Family Triggers: 3 Mindful Techniques To Help You Respond With Skill and Wisdom Instead of Reacting Impulsively

Family Triggers - 3 Mindful Techniques To Help You Respond With Skill and Wisdom Instead of Reacting Impulsively

Think back to a family birthday, a reunion, or a Christmas holiday. A time when many of us head home (or host family) to eat an animal for dinner, drink some booze, and hang out with the family members we pretty much intentionally don’t see the rest of the year. What could possibly go wrong?

I’m fortunate in that none of my family members are awful, and all are fairly easy to get along with, even fun. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes get triggered. It seems as though in these modern times, a lot of us are well defended and operate via our well-established defence mechanisms and storylines that impact how we relate to others, especially family. Underlying this is an ‘I versus you” mentality, as opposed to a ‘we’ perspective. Couple that with the modern political and global state of affairs up for discussion at the dinner table, how can we not get triggered?

A trigger is a reaction that is more instinctive and immediate, lacking our typical skill or thought, that has ties to our conditioning of the past. For me, this is most likely to happen when I interpret a comment as being condescending. Oh, how that bugs me, whether it’s a family member during the holidays, or someone in my day to day life. Feeling as though someone is looking down on you, or belittling you in some way is so annoying! Of course, this is tied to me feeling small and insecure when I was young, and now it’s a real insult, and my reactions aren’t pretty, I’m sure.

Even if the intentions beneath our mother-in-law’s commentary are benign, it might still be interpreted as condescending, perhaps because we are hyper-sensitive to these comments, based on past interactions. At the point our conditioning takes over, our amygdala amps up, which is the little almond in our brain that detects danger and tells our fight or flight reactions to kick in. Our amygdala comes in very handy at times, however, it’s not the best at determining when danger is real or not. It’s like the fire alarm in your apartment. If it detects smoke, it goes off. However, that smoke might be from burnt toast – not a real fire.

So, let’s use three mindful approaches with roots in Buddhist psychology to look at how we might approach challenging familial interactions. These are (1) having fixed views; (2) bearing witness, and (3) taking compassionate action.

  1.  Having a fixed view.

    Having a fixed view, or ‘knowing’ what’s right often gets us into trouble by limiting our response flexibility. Why are we so attached to being right? Why do we always insist on knowing? This is our habit. When we ‘know’ and the person we’re engaged with also ‘knows’, suddenly both parties are limited in how they can respond. More often than not, the result of everyone knowing is digging in our heels and reinforcing the ‘you versus me,’ or this sense of separateness that only serves to disconnect.

    We’ve all had the experience of taking a stand and defending it, and how rigid and tense that feels. Compare that to when it feels ok to be wrong, and the lightness one feels when being certain isn’t necessary, i.e. taking a playful approach. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is an infamous literary piece exploring the benefits and wonder of intentionally seeing things with fresh eyes. Entering into a room or a conversation with a ‘not knowing’ outlook can lend itself to a lightness of energy that influences the dynamic. I think to be wise is to realize you pretty much don’t have anything figured out.

  2. Bearing witness.

    Bearing witness is just what it sounds like. Witnessing whatever is unfolding before us. Instead of getting lost in our storylines of judgement, fantasy, resentment, etc.. We practice allowing the feeling to exist, without needing it to be other than it is, because we understand the impermanence of it. We are learning that this is our fixed view taking shape. We practice not making our problems such a big deal. It’s taking on the beginner’s mind, not knowing what’s good or what’s bad. This is really taking the study of our mind’s conditioning to another level. We practice noticing the tendency to judge and have expectations, being present, not adding a story,

    Bill Ball, of the Durango (Colorado) Dharma Center, recently quoted Bernie Glassman’s experience after his loving wife passed away unexpectedly. Someone asked Bernie if it hurt, and Bernie replied ‘I’m raw.’ Do you feel sad, they asked? Bernie’s reply: ‘I shake my head. Raw doesn’t feel good or bad. Raw is the smell of lilacs by the back door, not six feet away from her relics on the mantel. Raw is listening to Mahler’s Fourth Symphony or the songs of Sweet Honey in the Rock. Raw is reading the hundreds of letters that come in, watching television alone at night. Raw is letting whatever happens happen, what arises, arise. Feelings, too: grief, pain, loss, a desire to disappear, even the desire to die. One feeling follows another, one sensation after the next. I just listen deeply, bear witness. An indication that you’re acting from old stories is when ‘I, me, and mine’ are ever present. This is different from bearing witness, which is something like ‘right now, it’s like this.’

