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.

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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.

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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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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