Emotions are the background murmuring of life. They clue us into danger and discomfort. They also distract us from every day living.
They are no better or worse than our minds. They are like the lines we see on our EKG graph. They go up and down detecting discomfort, signals of impending death in our body. Our emotions have no words. It can only feel anger or sadness. Not given ample permission for the latter, the danger detector in our body for loneliness, sadness, low self-esteem show up as anger. Anger is easier when projected. Being angry with ourselves provides little outlet—unless we have been trained to breathe, meditate, jump or swim our way to better emotional regulation, or better yet to recognize the anger as sadness and longings. However, most of us are not trained to do that. Most of our parents hadn’t either. So we more likely pass on anger and isolation than compassion and empathy, generation after generation. Many of us do mature at later age, learning to hold our own brainstem and limbic reactions in more objective light, so we can organize our prefrontal cortex to react calmly rather than mere puppets for expressing explosive emotions or carrying out impulsive decisions. However, without learning to slow down and distance ourselves from the ups and downs in our emotional charts, we often are at the mercy of emotional waves that are out of proportion with the real danger we experience in life.
There are certainly many in the world who face real live/death situations that their body react to on a daily basis. As the more fortunate portion of human society, myself included, we face only limited amount of physical and emotional danger and have more safe days than precarious ones. While acknowledging our privilege, I do not want to underestimate the anxieties of a career, parenthood, couples’ relationships, sexism and racism, and all that come with modernity. All of those can still take a toll on any individual in a relatively wealthy society and peaceful times. Learning to slow down and step back from the demands of our fight and flight system can smooth out the curves in our day to day emotional rhythm. While it might slow down our negative reaction(such as projecting anger onto others, worrying about things we can’t change, rushing to do things at the wrong time), it will increase the efficiency of our positive responses. Without impulsive actions to drag us down with unpleasant consequences, we can better think, prepare and then execute what we need to do, whether it is a talk with a spouse, a discussion with a colleague, or the family planning with an elderly parent. Slowing down does not mean avoiding but more measured and timely actions.
Our brain steam and limbic systems are all vital systems in our body protecting us against danger. They are so practiced at detecting danger in our history, both inherited or experienced, they have left behind residues of coping mechanisms that create impediments for an optimal life experience—however we would like to define “optimal”. Once we are in a safe-enough environment, we can afford to act as an observer of our own fight/flight and emotional reactions. Those observations will become the stepping stone toward the fulfillment of life potentials in us.
Perhaps none of us could have a truly accurate measure of our safety level since death can come at any moment in any form. In that case, I wonder if we have no choice but to maximize the joy and minimize the sense of non-present danger in each moment. We could never stop living just just because we are afraid death might be coming.
As adults, we all still need validation from each other, particularly if we didn’t receive enough as children. Even if we have, we still need validation from others periodically. We are social beings after all. Even those we are introverted, self-sufficient and more enjoys being solitary, still want to feel loved and approved by the few or the only person close to them. That usually is our adult partner/spouse/housemate. In couple coaching, we have seen many minor disagreements can quickly turn into escalated arguments with shouting and plenty of tears. Aside from lacking emotional awareness and regulation, often small disagreement triggers something very painful in one of the partners, who in turn defends him/herself by saying things intentionally or unintentionally trigger something painful in the other. And this vicious cycle keeps going until the triggering becomes more intense and numerous so that the memory of this fight itself can become a trigger in the future for their relationship. I remember one session when the following scenario was described(printed below with their permission and to the best of my memory but not exact words):
Wife: I didn’t think he should ask our son for kisses all the time. He should give it, not ask him for it. That is like needy and expect the child to satisfy his needs. and I told him. I said it in a calm tone as an observation and opinion. But he snapped back and kept on talking about it as if I was forcing him to do something. He then called me a control freak and trying to control everything.
Husband: Yeah and then you yelled at me and gave me a nasty look that made me feel you were disgusted with me.
Wife: yes I got frustrated. Why did you say I was forcing you? Why were you so scared by my opinion. so I shouted:” Did I kick you? Did I punch you?” so how could he say I was forcing him?
Husband: I did apologize later on when you explained a bit more your reason. I was pretty patient and humble. I heard your point about this reminding you of the gender imbalance in society and in our relationship, where I might feel more entitled to things and expect more. And I apologized and said will try to do better.
Wife: Yes, he expects others to do more for you than he is willing to do for others. (to him)True, you apologized, and I actually felt validated. (to me) I actually thought he really got it. I was grateful and was going to thank him, but then he wrote me this nasty letter when he told me I had a terrible look on my face when I yelled at him, that was like the one I always complained of about my dad. He told me to really examine that problem. And told me he wanted to leave me then. And he asked for compassion. Where was the compassion in his letter then? He referred back to my painful childhood experience with my dad, without giving me any compassion and threatened me with abandonment, which was already an issue in our relationship. I have given him a lot of compassion in the past when he was in the wrong and hurt me, and when he often tried to manexplain me about how to interact with my son. I didn’t always agree but I didn’t blow up at him or felt he was forcing me to do something.
