I Already Know My Emotional Triggers, Now What?
The Frustrating Gap Between Insights and Change
Posted Jul 01, 2018
“MY CBT therapist told me those were ‘irrational thinking,’ which made it worse- now I just blame myself.”
It is not as though we didn’t try- Many of us have gone at length to fix, heal, and better ourselves.
Through studious reading, diligent personal development work, reflections, and therapy, we often gain the necessary insights.
For instance, we start to draw the link between our present days' emotional triggers and painful past experiences.
We learn that we are vulnerable to criticisms because they remind us of the times our delicate young hearts were scolded harshly.
We realize our insecurities in relationships have to do with how much our parents’ inconsistency had rattled us.
We can even spot our behavioral patterns now:
It turns out we are attracted to the ‘wrong people’ because they are a replica of our painful albeit familiar past.
We judge others because they have qualities that we were taught to reject in ourselves.
Insights alone, however, do not bring immediate relief.
Often, upon these illuminating realizations, we are confronted with a painful gap between our intellectual understanding and how we continue to feel and react to events in life.
Even in our head we ‘know’ what is going on, we are still triggered by the same people, circumstances, and events.
Perhaps our therapist has (often unhelpfully) told us that we were ‘catastrophizing,’ ‘over-generalizing,’ or ‘jumping to conclusions;’ Our hypnotherapist has even gone back in time to undo the trauma… But it still feels like nothing is changing- not on a heart and soul level.
It may be even worse, for now, we beat ourselves up for ‘still being affected by the same old stuff.’
We think ‘we should have been over it by now,’ or we condemn ourselves for ‘playing victims.’
“Each time you meet an old emotional pattern with presence, your awakening to truth can deepen. There’s less identification with the self in the story and more ability to rest in the awareness that is witnessing what’s happening.
- Tara Brach
We live in a culture that encourages fixing things- So we desperately try to make the flaws and holes go away.
After all, isn’t that what all the affirmations, positive psychology and therapy are all about?
We want to heal our deep relational trauma of thirty years in two hours.
We want the absolute certainty that we will forever be immune to toxic relationships.
We want to never be triggered by our parents, partners, bosses, and children.
But the more we try, the more we do, the more frustrated we get.
We continue to cycle back and forth between resenting our past and fearing our future.
If you have tried everything and nothing has worked, perhaps it is time we try a different way.
Rather than fighting and getting increasingly frustrated, we could think of our wounds, our emotional triggers and our reactions all as a muddy swamp.
Like in quicksand, the more we try to escape it, the more stuck we get. Reactive and agitated movements would not only get us sucked in deeper, but our movement would also even expand the size of the swamp, making it even harder to reach the solid ground around it.
To get out, slowness, stillness and patient watchfulness are the keys.
First of all, we could remind ourselves that we are no longer a child, and whatever had hurt us in the past could no longer threaten us in the same way.
Knowing this, we could perhaps relax a little— soften our glare, release our grip, loosen our joints.
At least the adult part of us are conscious of the fact that our wounds cease to be the giant monster swallows us whole;
In due course, they become more like a piece of old furniture in our home.
It may be outdated and unsightly but is of no harm to us.
Our psyche wants to heal, and it will organically move towards health and wholeness if stop getting in the way.
In other words, we could allow the newfound insights to lie there in the back of our consciousness, and trust the process itself.
“I could not see beauty until I held hands with chaos in silence.”
- Vironika Tugaleva
To stop beating ourselves up for our progress, we must also realize one thing: The idea that we ‘could have done something different,’ or that we ‘could have been better sooner’ is an illusion.
This may sound radical at first, but our resistance is nothing but a result of years of social and cultural conditioning that had led us to believe pushing hard and being self-critical is the only way to improve anything (We were not born this way- Dalai Lama was shocked to know how much self- hatred permeates the modern man’s mind).
The truth is, we could not change any minute sooner than we could.
At every single given moment in our lives, we are doing the very best out of what we know and what we have. All the unpleasant feelings- the resentment, depression, grieve, have a reason to be there for as long as it needed to. Even the addiction, the disordered eating, the dysfunctional relationships, are all serving a necessary function.
They are our survival strategies; Without them, we would not have been able to keep going.
Of course, we are not suggesting spiritual bypass where we pretend that depression and addictions do not exist; We could acknowledge them, see their negative consequences, even dislike them, but we ought to remember that whatever is there has a reason to be there.
Our psyche, like everything else in nature, has its wisdom.
Just like how spring turns into summer, days turn into nights; we can only let go of the defense or old survival strategy when the time is ripe— not a minute before or a minute after.
“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”
By reflecting on our own experience, we realize this is the only way psychological shifts have ever happened: One day- almost surprisingly- we find that we no longer resent those who have harmed us, or that we have transmuted grief into profound wisdom within. This is how healing happens- organically, spontaneously, more often as a gradual shift than a sudden turn. We cannot control it, or predict it. When our psyche is fully equipped, we could not stop the move towards wholeness even if we try.
This approach does not equal non-action; It means a different approach to actions. Rather than forcing a particular change- based on our fears, pressured by a sense of urgency to be rid of something, we place our focus on cultivating compassion and the mental resilience.
While acknowledging the ‘unwelcome guests’ of unpleasant emotions, addictive behaviors, and compulsion, we continue to go on with our lives, and keep with reading, meditating, reflecting and attending therapy. We take care of ourselves because it is our responsibility to be a good lover, parent, and care-taker of ourselves.
Think of it as tending a garden— the heart and mind— that we have been given in this one precious life. We sweep our inner temple like a diligent disciple of life, but we do not do it for a particular reward.
When we do this enough, there will come a day when our inner garden has fertile enough soil for the necessary shifts. That is when our inner child feels safe enough to let go of old strategies, when we have built enough mental agility to deal with changes, when we have new strategies to work with old wounds, when our intuition is trusted, or when we have found the connection to a power bigger than ourselves. Then, the dysfunctional behaviors will go. When they no longer belong in your system, they will be automatically discharged.
I'd never known that I could feel this broken and whole at once.”
- Rachel Schade
With all these in mind, the next time we read a book, attend a healing session or gain insight, we could remind ourselves that we have done our part by courageously bringing what had previously been buried onto the surface.
Our psyche will work its way through in its own way and in its own time, and there is nothing more that we need to do. If the paper cut had healed up by the force of nature, so would our psychic wound- but only if we let it. Just like with sleep, the more we force it, the more entangled we get. The key is to remain unmoving, till the mud settles and the dust clears.
Think of floating, not swimming.
Think of allowing, not pushing.
Before we know it, the most needed change will arise by itself.
This is a new, counter-intuitive approach to healing and growing, but it may be the only way through the swampland between insight and change.
“Don't think of what you have to do, don't consider how to carry it out!" he exclaimed. "The shot will only go smoothly when it takes the archer himself by surprise.”
― Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery