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*Editor’s note: well-deserved salty language ahead!
“Great, another fucking day of this bullshit,” I grumbled inside my head as I stomped outside, work-bound.
I perceived a disconnection in my relationship: a lack of tending to, care, and attunement. Despite mentioning it several days in a row, I didn’t perceive that he’d adequately addressed or heard me.
And I could feel myself erupting.
“I’m not feeling super great about you and I and I’m struggling with this,” I texted him.
Anger wrapped around my torso like a jacket, heating my body from the inside. The inner ring of my ribs burned, and the heat gave my movements a frenetic energy.
I could feel my movements getting bigger and faster: the car door getting closed with extra oomph, my footsteps growing stompier and fuck-this-ier in the snow.
I clomped up the staircase to my office and thumbed a text to my friend:
“I’ve gone through this so many times with him. I have huge respect for someone who’s busy. But, also, I need to exist in my own relationship. A plant needs to be watered. I don’t give a fuck how busy he is: dude needs to water this plant…cause right now, I’m dying.”
As I wrote, I furiously unloaded the excess heat.
Eight hours later, he replied with a breezy update on the busyness of his day.
But inside of me, the ocean wave of anger had already passed. So we settled in for a conversation the next day.
Our body holds the key to what we are experiencing and how we respond. Do we know the difference between “I’m angry” and “I’m triggered”?
Until recently, I certainly didn’t.
And it didn’t matter how many books I read, how much therapy I did, how many courses I took, or what kind of mindfulness I practiced: I couldn’t tell if I was referencing my feelings or my dysregulation when I reacted to bodily emotions or sensations.
I conceptually knew that a trigger was old information, and an emotion was present moment information, but I didn’t know how to apply that knowledge.
If we are confused about whether we are processing current experiences or old shit, it’s easy to respond inaccurately or inappropriately.
Just a year prior, I had dramatically and definitively severed our relationship for the same cycle: he was busy and I was not being attended to. For months.
Only in that instance, it triggered me.
As I spiraled into anxiety, my stomach dropped. I often felt as though I was perched at the top of a rollercoaster, anticipating the drop.
At night, my chest was hollow and icy cold, as if a black hole replaced my heart. I would wake up at 4 a.m. with a sense of impending doom, but my mind was blank.
My day was a black hole of focus: nearly the only thing I could think of was solving the problem. How could I get the love and attention I needed? What was wrong with me? When had he last texted?
I would check phone logs and average the length of our conversations to validate my fears or refuse to text until he sent me one.
When I engaged with a friend, I could talk for hours and only feel worse: more hollow, more anxious, more stuck, more dark.
What was wrong with me? How come he didn’t love me enough to pay attention to me? Was I too much? What did he know about me that he wasn’t telling me?
My entire body flush with sensation, I perceived nothing but threat and could focus on little other than saving myself from it. The best solution was to rid myself of the relationship, before it engulfed me completely.
“I love you as a human being, as a friend, and as a boyfriend. This is hard for me to say, but it’s not working for me.”
The cycle was the same; his behavior was the same. And the only thing that was different was the mindful attentiveness to the processes and sensations of my body.
The first was acting on an emotion, the latter was acting on a trigger.
And we can learn to tell the difference.
Although we often say, “I’m so triggered” when we really mean “I’m having a strong emotion,” emotions and triggers are somatically different experiences in the body.
A trigger is a response to an unprocessed emotion in our past: a gummed-up ball of emotion that was once too overwhelming for our system to clear and got stuck inside of us.
It tends to be heavy and overwhelming. As I’ve learned to tune into my body, I have found myself feeling columns of heat, intense scratching in my chest, a pit in my stomach, a clenching or cleaving of my torso. Sometimes individually, sometimes layered atop one another.
And with that comes a systemic overwhelm where the only thing I am capable of thinking about, focusing on, or tending to are the thoughts, perceptions, and beliefs that arise.
We often feel a cloak of shame or a sense of “I’m a bad person,” “I’m disgusting,” “I’m not good enough,” or “I’m too much,” along with a rush of emotion and an urgency of action.
We may dissociate, ruminate, avoid, or remove ourselves.
We may even dump someone we love.
Emotions hold a different tenor in my body. It’s been fascinating to experience how differently the weight of anger, grief, or fear is inside of me when it’s not attached to a trigger.
I can feel something in my body, but I can’t hold on to it any more than I can retain a firework.
Within minutes of experiencing the emotion, I have mobility: I am not frozen or trapped with heaviness, I cannot find it within me somatically to “sit with,” and it comes and goes like waves.
I tend to find closure in talking it through with a friend. Giving it voice is enough.
And, even if it returns, I am functional—if not messy—between the peaks.
The heaviest emotion for me is grief, which can be heavy and all-consuming. Yet, I am able to care for my basic needs and focus with clarity on eating, showering, or sleeping, even if only for short moments or periods.
Even the strongest and most unpleasant emotion moves like an ocean wave through us, pushing against us like an ebb and flow. Whereas a trigger feels like we’ve been pushed under the water and will drown if we don’t exert our entire effort on escaping.
I’m astonished at how clear these are when I pause and distinguish the nuances of information available: the sensations in my body, the duration, and the associated action. One is a response of immobility, and the other is not, no matter how unpleasant, raw, or gritty it may be.
And I was also astonished at how frequently I made relational decisions when I was triggered, especially major ones. And while they can help get us through, they can also carve paths of repetition.
Standing in the snow, I tuned into my body. I could feel the sensations and heard myself saying to my friend: “I’m regulated. Just mad.”
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