.
Be ready for surprises and get curious. After learning your body signs, start to watch for them. You might be surprised to discover that interactions you thought you were calm in are actually moments of experiencing stress and triggering. Paying attention to this helps us start to surface the unconscious projections and perceptions we place unknowingly on reality. When you notice a sign in your body in moments when you think you are calm, get curious. Perhaps ask the question, “how am I feeling threatened right now” and listen to what comes back.
Know you are not alone. My experience is that clients who start practicing this discover that they are triggered and stressed more than they previously realized. If this happens to you, don’t see this as a problem. I invite you to see this as an opportunity. An amazing invitation from the Universe to walk through a door to a new level of happiness and freedom as you learn more deeply about the nature of your being. And what being centered feels like.
The journey to understanding your triggering and delinking from our automatic reactive responses takes practice. The body is the most potent place to start and the most often overlooked ground for exploration. For years my practice of observation remained in my head. When I moved into the body I discovered that I was being triggered far more often than I otherwise perceived. I understood why conversations devolved into unnecessary territory. Why certain people and I were repeating unhelpful patterns. And why I felt tired at the end of my day. My system was on high alert far more often than I recognized. And this meant that I was meeting each moment narrowly through my threat perception. Over time, after paying attention to my body’s signals I felt empowered with this new knowledge to see when my body lovingly alerts me to that I’m moving out of center before my mind can catch it.
If you are feeling inspired by the idea of learning how to take this new knowledge of triggering into your life to create productive conversations, reach out to me to set up a one-on-one session.
We can develop a powerful strategy for a sensitive conversation you’re ready to approach with a new sense of being. In the meantime, love that amazing body of your’s that has the intelligence to let us know when we are off.
PS. Next year I’ll be launching an exciting mindset training project. If you are ready to let go of overwhelm and move into intention and joy, sign up for my newsletter by clicking HERE to be the first to learn about this exciting project and exclusive offers on how to learn the knowledge and skills that absolutely changed my life.