Note: This blog is the transcript of Episode #51 of “Under 10: A Mini Podcast on Intimacy”. Listen along here.
Happy new year! I pray the new year has begun in peace for you. Though I happen to know, because you have told me, that for many of you it hasn’t. This episode is about all the friction that has been happening lately – in couples, in families and across community. People getting triggered left and right. I wanted to do an episode on normalizing the friction in relationships and to make it clear that getting triggered isn’t something that makes anyone bad or broken. And then help you put your attention on where it counts, which is called the clean up. This is a vital skill that I hope you will take to heart.
So here we are, it’s the first week of 2022 and for many folks, maybe you too, that includes making resolutions, right? Perhaps to eat cleaner or to get sober or to meditate more or to fight less. The thing with resolutions is that they rarely factor in the reality of what commitment over time actually looks like. For a very few people, adopting a resolution might mean practicing like clockwork every day, without fail. But for most people, there’s a lot of missing days or doing half the routine or forgetting the new practice entirely and then needing to start over, and over again. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. Except expecting it to look any different.
And here’s where most people get stuck. If you think you will wake up every day and go to the gym and then you don’t, or you’ll get sober overnight and then you relapse, or you’ll never get triggered by your intimate partner but you have a blow up over the holidays, for example, then what you risk is the attack of the shame monster. He’s vicious. The voice that says, “You’ll never change” or “This relationship will never work” or “You’ll always be broken or unhealthy or addicted or at the mercy of your trauma”. In effect, when the shame monster rears with its “always” or “never” statements, you get stuck, it’s like super glue sticking you to your spot. And you don’t keep trying to work things out because you don’t believe you can. And you definitely don’t try to learn from what happened because you can’t get perspective when you’re stuck. And from this place, you’re very likely to repeat whatever happened. Do you see how insidious shame is? In effect, this is how shame wins.
Listen to me loud and clear. I really want this one to get in. If you’re standing up, maybe stomp twice on the floor wth one foot to help you remember. That’s a memory trick and it works: the fact that you get triggered is not the problem. The problem is what you tell yourself about it. Okay now stomp stomp on that, I mean it. Get this knowledge in your body.
This work of changing patterns and healing ourselves and our relationships is daunting. I know a lot of people who don’t even try. If you’re listening to this show, then you’re already in a select group of humans who are willing to engage the enormous effort it takes to grow and change and get humbled over and again and stick with it. If I could hug you through this speaker for your courage and tenacity, I would. And I would welcome you to hug me right back for mine.
The thing is, everyone gets triggered. Your neighbors with the perfect lawn. Your favorite media personalities with the flawless skin. Your children’s teachers and your family therapist and the farmers growing your food and the cashiers ringing up your groceries. It’s true of every character in the flow of your life, we all get triggered. It’s what we do after the trigger that will set apart a dysfunctional relationship from a healthy one. An unsustainable relationship from a sustainable one. A trauma that won’t heal from one that will.
So what is it that can we do after being triggered that will keep us from getting stuck in the shame? I recently interviewed the author of an amazing book all about this. Dr. Susan Campbell, a foremother and mentor of mine, wrote From Triggered to Tranquil: How Self Compassion and Mindful Presence Can Transform Relationship Conflicts and Heal Childhood Wounds. It’s all kind of right there in the title. Self-compassion and mindful presence and the specific skills involved in applying those are the ways we resist the shame monster and open the doorway to healing.
Taken together – the putting self compassion and mindful presence into practice after being triggered – is what I am calling, the “clean up”. The moments following the reactivity during which what you do matters. A lot. It’s as if, once you fall, you have a choice. You can just stay on the ground pressing yours and everyone else’s noses further into the mud. Or you can stop, soften something and lift your head out of the puddle. And from there, you can take a breath and bring gentle, soft, and loving compassion to yourself. You can reach out to a trusted friend for help. You can physically exit whatever conflict scene you are in and go spend time outdoors in nature. In other words, your ability to catch the tendency to make more of a mess, to catastrophize or to think you have lost it all and instead to focus on some form of clean up is key to ensuring that you get to learn from whatever happened, rather than repeat it.
My husband and I had the chance to practice this recently. Over our New Year’s travels, we found ourselves bickering more than usual. On the second day of our trip, after another tense moment, we were sitting and stretching on the cool stone floor of our b&b. And he turned to me and apologized for the last round of tension. And we began our version of the clean up. Instead of making ourselves bad for snapping – or blaming one another for snapping back – we reflected on what we were learning about ourselves through the friction. We realized that an edge for both of us is accepting direction from the other without getting defensive. And we decided to call this dynamic the “next frontier” in our relationship. Rather than resolving never to get triggered – because we know better, we will – calling it a “frontier” gave us a place to bring our self-compassion and presence. And from there, our trip actually smoothed out. We did get reactive again. But we caught it faster. Amplified it less. And cleaned it up more efficiently.
Genuine intimacy not only will have friction but needs friction to stay dynamic and even, to stay sexy. If you can treat the edgy moments like revelations into deeper intimacy – and then rather than speed up in the face of the trigger, slow down and get to the self compassion and clean up straight away – you can really tap what intimacy is designed for: a greater vitality and depth of knowing yourself and the world.
The interview I recently published with Dr. Campbell includes a summary of the five steps of trigger work which goes into much greater depth on the skills of clean up, they’re really worth learning. If you aren’t already subscribed to my newsletter, after you finish listening, head on over to DrJessicaTartaro.com. I’ll be resending that interview to my newsletter subscribers plus sharing other opportunities to get priority sign up for intimacy groups in the new year where I will be teaching more of these skills. I hope you will subscribe.
For this week’s homework, rather than make a new year’s resolution, identify a “new year’s frontier” in your life, an edge in relating to which you can bring more compassion and attention. Maybe it’s every time your spouse or partner does this particular thing and it drives you crazy. And you might be on the lookout for it and try calming your habitual knee jerk response when it comes and instead, taking a breath. If you are single, it might be noticing your tendency to withdraw rather than reach out when you’re hurting, and instead, to bring compassion to that and make initial steps to get connected when you most need it. Consider mapping whatever frontier is true for you so that you can be preparing your resources and looking for it with softness for the totally normal human tendency in intimacy to get triggered.
I close by sending one more hug around you, to encourage you to embrace your triggered self and instead of exiling this part of you, to commit to learning from it in the year ahead.