Deborah Ward

Sense and Sensitivity

Respond to the Present, Not to the Past

How old fears trigger old responses and create more fear.

Posted Nov 23, 2013

When someone says something that upsets us, our first response is usually to become angry with that person. But more often than not, our emotional reaction is based on our own needs, our own fears, and our own unresolved issues. It seems as though the other person is causing us to feel annoyed or hurt, but they are usually triggering a memory or a feeling from our own past and that’s why it hurts. Our response to that trigger is our response to the past. Instead of reacting to pain from the past as if we were still children, we can choose to respond to the present as adults.

How do you know if you are responding to the present or the past? Think about a situation in which you got upset with someone. Perhaps you felt irritated when you talked to your mother on the phone or you got into an argument with your partner. What did they say that first got your heart pumping or your hands clenched into fists? Maybe it was when your mother mentioned your hopeless housekeeping skills or your husband made suggestions for improvement rather than listening to you. Relationships involve two people and each of us is responsible for our own behaviour. It can be very frustrating trying to talk to someone who is critical, blaming, defensive or ignoring our needs. But recognising the words, attitudes or expressions that trigger your emotional response can improve your relationships as well as heal your own hurt feelings.

You can learn to recognise your personal triggers through awareness of your feelings and your physiological reaction. When you are upset or angry, do your hands shake, does your mouth go dry, do your eyes well up with tears? Noticing your own body’s response can tell you when something painful from your past has been triggered. Whatever your reaction and whatever it was that triggered it, what you are feeling is fear – fear that you will be hurt again like you were in the past – and both your mind and your body are preparing for it. Your body releases adrenaline, which gets your hands sweating and your heart pumping, in preparation for fighting or fleeing. This fight or flight mode also makes it harder for you to think clearly, which is why so many of us go into ‘attack’ mode or run away.

At the same time, your mind generates any number of defenses to try to protect you from getting hurt, such as denial, acting out, blaming, criticising, crying, or justifying your behaviour. These are usually techniques we learned in childhood and while they worked then, to some degree, they no longer work as adults. In fact, they often work against us, pushing others away and creating only more fear and conflict.

Reacting to your fears caused by something that happened in the past means that you are reacting to the present moment in the same way you reacted in childhood. In fact, when something triggers your fear, you may experience the same feelings you had as a child when you were hurt, angry or afraid, such as feeling anxious, helpless, unworthy or powerless. These childlike feelings make it very difficult to respond to the present moment in an effective way.

Now think about a situation in which these feelings were not triggered. Perhaps you had a problem at work and you were able to resolve through discussion with your colleagues, or maybe you took some time to think about your relationship and came up with a decision based on your own needs for love and commitment. How did these situations make you feel? Did they make you feel scared and helpless or did they make you feel calm, capable and in control of your life? These are adult responses and adult feelings.

Responding to situations in the present as an adult is going to help you to resolve conflicts and leave the past where it belongs – in the past. The key to changing our reactions and preventing conflict involves listening to ourselves and making the choice to respond to the present moment:

1. Notice your physical reaction to others. If your heart is pounding or you can’t sit still, your fear of getting hurt has been triggered. Recognise it as your fear, not something that someone else is doing to you. Simply becoming aware that these feelings are yours is empowering because you are both taking notice of them and able to choose what to do about them.

2. Notice how you feel. Do you feel like crying or storming out of the room? Do you feel like a child when you are in conflict with someone else? If so, you are trying to get your childhood needs met and you are probably doing so in childlike ways.

3. Take a deep breath. Step back from the situation. Realise you have a choice. You can respond to the person in front of you in the same way you responded in the past, out of fear, or you can respond to the present, as an adult, and leave your childhood fears behind.

The important thing to remember is not that your childhood fears don’t matter or that you shouldn’t try to get them met, but that you can meet them yourself. As an adult, you don’t need to resort to defense mechanisms to feel loved. As an adult, you can take care of your childhood hurts by responding in an adult way, by expressing (not demanding) your needs, listening to (not blaming) the other person, and coming up with a mutually satisfying resolution. In this way, you’ll not only find your relationships more amicable, but you will be more likely to get the love, care and respect you’ve always wanted.