The word “vacation” typically inspires relaxing visuals and a sense of eager anticipation for the average person. For some, insert the word “family” in front of the former, and a dash of anxiety with a pinch of dread is added to the mix.
Flashback a few weeks prior to my most recent trip, I was feeling on top of the world. Not due to any external confirmation of achievement, but more so to a deeply internal knowing that I was making major strides on my healing journey. I was feeling more sure than ever that I had learned to adequately master my emotions and triggers when they appeared.
One of the best signs of progress towards emotional mastery is the ability and willingness to tend to our triggers when they come up, instead of further enabling them through our own methods of avoidance. Being that I had committed myself to “feeling through” my triggers when they came up and “allowing them to be released” through processing them as they did, I had felt that I was getting close to reaching some form of a finish line on certain aspects regarding my trauma.
Equipped with tools like meditation and firmly established boundary skills, I prepared myself for what I believed would be “one of the best family vacations I’d experience yet”.
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The Universe has a way of testing us. Especially at points where we start believing that we are starting to really get the hang of things, or when we begin thinking we are finally figuring it out. It does so, with the hopes that we meet those points of testing with as much courage and perseverance as we can commit to. It says, “There are no right or wrong answers.”
How many times have we committed to our healing to feel as if when faced with those triggers, all of that work feels to have been in vain? How many times have we turned choices into moments, moments into weeks, weeks into months of diligence and endurance, just to beat ourselves down for one relapsing slip that seems to negate it all away?
In those moments, we shame ourselves and shake our heads in disappointment, feeling so sure that we had failed to prove to ourselves and the Universe that we were ready to live differently. When all the while still, the Universe quietly whispers again, “There are no right or wrong answers.”
If we push past the limits that those triggers framed us within, that is an answer. Yet, if we feel chained still, to those limits and react from that place instead, then that is an answer. Regardless of which answer you find yourself capable of giving for the time being, your worth and value remain inherently the same. There is no punishment, except the kinds you inflict upon your own self.
Triggers induce a range of emotions, from rage to depression, from panic to apathy, and from temptation to shame. However, one of the most isolating feelings that triggers produce is the sense of abandonment and loneliness. Often times, most of our triggers stem from a place of feeling deeply abandoned by those we trusted to love and care for us most (in this context, our family). As a result, when addressing triggers in our adult stages, we can often respond by abandoning ourselves, instead of properly tending to our wounds.
Inspired by my own recent experience in facing all of the triggers in my “trigger box” relating to family this past trip, I put together this list of ways we could love ourselves more when confronting those toxic thoughts processes and behaviors that might arise due to family related trauma triggers.
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1. Gift Yourself Some Alone Time
If being around family or specific members of your family triggers you, make an effort to schedule in some time alone and away from others. It’s easy to gravitate towards symptoms of “FOMO” or “fears of missing out”, especially when on a vacation/holiday. However, if you are dedicated to your mental and emotional well-being, it’s important that you treat alone time the same way you would treat medication. For introverts, this might be one of the easiest steps, but for extroverts, this might prove more of a struggle.
There are some, who when triggered, lean towards needing or desiring more positive attention from family members, to make up for the negative attention, when or after triggers occur. Though this might help soothe emotions initially, there is a danger of producing a toxic cycle of dependency towards the source of these triggers. Therefore, committing to a few moments of solitude, either early in the morning before everyone is up, throughout the day whenever possible, or even late at night when others have fallen asleep.
Whether that’s alone time to meditate and read (as I did) or alone time to workout or take a walk, even just a tad bit of it could go a long way.
2. Mind Your Self-Talk
“You’re not a bad person. You’re a very good person who bad things have happened to. Besides, the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters. We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.” — Sirius Black to Harry Potter
One of the most demeaning ways we abandon ourselves when triggers arise is by choosing negative self-talk over a more self-compassionate dialogue. Often times, the harsh and harmful phrases that we replay in our minds aren’t even ours to begin with. We repeat painful memories of family members jabbing insults at us and moments where we had felt intentionally neglected, which as time goes on, leads to our subconscious believing that we had somehow deserved that emotional abuse due to an innate flaw within our being.
