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!

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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!

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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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