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The Terror that Triggers Protective Behaviors

By Dr. Margaret Paul
February 04, 2013

Do you know what triggers you and why?

Have you ever found yourself suddenly feeling angry or scared or shut down when a moment ago you were feeling fine?

People or situations can trigger us into rage, anger, blame, compliance, caretaking, resistance, withdrawal, numbness, dissociation, explaining, complaining, lecturing, righteousness and so on. These triggered feelings are generally attached to previous traumatic events, such as:

  • Abuse – emotional, physical and/or sexual
  • Loss through the death of a parent, grandparent, sibling or someone else who was close to us
  • Abandonment through a parent leaving or giving us up for adoption
  • Events such as war, natural disasters, rape, mugging, murder of a loved one

Often, the triggered reaction comes from unhealed PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - where an extreme stress response occurs due to a thought or situation that triggers the original trauma.

For healing to take place, it's generally important to identify the original trigger. If you don't understand the original trigger, the reactive feelings can seem to come from nowhere. While it is not difficult to identify the original trigger when the traumatic event happened as an adult, it is often elusive when it occurred as a small child. It might also be difficult to identify the trigger when it wasn't a particular event, but rather the general abusive environment in which you grew up.

When you find yourself frequently triggered into an unwanted feeling or reaction, but you have no idea what is being triggered, it's vitally important not to judge yourself for being triggered. You need to accept that there is always fear, and sometimes terror, behind your own protective, controlling reactions, just as there is always fear behind others' wounded, controlling reactions. Being aware that fear, or even terror, is usually the root cause of anger or blame or other controlling behavior can make it easier not to judge yourself or others for unloving reactions.

Once you can identify the original situation, it becomes much easier to embrace the underlying feelings with compassion for yourself, rather than act out on others. If you can remember the original terror, heartbreak, utter loneliness, grief, or feeling crushed and shattered, then you can understand why you want to protect against and avoid feeling these extremely painful feelings.

Even if the trauma occurred as an infant, it is possible to retrieve the memory. When people feel very safe, it's easier to open to remembering deep old trauma. What creates this safety?

Creating the Safety to Remember

Safety can be created both internally and externally.

Internal safety is created when you have done enough Inner Bonding work to develop a strong inner loving Adult. Your inner child has the memories but will not let you in on them until he or she feels safe to do so. This means that your inner child needs to know that you, as a loving Adult, have the strength, love and compassion to remember the trauma and manage the deeply painful feelings.

External safety is created when you are in an environment where another person, such as a therapist, is able to be the loving Adult for you when the traumatic memories come up. In fact, even if you have a strong loving inner Adult, if you believe that you have some deeply traumatic memories, such as sexual abuse, it's best to do the memory work in the presence of a person trained to help you manage the pain. Often, at my Inner Bonding Intensives, participants feel so safe that buried memories emerge – memories that have been triggering them for most of their life, but that they were completely unaware of.

Instead of judging yourself for getting triggered and for reacting in protective, controlling ways, move into compassion for the fact that you are being triggered. Compassion creates the inner safety that begins to open the door to memory.


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