Most of us have emotional triggers that we aren’t aware of until we blow up or “lose it”. These learned responses helped us to survive unpleasant situations (often in our childhood). Unfortunately, those very habits (cues/triggers, course of action or response, and rewards) that allowed us to survive in childhood now sabotage or hamper our growth and relationships.
I’m not talking about PTSD triggers: those are at another level, where it’s not merely a habit. These triggers actually require deeper assistance, such as therapy.
These habitual responses are survival tactics, often learned in our childhood. I adeptly overlook and sidestep the bigger issues when I ignore the hidden rewards of my habits. The slowing down of 2020 gave us much needed time to sit and do the inner work of looking at our survival tactics.
Even 2021 has shown me (especially on social media) how I respond to certain types of posts and comments. There are people that I have been tempted to block “for my peace of mind”. Nonetheless, my commitment to healing and working on myself continues. So, I decided that rather than block them (or engage or shoot back), I would make time to actually look at where I have lost my freedom to respond gracefully.
Don’t just become aware of your reaction.
While we may notice what has triggered us emotionally, we ignore the hidden reward we receive when we respond with a certain action. For example, recently, I took part in an exchange on social media. It brought to light some triggers and hidden rewards.
My social media experience
A guy on social media posted on a lady’s wall, basically attacking her for her daring to question his views. But rather than taking her on in her comments on his post, he came onto her timeline to barrage her.
Part of me realised that this was his attempt to get more “exposure” on the YouTube video that he was promoting (and that she had disagreed with him on his post with the video). But when he proceeded to come onto my personal timeline to post his video and challenge me to debate him, I became very aware of my triggers.
First, I was triggered by his post on her timeline. And then a second time when he posted on mine. I realised that I felt better about myself in my jumping to her defence (and “putting him in his place”). This was the “reward” for my behaviour.
But more importantly, I noticed all the emotions and feelings that came up—the wanting to lash out. In great part, I wanted to “punish him” and make him less. In many ways, this was about my ego and proving that I was right.
It’s not you. It’s me
As I recognised that this was not actually about him but about me and the inner healing work that I had left to do within, I was able to take a step back. Most importantly, I realised that while responding to him was not the right response, blocking him would not be the healing response.
While there are times and places where it is best to simply bock and move on, this wasn’t one for me.
First, I needed to do the inner work of healing the old wounds that kept me prisoner to an emotional response to people or situations like this one.
The lesson, however, is bigger than allowing something on social media to trigger a response within me.
All habits begin with a cue, followed by a response, and generate a reward.
Every habit is built, whether consciously or unconsciously, to get a reward. It might be something as simple as feeling stressed when you arrive home from work, and so pouring yourself a glass of wine, and as you sit down to savour it, you relax into the evening, letting go of the stress. Likewise, you might feel stressed, eat chocolate, and then feel better and more energised by the sugar and chemical response in your body.
Unfortunately, our coping mechanisms may be deeply ingrained from childhood, and the behavioural patterns that allowed us to survive are no longer helping us along our way. In fact, they may be sabotaging our attempts to grow and change.
How to use awareness to change a habit:
If you want to change a habit, you need to become mindfully aware:
- What is the triggering event, person or situation?
- How do you typically respond?
- What is the concealed reward or benefit that you receive from this response?
One view on building new habits is that you should keep the cue (trigger) and the reward and change the response.
One reason we fail to build a new habit is that we fail to recognise the need for a reward. In mBraining, Soosalu & Oka talk about the positive intention behind our behaviour or response. All behaviour, even bad habits, have a positive intention.
Are you hungry?
For example, you might be sitting at your desk, and you get a craving to eat something. Even though you are not hungry, you automatically get up and go to the kitchen (or the vending machine) to grab a snack. On the one hand, your body may simply have been asking for movement. You provided this in two ways: walking and chewing. However, eating the food was actually unnecessary. To change the habit, you must first become aware of the cue (the craving that sends you to the kitchen) and then the reward. What was your body actually asking for? That is the reward you provide. It could be:
- comfort (which we often feel when we eat something sweet)
- companionship and connection (seeing another person or stopping to have a chat on your way to the kitchen).
Checking our social media
Another example of our habits triggering a response might be using social media to avoid the discomfort of overwhelm or feeling stuck. Perhaps you are working on a project (whether school or work) and hit a wall. To temporarily get a break, you open your social media and immediately feel the rush of new information, connect with others and distancing yourself from the momentary discomfort of your project.
Unfortunately, over time, this can build into an unhealthy habit with social media, any time that you feel slightly stuck. The relief that it temporarily outweighs the importance of the task at hand.
The secret is to become aware and take notice.
As we practice living in the moment – in the here and now – we create space to notice. Allow yourself to be present so that you can breathe between the trigger and responding.
While it is true that your brain burns less energy while running on auto-pilot, this leads to automated and habitual responses. It takes away choice. It is these very habits that make or break us.
The challenge becomes living in a state of awareness.
Why do we avoid awareness?
Principally, we avoid living in a state of awareness because it’s uncomfortable. This is where you have to face your feelings and notice what is happening not only around you but also within you.
When you live mindfully, you notice your personal shadows and weaknesses. Awareness is the first step in shedding light on those aspects of your character and habits that you want to change. Most of us don’t like what we see.
This awareness takes into account both your emotions (EQ) and your body (the somatic experience). For example, you might notice your heart beating faster, sweaty palms, tightness in your shoulders or jaw, or perhaps an upset stomach. These somatic experiences inform you that something is going on: an emotional response.
It’s time, then, to identify the emotion.
I learned to be with myself rather than avoiding myself with limiting habits; I started to be aware of my feelings more, rather than numb them. Judith Wright
I talk a lot about “facing the feelings”, – but when you can name and identify what you feel, you amplify the spectrum of responses available to you. Curiosity, vulnerability and openness are your friends in awareness.
How do you typically respond to these emotions?
- being ignored
- feeling challenged
- a state of helplessness
- feeling bullied?
Would you like to continue responding in this way or would you prefer to learn a new response? When you own the emotion, accept it and fact it, then you can choose the response.
Every response, no matter how much it may hurt your relationships, your business or your career, is deeply rooted in a reward. There is a benefit that you have been getting from this response, otherwise you would have stopped long ago.
Awareness is only the first step.
Becoming aware is only the first step on the road to growth and transformation. To change the habits and patterns, you have to change the habit and heal the hurt. Often, it’s easier to change the habit, learning a new response, than it is to do the deeper work of healing the underlying wounds.
Become aware of your triggers and response, then you will do better!
When we know better, then we do better.
True change only happens when we are willing to look below the surface. You find a new habitual response in the short-term: keeping the cue and reward and simply changing the response.
But in the long-term, you have to address issues of identity “this is who I am; I’ve always responded this way”. Who would you be – who could you become – if you learned a new way?
On an even deeper level, what would happen if you could completely let go of all the pain through forgiveness and letting go?