Originally Written By: Ronald Frederickson, PhD
When we’re triggered, the activated emotions inside of us provide direct access into our implicit memory. At times like this, it’s common for our past emotional conditioning to take over, unconsciously distorting our perception and controlling our behavior. But, if we slow down our experience and stay present to our feelings, we’re afforded a golden opportunity to disentangle ourselves from our early wiring.
My new book, Loving Like You Mean It,explores our early relationship programming and how we can become more emotionally present and authentic with our partners. This “way of being” in relationship is precisely what’s needed to build loving connections. If we get curious and look at our feelings, if we stay open and listen to them, a picture begins to emerge in which the details of our early conditioning are laid bare. All those life experiences that have been “hard wired” over the years, and have been essentially running the show, start to become apparent. Below, I share an excerpt from Chapter 4 where we explore how to STOP and EXPAND our awareness to include other aspects of our present moment experience.
“Stopping” is not about bringing your experience to a grinding halt or getting rid of any part of it.
It’s about stopping whatever we’ve been doing and slowing down so there’s room to do something different. It’s about interrupting our usual way of responding when we’re triggered in order to move to Step 2 – shifting our focus in a different direction. This aspect of Step 2 overlaps with the tail end of Step 1. You know, the place where you probably wanted to ask me: ” and what the heck do I do now?!”
By stopping – recognizing and naming when you’ve been triggered – you’ve already begun to slow your process down. However, as I’m guessing you’ve discovered in your learning process, your nervous system may still be giving you a run for your money. Although your finger is reaching for the proverbial pause button, the pull to go with the old, familiar way of doing things is tempting and strong.
Why is the pull so strong? I mean, if we know that the old behavior is not helpful, why can’t we just let it go? This is actually a telling question. Remember the lessons that we learned during childhood about our feelings, needs, and desires? Our early conditioning occurred during a time when emotions are experienced as very intense. We were children. We hadn’t yet developed our ability to manage them. Thus, we experienced an extreme version of our feelings along with the intense fear that comes when our primary attachment relationships seem threatened. And, as research shows, lessons learned during times of profound emotional experience are very strong and enduring. So, the sense of threat that comes up for us around our emotions is intense as it comes from a very young place inside of us.
One way you can tell that this is the case, is by looking at the beliefs imbedded in the fear we experience. If you ask the fear what it’s afraid will happen should you let your defenses go, should you do things differently, the message you receive will likely be something like, “everything will fall apart,” “someone will be destroyed,” or “you’ll be abandoned.” If we step back and look at these beliefs, they don’t make rational sense. That is, unless you’re a child. When we’re young, our thinking is not very nuanced. It’s black and white and extreme. And, our world is a very small place made up of just a few people. For a child, the possibility of losing connection feels catastrophic. That’s the fear that got entangled with our core emotional experience and now shows up in our adult life. That’s why the pull to do something defensive to protect yourself is so strong. That’s why letting go of the old way of doing things feels so threatening.
Recognizing and labeling our reactivity as old, as we did in Step 1, can help to calm our distress, but sailing our emotional ship against the tide can still be challenging. What if we could further calm the sea and make it easier for us to move forward? That would certainly help. Here’s where simple, practical tools for calming our nervous system can be so useful.
When we’re activated, our fight-flight-or freeze response is in gear, we’re overcome by our distress and that’s all we can see. But, if we expand our awareness to include other aspects of our present moment experience, our perspective widens and becomes more balanced.
Mindfulness exercises, in which we shift our focus to our here-and-now sensory experience, can help us to see beyond our distress, connect with our surroundings, and feel more grounded. By intentionally focusing on a neutral aspect of our experience (for instance, what we’re seeing, hearing, smelling, etc.), we send a message to our amygdala that we’re safe and it’s okay to put the brakes on. We relax the charge in our nervous system and free ourselves up a bit so that we can do something different.
So, at any time when you’re feeling anxious or distressed, or you’re having a hard time resisting the urge to respond defensively, try this:
Take a moment to notice what you’re experiencing through any or all of your senses. Notice what you see, what you hear, what you touch, smell, or taste. For instance, notice how the chair you’re sitting in feels against your body. Listen to the sounds of your environment and note what you hear. Look around the room and notice what you see. Notice what you smell in the air. Take a sip of a beverage and notice how it tastes. As you do these things, describe to yourself what you’re observing.
What happened as you tried to ground yourself? Did the energy inside you change at all? Are you feeling a little more settled and centered? If so, great. If not, next week we’ll look at another option you can use.