Not all triggers come with warnings. Here’s what we can learn from my social screwup.
I had a meltdown today, because someone invited me to a party and I’m sick and I don’t want to go. When they ever so kindly and politely insisted it was a must-attend, I had a meltdown.
It’s a killer networking opportunity, would make life easier for future-you, you should want to do this! they said. To which I wrote a 100-word wall of defensive, angsty-sounding explainer text about the too-much-information details of my life, highlighting why I don’t want to go but will if they insist. Their polite offer to support the introvert into attending a big party, ended confusingly indeed.
As the tabloids would say, you’ll never guess the reason why. (though if you’ve guessed crazy bitch, you are partially correct)
The more elaborate reason why I was triggered by a well-meaning conversation into reacting so defensively instead of saying I’m sorry, but I really can’t attend this time!, is my regrettable way of internalising some really reasonable, well-meaning parenting. So in failing to identify my triggers in due time, I’ve completely bewildered a kind extravert — and also given us a lot to talk about when it comes to how small humans internalise shit from their caregivers into a weird automatic defence response.
However, in order to explain this, I’m going to need to go off on what I assure you will, ultimately, prove not to be a narcissistic tangent about my middle-class childhood, but a much-needed real-life example of what we’re talking about.
The narcissistic tangent about my middle-class childhood
My parents are really cool people. As in progressive. Contemporary. The kind of people who make NSFW jokes that are actually funny and go to rock concerts. These days, I visit them almost every Sunday even though I don’t feel obligated to, I consult them before major life decisions and they consult with me in turn, there are #goals level healthy boundaries going on in our relationship, we recommend books to each other and watch the same movies, and there’s mutual sharing going on to a level I never thought possible across generations.
This has not always been the case. Despite everyone’s best intentions, as is so often the case with family misunderstandings.
Even though both my parents are educated, progressive people, we were still a communist country for the entirety of their lives before I was born. I was two months old when communism fell in Romania, so they didn’t get a chance at much of any information on topics such as mental illness, or parenting in general, before having to deal with it anyway. Back then, parenting education consisted of urban legends, hopes and dreams, and what your own parents told you about it. The hospital handed my 20-year-old mother a new-born baby and wished her the best of luck.
So they did their best. Despite giving it their sleepless nights, their energy, and all they could spare of their time, I was only officially diagnosed and treated for my lifelong severe generalised anxiety and depression as an adult, age 25. We spent my entire childhood and adolescence not knowing what the fuck with wrong with me.
We assumed my mental illness was an attitude problem. And by we, I mean both my parents and I, assumed the same thing: that it was a me problem, rather than a neurotransmitters in my brain problem.
They tried their best to correct this attitude problem, while I tried my best at blaming myself. Problem with that obviously being, you can’t correct someone out of mental illness, nor can you blame yourself into not being anxious and depressed.
Don’t get me wrong, I would have given me up for adoption to the Church of Satan, had I been my parents. My maladaptive coping mechanisms for undiagnosed depression and anxiety made me an impossible child. As soon as I struck puberty, The Exorcist couldn’t have handled the rebellion, disobedience, angst, and constant obscure dark-metal references. I am not, for one second, judging my parents here, and will defend them against any hypothetical individual who might try to do so. Remember that throughout reading this.
I was what you’d call an articulate child, so it seemed natural to try to reason with me: explain why studying for better grades is a logical choice for my future, or why the chores need to be done for a healthier and happier environment. And I did understand why I should do all the things. I just couldn’t do any of the things right, nor was I for my life able to offer a coherent explanation for why everything is so hard. We all had a picture in our respective heads of what mental illness was, and I wasn’t hearing any voices.
I tried my best at explaining what I couldn’t understand myself about myself, but eventually just resorted to retreating inside my own head, save for the occasional angsty outburst that only served to baffle my poor parents further.
Like I said, enlightenment to the truths of mental illness and its many faces eventually struck all of us, especially my mother who currently earns her living in the field. But this was almost 20 years ago, so we were all pretty fucking clueless at the time, which was the norm, really.
When explaining basic shit logically failed to yield anything above mediocre results on a really good day, my parents tried coercion. Restriction of the few things my depressed, dopamine-craving brain did find any trace of joy in. But most importantly, restriction of emotion. I must’ve gotten the silent treatment more than the average boyfriend. If you’d have asked me what I was to my parents when I was 14, I’d have said disappointment.
Most confusing of all? In what I’m sure must have been pure, utter, sheer despair, they started alternating between the two — persuasion and punishment — at random. I’d never know when I’d be sat down for a calm talk about how I should want to do this stuff for myself, or for a set of restrictions and consequences to my inability to do so. Nor did I know which one of the two I found made me feel most like a disappointment.
I love my parents, I respect their efforts and their dedication, especially their having not given me for adoption to the Church of Satan to return me to the all-the-behaviour-you-could-think-of-that-drives-parents-crazy hell from which I’m sure it sometimes felt like I came. But most of all, I respect them as people, for who they are and how much they’ve evolved and grown throughout the last 29 years of my life and throughout their entire lives in general. These were people with emotionally tough upbringings, being amazingly dedicated to creating a functional human being despite that human’s determination to the contrary. They gave this shit their all for more than 18 years.
However, as a result of this unfortunate mix-up of undiagnosed mental illness and slightly bipolar, despair-induced parenting techniques, I learned a few stupid things from my folks, none of which have anything to do with anything they were actually trying to teach me:
· not doing shit for your own good disappoints other people
· you never know when people become fed-up with being disappointed
· and there are consequences, emotional and otherwise, to disappointing them.
