September 23, 2002
"You triggered me" is a phrase commonly heard during conflicts. It is a confusing statement because it implies both blame and responsibility.
In the Merriam-Webster On-Line Dictionary, "trigger" is defined as a "movable part by which a mechanism is actuated," and "something that acts like a mechanical trigger in initiating a process or reaction." The important point is that the trigger is not the bullet that gets fired or the bomb that explodes. The trigger is the thing that sets it off.
In conflicts, the concept of a trigger indicates that there is a hidden hurt or anger that can be set off by a situation or by the behaviour of others. The problem therefore lies with the power and volatility of the pain - the "bomb" - rather than the trigger. A pile of disconnected triggers is no danger. One single bomb is.
The common use of the word "trigger" indicates that the general public accepts the idea that we carry powerful hidden issues. The public also accepts that when we get triggered, we often dump anger, hurt, sadness, and shame on those who trigger us. This is what, in primal, we call "acting out." We act out our pain on others instead of taking responsibility for it.
In the Safe Process Guidelines of the IPA's email support group, acting out is described as "avoiding our feelings and attacking, blaming, 'dumping,' criticizing, judging, shaming, insulting, advising, patronizing, projecting, or using indirect contempt such as sarcasm and ridicule."
In the August 19, 2002, Thought of the Week "Acting Out: Recognizing the Problem," I state that "If we do not recognize that we are blaming or dumping our unresolved feelings on others, we do not heal. We continue to find fault outside ourselves. We continue our futile search for a solution outside ourselves."
Which brings me back to the famous sentence, "you triggered me!" This is a false statement because it implies that the other person did something to you. It reminds me of the real-life insurance excuse, "A lamp-post bumped into my car, damaging it in two places."
A more accurate statement in a conflict would be "I was triggered." This indicates ownership of the trigger - and the bomb.
When we are triggered, the feeling is often one of being neglected or violated, which, in its original traumatic context, is true. The feeling can be so overwhelming that it seems impossible to differentiate between the person who set off the trigger, the trigger itself, and the original traumatic feeling. We simply feel wounded - and react. Acting out the past on the present, however, makes everyone's life painful. We all suffer over and over again for the unresolved pain we carry.
If, instead of acting out, we "own it" and express the feeling with support in a safe environment, we can release it and experience its origins. This is the essence of primal integration. When we experience it, rather than avoid it, we understand firsthand that we carry the bomb and the trigger, and that we have no need to blame others. We discover the origin - and the solution - in ourselves.
This is not to say that conflicts are all our fault and responsibility. I have found that the causes for every single conflict rest, to some degree, with each person involved. But the real, present-day issues can be solved more easily when the old, unresolved issues are worked through and owned first. This is dealt with in more depth in the April 29, 2002, Thought of the Week "The Conscious Relationship."
This is all easier said than done. During conflicts in the primal community it is still common to hear people saying things like, "I know it's my stuff, but you really triggered me, and I'm angry at you!" Or "You're an insensitive bastard. I know this is all my stuff." I find that these types of statements have the same crazy-making quality of famous parental one-liners such as, "I'm sorry, but I have to punish you," "This hurts me more than it does you," and "I'm doing this because I love you."
Covert act-outs like this can be more damaging to the victim than a direct attack, because direct attacks can be more easily recognized and responded to. When someone shields their act-outs behind a false or partial screen of caring or responsibility, the victim's healthy defenses and self-confidence are weakened by doubt. The aggressor manages what they neurotically wanted in the first place - to dump their pain into someone else. A few crocodile tears and false ownership like "it's my stuff," and the deed is done.
If we act out on others, even if it originates in old pain, we are abusers. If we accept act-outs, even in the name of compassion, we allow ourselves to be abused, and we enable further abuse. Most of this behaviour is unconscious and deeply rooted in dysfunctional family patterns. The truly compassionate position, both to ourselves and others, is to own our triggers - in practice - and to respectfully ask others to do the same.
"You triggered me" is never true.