How to Change Your Response Before You Open Your Mouth
by Wendy Keller
Especially when we’re dealing with the fallout of trauma, extreme stress or suffering, it’s easy for other people to trigger our issues. Sometimes, they pick off the scab of an old wound. Sometimes, they are just innocent wanderers who tripped a wire in our heads or hearts. Now we have super-charged feelings that FAR out-respond to what’s really going on. The easiest thing to do is react – or over-react. We’ve all done it and paid the price. Whether your first instinct is to react with anger or tears or something in between, these strategies work.
How we handle these triggers determines our peace of mind
Here are some great ways to handle it when someone gets you upset:
1. Give yourself time to react…before you react. Take a minute off from the situation; sleep on it overnight if you can. Walk out of the room, change your focus, take some deep breaths, chill out, go outside, do some exercise. Why does this work? Because taking your focus off the trigger gives you a broader perspective. It’s not so much about WHAT you do after the trigger happens, it’s about changing your focus temporarily.
2.Try out different approaches in your head. This is SO helpful! Think it through like this: If I respond by saying or doing this, will it escalate the problem or diffuse it? Ask yourself, “If I say this, how is she likely to respond? And then what will happen? And then what will happen after that?” If you carry through with the thing you’d like to do or say to the further stretches of your imagination, is that really the result you want to achieve? (People who get caught up in revenge often can’t predict the outcome of their behavior long term because they skipped this step!)
3.Determine your objective. If your preference is for greater serenity and peace of mind for yourself, what can you do to diffuse the situation? For instance, if your partner infuriates you, is your goal to have a more harmonious relationship? If so, ask yourself what response you could try out that will get you closer to your goal. If every time you see a blond four year old boy who looks like your son did before he died (one of my own triggers for many years) ask yourself if falling apart right now will bring anyone back from the dead or if it will impede your progress through the day. (Please note: I am not saying it is wrong to grieve! I’m just suggesting that you allow some logic to slip in when possible.)
4. Respond respectfully. MAYBE NOT TO THE OTHER PERSON, but to yourself. Of course you’re too emotionally mature to call someone bad names like a tongue-twisted first grader. I DO mean though that you should respond in a calm way that evidences that you’ve thought it through and that you respect yourself first. You can use the “Feel, Felt, Found” method I’ve described below.
“I feel really hurt when you tell me I am not recovering fast enough from what happened. I’ve felt pushed when you’ve said “Get over it already!” before. I’ve found that not just for myself but all people process loss and pain at their own pace, and those who want to be supportive make allowances for that.”
OR “I feel accused when you yell at me for not doing something the way you wanted it done. I’ve felt bad before when other people have yelled at me. I’ve found that I respond best when someone calmly explains what they see as a problem, so that we can work together to find a solution.”
OR talking to yourself, “When I see a little boy that looks like my dead son, I feel reminded of the fact that child is alive and mine is dead. I’ve felt myself fall apart before and every time it’s happened, it has cost me hours trying to get my heart put back together. I’ve found that by allowing myself to feel this awful pain for a few minutes, it subsides and I can go on.”
5. Allow for mistakes. Yours and others’. People get in bad moods and say mean things. People remind us of experiences and events we’d like to forget. An emotionally mature person tries to temper their response in the event of a trigger so they don’t say or do anything they might regret later. It’s called “Impulse Control” by psychiatrists. But the cherry on the sundae of emotionally maturity is having the guts to apologize when you react or over-react. “I’m sorry” can go a long way toward making amends.
You have the power to interrupt your “instant” reaction when you are triggered by an event, a comment, something you see or something else. Recognize that you are extra-sensitive when you are going through a difficult time in your life and follow the 5 steps above. Soon, you’ll find your relationships – and your heart – are getting stronger.
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