Are my parents proud of me today like any normal parents and do they make me feel it? Yes. Are my parents educated on mental illness and that hearing voices is not the only way to experience mental suffering? They are now, my mother read libraries on the subject, went through college at age 40 while holding a full-time job, and is now working as a certified therapist. My dad is a kind-hearted, loud-mouth engineer (sorry daddy) who is really fun to debate with even though he sometimes gets pissed because I take advantage of my articulate nature to try to outdebate him. They’re amazing, normal, loving middle-class parents.
Yet here I am, 29 years into a life, learning that one of the triggers to my defensive awkwardness, is the phrase You should want to do this for yourself.
The fucking point already, nerd! + bonus how-to guide
So my point here is to pass this following set of questions on to all of you, as well as to remember to continue posing them to myself:
Which weird, maladaptive safety programs have you inherited from your caregivers? What silly, child-level-cognitions do you carry out into knee-jerk, adult automatic reactions? When faced with these triggers, do you fight, run, or do you play dead? How do you wish you could react instead, if that impulsive reaction wasn’t stealing away with your ability to decide?
My personal strategy is to look at the times when I lose it and act irrationally. Like, really dive into why I reacted the way I did. The trick is to stay on the side of brutal self-honesty, while not falling into self-judgement. Self-judgement is not a productive mindset, and our aim here should obviously be to productively look at how we can act the fairest and most reasonable to other human beings, because that’s what people who are not assholes aim for when they interact with others, while owning to their mistakes and learning from them.
Every time we act out and become defensive, overreact, or otherwise lash out, we feel like shit. So, naturally, our brain tries to give us some easy handle to grab at: I was tired; I’m PMS-ing; it was something they said or something about the way they said it; I was feeling overwhelmed. These are all reasonable things to notice, and I’m sure they do contribute to one’s tendency to act defensively.
But the point is, if you feel like you could have acted with more composure in a given situation, you were most likely triggered by something inherently harmless, most often benevolent. Which means you can identify that trigger, and work on changing that knee-jerk defensive reaction into something more in line with who you actually are today.
As a rule of thumb, if you feel like you reacted instinctively, like your own behaviour is not at all like the individual you strive to present into the world, like you never had a chance to think about how you want to react but just sort of vomited out a reaction from the depths of your brain, then it’s probably some sort of weirdly internalised rule you’ve picked-up during childhood. That’s when we learn most of our instinctive emotional triggers.
I have an unglamorously simple strategy for bettering myself out of the experience, in the fallout of wishing I had reacted with more composure.
Try and look at the last time you wished you reacted differently in conversation, maybe calmer, or more self-assured, or less passively. Come at this from a place of curiosity and self-benevolent desire to improve, not self-judgement. Then:
1. Zero in on what your unfortunate victim has said just before you went all-caps-rage on them.
Replay it a couple of times in your head. Notice when your body and mind are going into defence mode. This gets easier to notice as you practice. Maybe it was a particular phrase, gesture, circumstance, or a combination of the above. Really zoom in on which part specifically it was that set you off.
2. Stay with it until you can remember where you’ve heard/seen that throughout your early life and adolescence, your so-called formative years that are actually called that for a reason.
Some are not as immediately obvious, which is when I find that just letting it simmer in the back of my mind will eventually do the trick for that aha! moment.
3. Find out what emotional overblown disaster you have attached to that specific phrase/gesture/set of circumstances.
This part should be about how it made you feel to hear/see the thing, and how you were trying to protect yourself from it emotionally by either fighting, running, or playing dead. Maybe you felt unsafe, unloved, sad, confused. You developed a defence strategy to counter this, i.e. you become defensive and overreact instinctively one way or the other. This is your pre-written code, your knee-jerk response when faced with the trigger, the dirty underbelly of your operating system, behind all the neatly customised interface.
Note that sometimes it’s not that exact match of wording/phrase/etc., but the implications that you ascribe to them. It’s helped me if I get lateral with it. In our ever so wordy example above, my parents did not literally say you should want to do your homework. But they did spend hours explaining to me why doing my homework is important for my future, and why I should therefore, want to do it, for myself.
That’s how it came that, 20 years later, when my unfortunate victim used that phrase to make their point, I automatically concluded that to say no would equate in either seriously disappointing them, or some other surprise negative consequences. And I panicked. You see, my parents did try to explain why I should want to do my homework, but they never really gave me the option to say no anyway (because, duuh).
My trigger is the phrase you should want to do it for yourself. Well, one of my triggers anyway. The maladaptive cognition attached to this trigger, engrained early on in my childhood, is that when someone says I should want to do something for myself, what they’re essentially saying is, there is punishment for not doing so.
What my poor extrovert was actually saying was, hey sis cool party, wanna come? What they received in response was subsequently trolled for over an hour, and I respected them for trolling rather than being offended at the machine-gun of panic.
Now that I know this about myself, the next time I hear that trigger-phrase, I will immediately think of that one time I had a meltdown because I was invited to a party. And I will laugh at myself with kindness. I will react with dignity and compassion. The trigger will have lost its power to control my reaction, through the fascinating process of questioning myself. I have regained a nanoparticle of control in my life with an otherwise unpredictable, amazing human brain.
So in case you’re wondering why you should care about any of this: if not for your fellow human beings living on a regular-interaction-radius of your triggers (of which we literally all have, dude out there in the back, jeez, yes you overreact too sometimes), if not for those you love and respect, then do it so that you don’t end up answering party invitations with embarrassingly detailed accounts of your physical ailments.
So don’t let it go when you overreact. Don’t blame yourself either. Question yourself. Relentlessly, with compassion and curiosity.
Thank you for bearing with me on this journey into benign triggers and such, I hope I’ve managed to make it a productive, somewhat thought-provoking journey for all of us.
As ever, thank you for taking the time to debate with me. Until next time, stay safe, nerds.