This was unfortunately not an atypical sequence of events. The issues might change, but the process remains similar. This was a relatively emotionally aware couple who were better able to express their feelings and reflect on reasons for their emotional reaction. That was why they had a moment of reconciliation even in the midst of escalation. However, what they couldn’t possibly do during the intense back-and-forth was realizing how much the hurt they felt was less about each other than the triggers they were experiencing within themselves. With further sessions, we realized the husband was threatened by the idea he was as needy as a father as he felt his own father was(trigger No.1). He snapped at his wife when he was really fighting the fear of becoming his own dad. The wife, as she correctly explained, was experiencing the anger for what she felt was unfair give-and-take in the marriage overall(trigger No. 2). Even as she realized it was her emotional trigger, she couldn’t physically stop herself from being angry and hurt. Those emotions were in turn reflected in the look that possibly resembled her own dad, as the husband described. However, contrary to the interpretation of “disgust” the husband had, it was one of sadness and frustration. Not having equal distribution of labor or responsibilities made her feel invalidated and uncared for. It felt all the more poignant in the context of the gender discrimination she had felt in society at large. The husband on the other hand, because of the abandonment issue he had with his own mother(trigger No. 3), projected the anger he always felt about his own mother onto the current significant female in his life. That was why he couldn’t help writing an angry letter to his wife even though he understood her complaint about the inequality in their marriage. He had to fight back the pain of being unloved by telling her what she inherited from his dad and he wanted to leave. The letter then triggered her own painful childhood memories(trigger No. 4) and the abandonment issue within their marriage(trigger No. 5). At that point, they were both overwhelmed and shut down for 2 days.
Help for improving emotional triggers management in Couples
Those closest to us are also most skilled at hitting our emotional points because they know us so well. While no one truly intentionally wants to hurt the loved ones, when we are in a defensive mode, we instinctually go for where it hurts. I compared this back and forth to a fistfight in one session with them. It started out as an innocent discussion. When he felt the words jabbing at his sensitive points, he threw back a light punch. It was a reflex. That was much quicker and easier than saying: “This reminded me of my struggle with my father, it hurts to think I might have become like him. Please reassure me you still love me.” And then the wife felt hurt by the punch and instinctually kicked him in the knee(shouting at him). It was not planned but was much easier and quicker than saying:” I need you to see how certain imbalance in our relationship reflects a larger social issue, and it makes me feel unloved. I need you to reassure me I am loved by more actions of giving and less of taking.” So each time one reflexively defends self from the other’s punch, the punch gets harder and hurts more. It can’t stop until one is too hurt to fight back. Unfortunately, that is also when permanent emotional ruptures damage the relationship and overall trust in the long run.
Fortunately, with some training, many couples can rebuild a strong foundation and healthy emotional awareness. For example, through Emotionally Focused Therapy sessions, this couple was able to slowly reshape their instinctual responses and build new emotional experiences that repair the hurt they felt during the more negative ones. They not only learned to recognize better their own emotional triggers but also learn about each other’s. This was crucial. We will always have emotional triggers from time to time and none of us can be emotionally undefensive 100% of the time. It helps when there is a partner who can recognize the pattern for the other. When one forgets to demonstrate their vulnerability(in other words recognize the emotional trigger and let the partner know they are hurting) and instead strike out defensively during a conflict situation, the other partner could help by not reacting to the punch. He/she is more likely to calmly wait for the pain to subside and then approach the subject with less emotional reactivity. By then the reacting partner is also more likely to have had a chance to release the defensive energy and talk without attacking.
This is, of course, not overnight. It will take 9 to 12 sessions for the average couple who still love each other but lost their emotional connection, and more if there were higher conflicts or longer history of disconnect. A detailed discussion about EFT is beyond the scope of this blog. It is a very scientifically proven and methodological process that will take a whole book to describe. I believe it is worth it for people who believe good things are worth fighting for. Partnerships of any kind are not easy, let alone one that was supposed to last a lifetime. The rewards from what I have seen in clients who made the commitment, and including my own, are fantastic.
Other Ways to Learn about Handling Emotional Triggers
There are many ways to improve our own interaction with our emotional triggers. I described above an example of how it was managed in a couple coaching situations. Other ways including individual CBT therapy, coaching, group therapy, and at-home meditation exercises that could help us become more emotionally aware and react to our emotional triggers more calmly. The overall goal is to reduce the pain and negative impact those triggers have on our relationship with ourselves and others. This allows our rational brains to stay online and engage with each other in a more open and compassionate way.