What’s more, when triggers arise, we often find ourselves falling into behaviors or patterns that adds to the continuation of our misplaced shame, which further leads to more mental berating of one self. Be vigilant and stay acutely aware of the way you are speaking to yourself when you find your mind slipping into an unkind space. One of my best friends used to regulate me into a habit of replacing two kind compliments towards myself for every insult I mentally threw at myself.
I found it particularly disturbing that months of evidence from practicing positive self-talk seemed to vanish, all in the face of my triggers. By the end of the trip and through thorough introspection regrading the experience, I came to understand that it wasn’t so much that I had completely wasted all my efforts, it was more that when placed in the same environments that birthed my habits of negative self-talk, I was more likely to relapse. As soon as I came home, I gave myself plenty of alone time and found it easier to re-continue my loving self-talk dialogue with a bit more ease.
If alone time isn’t working out and your attempts to positively self-talk your way out of those triggering emotions aren’t helping, try speaking to someone who isn’t on the trip. Calling or texting someone like a close friend, significant other, or even supportive family member back home might help to remind you of all the progress that you’ve made prior to the trip.
Shame dissipated the minute I realized that I wasn’t alone, that my experience was human. — Brene Brown (Daring Greatly)
As previously discussed, triggering emotions have a way of convincing us that abandoning ourselves is the easiest and most simplest solution. The next time that kind of thought occurs and you’re tempted to jump on the first train towards Downward Spiral Town, pick up the phone and call the first person that comes to mind. If they’ve been with you throughout the majority of your healing journey, then even better! Let them know that you’re having a hard time moving through some things that you promised yourself you would commit to processing, and be open to hearing whatever comforting words they might have to offer you.
If you’re not looking for advice or even for a venting session, ask them about what’s going on back at home, or ask about how things are going for them. Mentally taking yourself out of the sphere of events that triggered you and into a different space mentally will help to diffuse your emotional tension.
4. Listen to Music
In the case that alone time is unavailable to you, positive self-talk is out of the question, and speaking to someone back home feels futile, plug your ears with some speakers and turn up the music.
You can listen to music and zone yourself into a mental space of solitude, if alone time is something you aren’t able to make happen for yourself. When it feels as if trying to combat your negative self-talk with more positive ones is turning your mind into a bloody battlefield, listening to music will help silence your thoughts by making you feel instead of think. If it feels like no one back home seems to understand exactly how it is you’re feeling, find a song and an artist/band that does and trust that those lyrics are there to prove to you you’re truly not alone in how you feel.
One of the nights where I was forced to manage my trigger responses on my own, I overheard Queen’s “We are the Champions” playing in the background.
“ I’ve paid my dues
Time after time
I’ve done my sentence
But committed no crime
And bad mistakes
I’ve made a few
I’ve had my share of sand kicked in my face
But I’ve come through
We are the champions, my friends
And we’ll keep on fighting ’til the end”
As Freddie Mercury’s voice filled the room, I found myself tearing up with a sense of relief. Hearing words that accurately depicted how I was feeling come from another human being, reminded me of how human my experience was - how universal.
I played Queen’s songs all throughout the rest of my trip, and silently sang them to myself as a soothing method whenever challenged by oncoming triggers as the trip went along.
The worst part about being triggered on a family trip, has to be the fact that it’s happening while you’re on a supposed “vacation” or “holiday”. There were countless of times where I felt extremely frustrated that not only was I allowing my triggers to get the best of me, I was allowing that to happen while on vacation!
When triggers occur, we often convince ourselves into believing that we should be “better than that”. We repeat that how we’ve reacted was sinful of us and we blame ourselves and those involved with our triggers for having created them in the first place. We grow increasingly upset with the memories that our triggers are rooted within, wishing that somehow, we were able to go back in time and stop what happened from happening… maybe then we wouldn’t have to worry about managing these triggering emotions in the first place.
