You’re going along pretty well, then suddenly something happens that triggers you. Here’s how to avoid getting consumed by feelings of ‘won’t this ever stop?!’
It’s no secret that my husband and I are doing pretty darned well these days. And yet, not too long ago, he did something that really triggered me back into a negative place. I spent a couple of days in a deep funk, thinking things like “Really? Seriously?” and “Maybe there just is no hope.” Now I know enough to understand that just because I’m thinking these thoughts doesn’t mean they are true – they are just ideas and, in this case, a reflection of my past, not my present.
This getting triggered back to feeling negative or hopeless can happen to anyone. The good news is, you can recover. Here are my tips for doing so:
Tip 1: (listen carefully!) Thoughts and reality are NOT the same thing. At all. And it’s really important to keep this in mind. Because at the time when you are triggered, the rush back to your negative past feels overwhelming. And because it feels so ‘BIG’ and overwhelming, it also feels true. Even when it’s not. I was triggered back to feeling depressed and negative…and yet the truth is that my husband and I are both very happy…and have the best relationship we’ve ever had. So remind yourself that thoughts are only that – just thoughts - and that if you don’t engage with them, they often can fade away.
Tip 2: Don’t dwell on the negative. Instead, seek and reinforce the positive. I’m not talking about making up stuff. I’m talking about finding what is positive, and reminding yourself that it is there, to diminish the power of the negative upon you. If you dwell on how bad the trigger feels, you will feed it and it will grow. If, instead, you acknowledge the negative is there, and then focus on the positive, you starve the negative and it shrinks. Look for facts (such as 'my husband shows me every day that he loves me') to deal with feelings of overwhelm directly.
Tip 3: Move yourself into a new space – physically, if possible. In 2014, after my second bout with cancer, I promised that I would try to make each day an adventure of some sort. Lately I’ve lost a bit of that (out of sheer laziness). When I got triggered, it was easy to feel a bit unmoored as a result. So I reconnected with that promise to myself as a way to divert my attention to a habit that is for, and about, ME. I borrowed a friend’s paddleboard and tried it out for the first time. At the end of it, I felt much better – more centered, and with a renewed desire to take care of myself and live true to myself. Notice…nothing there about feeling miserable or being triggered. Or even about my husband.
Tip 4: Don’t hide – share your experiences with your partner. You have to do this carefully because the trigger came from your partner and the last thing you need is to have a pile on because your partner feels defensive and triggered him or herself. The best way to execute this conversation is to: focus on your feelings, not your partner’s actions; be gentle but clear; back off if you see signs of defensiveness building; use conflict intimacy skills. What you may well find (I did) is that even though I went to a negative place, it wasn’t backed up by my husband’s feelings. He loves me deeply, and was able to reassure me that my feelings, while understandable, did not have basis in his feelings about me, or the relationship. Further, he apologized for the event; and backed up his words with some meaningful, immediate actions. The added benefit of sharing your own feelings is that your partner can (if willing) share his or her own feelings, as well. You grow as you learn together. Hiding, on the other hand, gives power to fear because there is no counterbalancing force to diminish that fear.
Tip 5: Give yourself a break. We all get triggered sometimes. It’s a natural part of recovering from a difficult relationship. It’s okay to get triggered – and the fact that you can get triggered simply means you are human, not that your relationship is bad. So don’t worry about the fact that you ‘went backwards’ for a time – it’s okay. It’s normal. And you can recover…even learn from it.