  3. Taking compassionate action.

    Lastly, we can take an action that is wise, compassionate, and skilful. We can choose how to respond in a difficult moment, in a challenging situation. Choosing a thoughtful response that has its roots in not knowing and bearing witness looks much different from an instinctive reaction based on our old stories. This is taking care of how we relate to our self and others. This is acting from heartfulness, choosing the response with roots in compassion for yourself and the one next to you, knowing that causing the least amount of harm is the right choice.

When we do get irritable with family, I love Waylon Lewis’ affection for the eye roll. Your Grandma says the same thing you’ve heard over and over and over, but instead of reacting with frustration, you perfect the eye-roll. That physical act of eye-rolling does something to our nervous system that inclines us to stay light and playful. You have created space that allows for dissenting ideas and opinions without penetrating that equanimous place within you that you stay connected to that reservoir that you can dip into in order to maintain your inner peace.

All of this takes practice, and courage. It takes courage to be with anxiety and to be with not knowing. It takes courage to bear witness to difficult feelings, without acting on them. It’s not easy to acknowledge that we mostly operate out of past conditioning, clinging to certain outcomes, having all sorts of expectations that don’t serve anyone.

If we can practice being courageous with the present moment-witnessing our frustration and joy, our pleasure and pain, our moments can take on a sense of richness and vitality. We are really with our family at Christmas or a birthday, without needing them to be anyone other than who they really are. Isn’t this what family is all about?


About the Author: Robert Oleskevich

Robert currently describes himself as a travelling therapist. He grew up in Colorado, but for the past 20 years, has been living in Los Angeles, near the beach. He loves being next to the ocean in Santa Monica, and values his soccer, yoga, and meditation communities. However, he has come to realize that sometimes getting the hell outta LA is essential. So, he decided to quit working for the man, and begin the work of being his own boss. His goal is to be of benefit to the world, give something back, while navigating all the world has to offer.

Since 2014, when he decided not to return to his job as a school therapist, he has spent around 11 months in Asia. Mostly Vietnam, where he rode his motorbike the length of the country from Saigon to Hanoi. He was also lucky enough to check out Thailand, South Korea, India, Taiwan, Japan, and the Philippines. At this point, he’s been to over 30 countries.

He continues to provide mental health therapy to clients online and in-person. If you or someone you know might benefit from therapy, you can learn more about him and his services at https://www.herosjourneytherapy.com/ or on facebook.

18 Comments

Rob Oleskevich

Just a note from the author: I think I meant something more along the lines of an internal eyeroll… I totally agree that an actual eyeroll is probably not very useful or helpful. The internal eyeroll would be just a little self-reminder to respond to this moment in ways that are in alignment with your values and intentions.. and maybe not take it as seriously as you used to… respond instead of react etc.

Lastly, my updated web address (and additional blog articles that I hope you might find interesting) is:

https://www.herosjourneytherapy.com/

and wow, 2.7k views of this article. So cool!

Reply
24 shots

Their have mentioned family triggers and how it works, We all get triggered so it’s good to have ideas about diffusing the situation as we know after reading this article Eye-rolling is not a helpful technique for triggers.

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julina

eye roll with shades on..
but seriously the one my brother perfected is the “yeah-nah” sideways glance where he looks to the side as if he is seriously considering the persons opinion then he grimicaes and say “yeah-nah” and explaims that he will agree to disagree and leave it there with tact.

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Sue F

Thanks Karen, a great article. We all get triggered so it’s good to have ideas about diffusing the situation. I still get the “shaming” trigger so I need to have my shame resilience in place. Not always easy but it takes practice.

Reply
Margie

Loved the article and for me so important to notice every time those triggers fire me up!

Instead of eye rolling, maybe take a breath. This forces you to connect with your body as well create a space to consciously reflect instead of reacting.

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Joni

I’ve been told I was eye-rolling when I did not even realize I was doing it, subconscious gesture I’m guessing. It is my way of handling an otherwise possible confrontation. In my humble opinion, eye-rolling is a personal way of dealing with a situation without being verbally obnoxious. It might be offensive to others but it is a lot better that the “eye filter” kicks in and I do not verbally assault someone.

