When I was a young mother, I was powerfully triggered when my son was rough with his younger sister. Every muscle in my body tensed into steel. My blood boiled in two seconds flat. In my state of unresourcefulness, I yelled unkind, unhelpful things at this little boy who was only trying to figure out his own frustration.
And then I felt terrible. I saw the look in my children’s eyes. I felt ashamed of my inability to respond compassionately and effectively.
When I finally got to bed, I replayed the incident about fifty times and resolved to stay calm next time. I would overcome my anger and frustration. And I would do it through sheer willpower. (You can imagine how that turned out…)
What I didn’t know then was that I needed to make friends with my trigger in order to outgrow it.
It’s pretty common to view our triggers as shortcomings or obstacles, instead of the teachers they really are. Or we assume that this auto-response is hard-wired in us, unchangeable, just the hand we were dealt. And we often conclude that the best thing is to get rid of it, right? Believe me, trying to conquer it or hide a default pattern is an excruciatingly long, repetitive battle.
This was me: “OK, NEXT time I’ll stay calm and say the thing that I read in that book.”
But, when we turn toward our trigger, instead of away, there is opportunity for growth. When we choose to listen to the aspect of ourselves that is seeking our attention, we begin to unlock the grip of old patterns.
It’s not easy. And yet it must be done if we are to be the positive, respectful, conscious parents we know in our hearts we are meant to be.
The first step is self-observation.
For all of us, waking up to an automatic pattern means making an ongoing effort to observe ourselves precisely when it’s happening. Self-observation is about creating enough space to really see what you are thinking, feeling and doing in the moment of that interaction with your child.
Making friends with your trigger means deliberately getting to know it, just as you would get to know your new neighbours by talking with them, noticing their routines and listening to the music that wafts from their kitchen. You observe them with curiosity. You watch and learn from next door.
To effectively observe yourself and your trigger, you also need fresh eyes and a certain distance from the scene. So, imagine you are a reporter or a hidden camera watching that interaction with your child, the one that launches you into an unresourceful state. From this angle, observe as much as you can – objectively and compassionately. You don’t have to change anything about the interaction. You’re only there to get the details.
You may think that you know all too well how that triggering scene plays out – you’ve been through it plenty of times - and yet there is much to be learned by approaching it with curiosity and a blank notebook.
Self-observation can be a little tricky at first because there’s the you in the interaction and the you observing it. That’s why we call self-observation as practice. You have to practice it - intentionally and repeatedly.
There are three main things to observe in yourself:
1. Thinking – What thoughts ran through your mind in the moment? Jot them down, all of them, without judgement.
2. Feeling – What emotions were present? Be as specific as you can. If you observe anger, ask yourself if you were actually feeling irritated, threatened, enraged, critical, etc. (If you need more vocabulary for this, find an emotions wheel on the internet.)
3. Doing – What movements did you make? Did you step forward, turn away, freeze, crumple, clench your fists? Observe your small gestures and facial expressions too. And make special note of what was happening inside your body, like holding your breath, pain in your back, tension in your eyes, unable to swallow, tingling in your fingers, etc.
One of the keys to doing a self-observation practice “intentionally and repeatedly” is keeping a notebook handy so you can jot a few notes as soon as possible after the interaction, even if it’s only five or ten words. For example, my notes might have been, “Thinking he’s doing it on purpose and I’m sick of it. Feeling powerless, then ashamed my kid is mean. Shoulders very tense. Eyesight blurry for a few seconds.”
And when you take your notes, let them be just for this particular day. Don’t read back on what you wrote yesterday. Don’t analyze or assume. Just capture as many details as possible about what happened in this incident. Again, you’re just the reporter for now.
After a week or two, if you feel ready to go deeper, take some time to reflect upon your notes. Begin by carving out some private time. Get into a comfortable position, release any tension in your body and take some centering breaths.
Read through your notes looking for themes. Be gentle with yourself as you read – this is about learning and evolving as a parent. It’s not time for criticism nor regret. Stay open and curious. Identify the main things you think, feel and do in that particular situation. Write them down.
Then I invite you to look a little more deeply into each one. What do the words mean to you? When have you experienced this thought/emotion/action before? What else do you know about these patterns? What else arises from them now? Explore as far as you feel comfortable. Capture your learnings. Take some more gentle breaths. Put your hand on your heart for a few moments. Stretch a little and close your reflection session.
Tomorrow, begin another cycle of self-observation. Rinse and repeat.
You’re getting to know your trigger. You’re looking at it instead of rejecting it. You’re making friends with that part of yourself.
And that’s the first step to growing beyond it.