I am an anxious person. I could be born this way. I could be made this way. It is probably both. Anxiety is first and foremost a biological phenomenon. When I am anxious, I am nervous. I am restless. I have a hard time concentrating. My heart beat fast. In extreme cases, some people have palpitations or difficulty breathing. Some of us are genetically more predisposed to anxiety than others. From a cultural and sociological perspective, we also acquire anxiety through social engineering. Our culture sends signals to us about how we should behave in relation to each other in various situations. Those can also nurture anxiety. Finally, situations that are out of control certainly create temporary anxiety. During this unprecedented time of COVID-19, the uncertainty of the future for many people collectively generate a massive level of anxiety. I am no exception.
In existential theory developed by Victor Frankl, Royo May, and later expanded by Victor Yalom, anxiety is an evolutionary tool humans have developed in order to survive. I myself have not studied enough about the evolution and physiology and neurobiology of anxiety to decide the validity of that assertion. In my professional, research, and personal experience, anxiety is a pervasive condition majority of us live with. It can be quite uncomfortable even when it is not diagnosable as a clinical illness. What is more, often we do not recognize our own anxiety on the day-to-day level. When we fail to recognize it, we miss out on the opportunity to choose the best available tools to manage it. Consequently, anxiety can drive us to do some self- and other-destructive things.
Lacking the tools to manage our anxiety:
Since anxiety is such a pervasive element of our lives, the way we cope with our anxiety can determine the quality of life we live. However, because our school system doesn’t have much curriculum dedicated to emotional intelligence, our emotional self-awareness usually lags behind that of our intellectual capacity. While we hone our math and language skills for 12-16 years on average in the academic institutions, our emotional training is left largely to street learning and modeling by those around us such as our parents and teachers. Without an adequate emotional understanding of ourselves, many of us are effectively functioning adults with adolescent-level emotional skills. The survival-driven limbic and reptilian system that runs our emotion and body respectively are stuck mostly in fight-flight reflexes. The knowledge we learn with our prefrontal cortex is also limited to helping those animal instincts to carry out its mission of self-defense.
Coping with anxiety in unhealthy ways
When we are unaware of the original source of our anxiety, we easily project the root of our discomfort or unhappiness to the people around us or an event taking place. Usually, the closer those events or people are to us, the more likely they will become a scapegoat for our own anxiety. We attribute “what is wrong” to our spouse, relatives, teacher, bosses, and even children. We can project our own unhappiness onto that sock he left on the floor, or the new job she took on, the toys our children left out, or the new assignment our boss gave us. Having an external target we do not have to deal with the underlying sense of worthlessness or fear that caused our anxiety. As a result, we damage our emotional relationship with those closest to us because they need to defend themselves against our anxiety-induced negative behaviors and vice versa.
In many ways, having a social counterpart we can connect to is probably one of the healthier ways of coping with our anxiety. There is always a chance to repair the rupture with our loved ones when we return to our calmer period, as long as we are doing any physical injury. On the other hand, certain coping strategies are very harmful impacts on our own bodies. We use distractions to hide from our anxiety. One of the most common coping mechanisms is eating. There is a reason why obesity is one of the biggest health issues in especially the developed world, where life stress is particularly great. Besides eating, people depend on substances, alcohol, or sex to regulate their emotions. Long-term dependence on any of these can give us temporary relief from dealing with the real issue. In fact, over-dependence on even seemingly harmless things like exercise can hurt us without getting to the root of our condition.
Best ways to manage our anxiety
The healthy ways of dealing with anxiety are not secret. It is pretty straightforward: Mobilize our bodies to rid ourselves of the excess energy to return our body to a calm state, i.e. exercise; Meditate to quiet our minds and get away from the exacerbating effect of looping thoughts; get a good night of sleep; and if you are a sociable person, connect with those you feel loved with for emotional connection. Finally, if there is a specific issue that is causing the anxiety, as opposed to general restlessness, the help of a professional coach or counselor can be really valuable, such as career counseling, life coach, mental health professionals. This is how we return our mind, body, and emotion to an equilibrium. This is assuming we do not have any underlying illness that prevents us to even get to the gym, sit still and meet with others. If we do, then we must seek the help of medical professionals to assist us. Absent any issues that the medical community can diagnose, our own persistence in a healthy mind-body-emotion tune-up routine will do more for us than anyone else could.
At times, like during the present pandemic, our lifestyle or circumstances do not allow us to form the emotional connections or receive the validation we need to manage our anxiety. This is particularly true for industrialized and individualized societies. More people live in isolation from even their own family of origin. Even during Cov-19 isolation, people in the collective culture are more likely to stay with more family members than those in individualist cultures. In the latter communities, seeing a coach or therapeutic professional on a regular basis, such as weekly or even monthly, can help us maintain our emotional equilibrium through a systematic and scientific approach. We generally accept that we can benefit from guidance and motivation from a coach in the gym, even though we probably all know how to run or use exercise equipment. It is no different, or rather, should be more so with our emotional regulation. This is something that plays a huge part in our daily joy and overall health. Unfortunately, we have never had a class on that subject in our school curriculum. Fortunately, it is never too late to educate ourselves and help ourselves.