“Situation ‘Y’ Triggered Feelings Of ‘X’ In Me”
My clients are all too familiar with this intervention. It is an invitation to deliberately change their language in a straightforward, albeit slightly awkward, way. In this post, I argue that using this language (externally and internally) saves us from positioning ourselves as victims, and puts power back where it is most useful to us – in our own person.
Most of us are quick to explain away our various reactions, states of mind and feelings as the product of outside circumstances and other people. We are want to label things as scary, people as irritating, events as frustrating.
This is evidenced by the language we frequently employ: “He made me angry,” “it makes me anxious,” “she made me cheat,” “it pushed me to the brink,” “he abandoned me.”
These statements should sound familiar to all of us. In fact, they probably sound so familiar that to even question their legitimacy is apt to arouse a certain degree of ire.
Recognizing that, I implore you to stay with me.
The Above Statements Are A Misrepresentation Of What Is More Fundamentally True
In the realm of psychology, the most proximate “cause” (i.e. the event that just occurred) is rarely the ultimate cause of any reactivity that we subsequently experience.
The proximate “cause” serves as a trigger (fundamentally different from “cause”) for a feeling state that was already within the person. The particular feeling – let’s say abandonment – was temporarily dormant, and it’s being set into action was dependent on a set of circumstances that would “trip” the “abandonment wire”.
When the “abandonment wire” (the dormant feeling) was tripped, our impulse was to conclude that the Circumstance or the Person who “tripped” the “abandonment wire” necessarily caused the abandonment feeling.
We experience it as: A = C (where C, the resulting feeling, is a direct product of A, the precipitating event).
However, “C” can only equal “A” with the addition of “B”.
In this case, “B” is our historical conditioning. By “historical conditioning,” I mean to refer to the events of our past, largely of our childhood. Oftentimes, these events and their impact on us are unconscious. (This is why we bypass “B” in our conscious mind when we go from “A” to “C”.)
The more accurate equation is, of course: A + B = C
The proximate cause, “A”, only triggers me to feel “C” with the addition of “B”. If “B” were different for me, if “B” had never occurred, the event “A” may have had a different impact on me entirely. In other words, if I never experienced feelings of abandonment in childhood, the event “A” experienced in adulthood may have instead triggered feelings of relief, or freedom, or anger, or sadness (whatever feelings are congruent with my conditioned history).
In other words, the person who “tripped” the “abandonment wire” didn’t make me feel abandoned. I was already pre-disposed to feeling that way because of my life history.
To conclude this section, language that suggests that the event occurring right now (“A”) is causing my feelings (“C”) is inaccurate.
When I instead say, “this situation is triggering feelings of abandonment in me (that I’ve probably had off and on for the entirety of my life),” I am giving “B” its rightful due. At the same time, I am stripping “A” of its power over me. This will be explained in the next section.
Even If The Above Wasn’t Convincing, Changing Your Language In The Way I Propose Is An Empowering Act On A Purely Practical Level For 3 Reasons
We have very little, if any, influence over “A”. The events that happen in our lives are largely outside of our control. We don’t have much say over the weather, another person’s behavior, the direction the stock market is going, pandemics, whether our favorite team wins, how long the wait at the restaurant will be, etc.
When I claim that “that thing,” or “that person” made me feel or act a particular way, I am placing myself in a disempowered relationship with “the other”. I am implying that “the other” has more control over me, my feelings, my reactivity and my actions than I myself do. When they treat me favorably – or when favorable circumstances come my way – I am happy, satisfied, at peace. When they treat me poorly – or when misfortune presents itself to me – I am mad, frustrated, anxious, sad, unhappy, miserable.
So long as we believe that our emotional well-being and our general state of mind is a direct product of “A,” our only recourse is to hope for a good “A”. And we will get it, but we won’t get it all of the time.
This is a fairly disempowered position to take with regards to the world at large.
HOWEVER, our situation becomes more workable with the conscious re-introduction of “B”.
When I say, “when she said ‘no’ to me, it triggered feelings of abandonment in me,” I take the focus off of event “A”. This affords me the space to turn my attention toward my feelings. When I turn towards “C” – with the awareness that I have been living with “C” for my whole life and that it wasn’t caused by “A” – I actually have room to work with “C”.
This is a post for another day, but something like, “my feelings of abandonment have been a part of my experiencing, off and on, with and without my awareness, for probably all of my life and, as such, are mine to work with,” communicates an attitude of empowerment, confidence and even kindness towards oneself, which serves as the ground for working with difficult material.
In relationship of any sort, an accusation on the part of any one person that the other person(s) caused them to feel a certain way, is likely to result in defensiveness on the part of the receiver.
The first person is unlikely to get what they want when their “target” gets defensive.
“You make me so angry,” or, “you abandoned me,” or “you are the reason I am so upset all the time,” simply isn’t skillful language in relationship and will almost assuredly back-fire.
Language that communicates that the other person’s behavior was simply a trigger, but not the cause, is less likely to cause defensiveness and can therefore stop the spiral of escalating aggression.
Even if the most proximate “cause” were the true source of our reactivity, undo focus on “A” is never going to result in genuine growth, healing or transformation.
At best you’ll get a temporary band-aid. Person “A” will change their behavior out of kindness and generosity, but even that is only symptom relief.
True transformation is achieved through the addressing of “C” from a place of acceptance, kindness and workability, not through demanding that “A” change.
Where And How This Language Could Help You In Everyday Situations
Give this language a try. Next time you are aware of feeling emotionally reactive, try: “This situation is triggering ‘x’, which is a feeling I have likely been living with off and on for most of my life.”
“X” could be: fear, anxiety, abandonment, anger, sadness, despair, loneliness, hopelessness, etc.
- “COVID-19 makes me anxious.” vs “COVID-19 is triggering feelings of anxiety in me.” With the first statement, I am less likely to feel as much personal power as I would with the second. In the second statement, there is room to work. The issue is not COVID-19, but my anxiety, which is something I’ve been living with off and on for my entire life. My ability to work with my anxiety is greater than is my ability to work with the virus itself (unless I have the necessary education/employment to actively be working on a vaccine).
- “He is making my life miserable,” vs “the way he is treating me is triggering feelings of pain, frustration, sadness and despair that I have been living with off and on for my entire life.” Again, notice the difference. “He” has less power over me in the second statement. I may choose to do away with him, that might be the best choice for me on a practical level, but I recognize that I will still have those feelings activated by a variety of situations. If I turn my focus towards my feelings, and away from him, I can start to work with what I have been living with for my whole life.
- “I’m so upset and distraught because I just lost $20K in the stock market,” vs “losing so much money so quickly is triggering feelings of distress, fear and panic in me.” First, I deal with my feelings. I respond to and regulate my feelings of distress, fear and panic. Once I have adequately done that, I am less likely to be emotionally reactive. From the ground of regulation I then consider practical means of recovering my losses.