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40. How Listening Can Help Us Not React To Our Triggers

In freeing ourselves from a dysregulated nervous system, an important step is learning how to reframe our experiences and manage our triggers, reactions, and baggage. We need to do this so that we are no longer subject to learned ways of behaviour that negatively impact our lives and the relationships we have with others.

The goal is to go from the diagram on the left below to the one on the right.


In the diagram on the left, in which our baggage is represented by the red squiggle, triggers are the green arrow, and our reaction is the red arrow, you can see a dysregulated nervous system - one that overreacts to the trigger. The diagram on the right represents a nervous system that is well regulated as a result of using boundaries and containment.

To reframe our experiences, we must bring attention to our triggers, our baggage, and our reactions. It’s easy to consider ourselves the victim in situations that trigger us and make us feel unsafe, but there is very little we can do to control what life throws at us. What we can do, however, is use boundaries and containment to lessen the impact that our triggers have on our baggage. When we do this, we create something like a shield around that vulnerable, wounded part of ourselves.

An example of how this works in practice is the story of John and Mary, which goes as follows.

John has agreed to pick up Mary from a work drinks event and take her to a dinner with his friends. He’s supposed to collect her at 7pm. At 6.55pm, she tells everyone she has to go, gets ready and is expecting him. He doesn’t show up. There’s no call, no message, nothing. As she’s waiting by the lobby of the bar, some of her colleagues leave together and comment that they thought she’d left. They ask her if she’s ok. Mary smiles bravely and tells them that everything’s fine. But inside she’s dying. She has no idea what’s going on and having played it all cool, like she had to leave because she had another event to go to, now she’s the one standing on her own looking foolish. It doesn’t help that one of the people passing her in the lobby is her work nemesis! John finally turns up at 7.50pm. Mary is still waiting, but not exactly pleased to see him. As he walks into the bar, all flustered, and greets her, she must make a choice in what to say.

When talking about her triggers, Mary would respond well to this situation by saying:

‘When we agree to meet at 7pm and you show up at 7.50pm, that’s a trigger for me.’

In doing so, Mary makes her response about her and her own triggers, not about John. Mary could add to the communication about the trigger by also including a good description of the reaction.

And now I notice that I feel very angry, upset, hurt, confused and scared. My stomach is tight, and everything feels hot in my abdomen. I don’t feel safe.

Once you have carefully identified your trigger, and diligently noticed and safely articulated your reaction, it’s time to open up the bit in the middle, the bit that links the trigger to that reaction. For Mary, that looks something like this:

“When we agree to meet at 7pm and you show up a 7.50pm that’s a trigger for me. And now I notice that I feel very angry, upset, hurt, confused and scared. My stomach is tight, and everything feels hot in my abdomen. I don’t feel safe. This reminds me of when I was always waiting for my Mum. She was always late for me when I was younger.”

What does this help Mary to learn about herself now as an adult? She has an over-reaction to people she cares about being late for her. She obviously has some work to do on this, but in the meantime, how can she keep the triggers to a minimum, so that this work is easier to do? She can ask John to help:

“So, in the future it would really help me if you could be on time, or let me know if there’s a problem as early as possible. And what I will do to help myself is if you are late and I’m getting uncomfortable, I will just go home.”

In this story, Mary has successfully identified her trigger, manages her reaction, and opens up about her baggage. She then let’s John know about her boundaries, which he can then, if he chooses, collaborate with Mary on keeping them. By simply letting people know what your boundaries are, they may find it easier to help.

The Importance of Listening

Let’s think for a moment how you would respond to any of these conversations if you were the one listening. It can seem like a bit of an odd dialogue. It’s not really how we normally talk. So, what would it be like to be spoken to like this?

Usually our reaction to something new and different is some form of resistance. We might be a bit alarmed. Add to this that we might easily hear these kinds of comments as if they are an attack, a judgement or blame, even when they are not. This might then become a trigger for the listener. And you know what can happen next if we then have our own reaction while listening to the first person’s reaction. We can get into a vicious cycle of mutual triggers instead of a healthy, regulating conversation.

The very best thing to try to do if someone is opening up to you like this is to listen. That might sound easy, but it’s actually one of the hardest things we ever do. Listening means hearing all the words and imagining what it is like to be saying them, rather than hearing just some of the words and then wanting to react or interrupt. Let’s be honest, most of us just react and interrupt most of the time. Even if we don’t actually interrupt the speaker with words, we interrupt our listening with our thoughts. Listening takes real effort. And guess what else? Practice, of course.

Clinically, we use a handy device for getting people to listen more deeply. We simply ask people to repeat back what they heard. When someone is listening to another’s vulnerable account of their nervous system, they know that at the end of it, they will be asked to try to repeat back what they heard, like a tape recorder. This focuses the mind on the task of listening, but it also shows up where it has been hard to listen. When the dialogue is reflected back to the first person, even if it is only partially accurate, it can be very reassuring for the person who spoke up to know that they have really been heard.

This is especially helpful for couples, for dispute resolution and for family work. If you find it hard to hear this stuff, or to be heard when doing it, this kind of exercise of repeating back what you have heard can be very effective.


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©2019 by Benjamin Fry