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Ellie Mallette

The only problem with that Joni, is that to the recipient it feels like a verbal assault. I also understand your predicament, but maybe a solution that would keep everyone feeling ok about themselves would be to remove yourself from the conversation or the room itself, or validate the other person’s feelings, or leave..take some deep breaths & when u return change the topic to something like a pleasant memory, or give a compliment or relate a funny incident etc. What I’m saying is carry out a response that leaves everyone feeling good or at least ok about themselves. It takes a lot of focus & practise, I know!

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Sue F

Yes I like this. It’s like calming the waters. Not sure if I like the eye roll. It’s like saying “here we go again” or what you are saying just isn’t worth listening to.

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Joni

Unfortunately (?), I’m not aware that I’m doing it. It’s an automatic reflex to verbal garbage. But, I will try to be become aware of surroundings that may trigger this reflex instead of trying to “roll with the flow”.

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Ellie Mallette

Becoming aware of your triggers, is an excellent idea Joni. Maybe you can practise your alternate responses by role playing with a friend until your new methods become a ‘part of you’, and will come naturally the next time you’re around the people who churn up negative emotions. Be patient, it’s a tough change to make but once you master it, you will feel a whole lot better!

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Sue F

Yes Ellie I agree with that. But also we need to stand up for ourselves in situations like these. For years I would remain silent. It was as if they had some sort of “power” over me and could say what they wanted. There were no boundaries. My sister would always bring up something that happened when I was 12 [I’m now 64] because she knew that would hurt me. It’s a shaming technique. We need to find resilience against this type of thing.

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Joni

Ellie, I agree. I am 60 and have experienced abuse of all sorts since a toddler until I finally cut ties, about 3-4 months ago. There are mechanisms ingrained to deal with unpleasant situations. I’m just learning about the effects this has on brain development. It’s a sad, but very real, method of coping developed by your brain when it’s overwhelmed and overloaded by fear, trauma, stress, etc. At 60, I’m not really sure if these ingrained mechanisms can be reversed. I’m on a new path, scratching away at a mountain with a teaspoon.

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ellie

Joni, my heart goes out to you…abuse of any sort cannot be overlooked, or accepted. I realize it’s especially damaging when started at a young age. The fact that you’re 60 means to me, that you are at a stage in life when you will explore any and all opportunities to thoughtfully and successfully go on to live a better life in all areas. At times it will feel that you’re scratching at a mountain with a teaspoon, but eventually that mountain will crumble into dust. The mind is extremely powerful and it can be retrained at any age. Keep at it, Joni. I know you will overcome the damaging events of the past, and be free to live the peaceful, enjoyable life you deserve!

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Ellie Mallette

Hi Joni,

I completely understand what you’re saying. I’ve been in that situation with family as well. I’m not implying that my solutions should be yours…you need to do what’s best for you. Have you tried having a private conversation with your sister about your hurt feelings? Tell her you love her and you know she loves you too but maybe she doesn’t realize how her words cause you to feel hurt, and you’d feel so much happier if you both concentrated on saying good things about each other whenever you’re together. You might have to repeat this to your sister any number of times before she ‘gets it’. It’s called being a “broken record.:)”
If that doesn’t work after many attempts say it in front of the rest of the family. If you are still subjected to it, repeat the original statement and leave the room or the house, saying something like it’s too bad you don’t want to respect my feelings but I have to respect myself with this boundary….try to say it in a very calm neutral tone. Then even if you’re in the middle of your favourite meal, get up and leave.
I have done this and even though it was uncomfortable it did make me feel stronger. Best of luck, Joni!

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Sue F

Yes to all of the above Ellie. We all have a right to be heard and for people to respect our boundaries. I used to put mine in writing…I found I could express myself a lot better and not be put off by people interrupting me. One reply I got after setting out my boundaries in an effort to improve the relationship was “WHATEVER!”. I knew then that it was never going to work. It’s never easy with family.

Reply
Ellie Mallette

Eye-rolling is not a helpful technique unless you are in a different room from the person who is irritating you. Eye-rolling is another form of condescension.
Everything else in the article is right on!

Reply

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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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