Yet, what we should practice doing instead, is learning to accept it all.
We must learn to accept ourselves. Accept our triggers. Accept the people who helped bring them about. Accept the circumstances that created them in the first place. Accept the ways we are still fighting to live above them. Accept that they may always be a part of who we are. Accept that we may be tested by them for the rest of our lives.
Acceptance is the best option we have towards true healing. Without it, every step on our journey will be made with a hint of denial lingering at our feet. Ripping off the denial might be excruciatingly painful at first, since we have been taught by society that accepting our shortcomings and the lack of progress towards compensating for them is something to be ashamed of.
Denial is just as much a part of our roots as our triggers are. Yet if we can trust the process of acceptance enough, we might find ourselves being ripped out and away from the place that kept us from growing, and transplanted into a environment filled with more support than we could have ever dreamed of.
“We never lose our demons. We only learn to live above them.” — The Ancient One (Doctor Strange)
6. Channel it into Creation
When I first started studying psychology independently, one of the first concept I came across was Maslow’s Hierachy of Needs.
The theory provides that there are five tiers to describe the most essential needs for a human being to achieve fulfillment on all aspects. The first two needs make up the larger base of the pyramid, which are categorized as basic needs: physiological needs (water and food) and safety needs (security). The third and fourth tier make up the psychological needs: belongingness/love needs (intimate relationships) and esteem needs (feelings of accomplishment). The final tier that sits atop the pyramid makes up the self-fulfillment needs: self-actualization (achievement of one’s potential, including creative activities).
Triggers are created when sometime during our early development, there was a deficit or block in our ability to adequately fulfill the needs of the first three tiers. When we are unable to fill those needs properly, the development of our fourth tier is stifled and we are kept from achieving our full potential when our self-esteem is struggling to be maintained.
Now, this formula seems to suggest that without the ability to fulfill the former four tiers, it would imply that we lose out on the chance to create and realize our fullest potentials. I believe that instead, creativity is our salvation. By creating and birthing originality from our beings, we have the potential to live above our triggers by transmuting them into something beautiful, instead of keeping them as something painful.
I’ve noted creativity of all kinds thus far; from fiction books like Harry Potter, to movies like Doctor Strange, to musicians like Queen, and even researchers like Brene Brown. Yes, even researchers are creators. Brene has helped to create new paradigms and ways of living for anyone who has been touched by her work, and for that, she is by all means a creator.
Creativity, outside of its’ conventional definition, belongs to each and every one of us. It is our birth right, and even our duty as human beings. When we create something that comes from a raw place within us, we are creating something that the mass will resonate with and understand.
When I came home, I tried everything I could to help myself recover from the mild depression symptoms that I had relapsed into. I meditated, I worked out, I read, I played with my cats, I indulged with ice cream, yet nothing seemed to work. Even the routine that had helped me on my healing journey prior to the trip wasn’t showing any signs of working the way it had.
Nothing worked, and I was nearly convinced that all of my healing work was going to waste.
Then I decided to write. I decided I was going to write something that I would’ve loved to read while I was going through my triggers. Something that I knew others would be able to benefit from as well. I am no artist, nor am I a musician, but I knew when I typed or scribbled letters on paper, it was no different from when a pianist splayed their fingers across their keyboard.
Turns out, the most beautiful things we create often comes from what we think is our ugliest messes.
Go make something.
It might even make you appreciate the things that trigger you.
Above all, take care of yourself.
When you are upset because a parent isn’t parenting you the way you feel they should’ve all along, parent yourself. Remind yourself to eat when you are too sad to. Protect your mind from all those negative thoughts beating you down.
When siblings are acting out in their own triggered ways, be a kind sibling to yourself. Stand up for yourself when you feel you are being treated in ways that are less than you deserve.
When relatives remind you of how they always wanted you to be more than what you are, be a better relative to yourself.
You are more than enough and never too much. You are exactly where you need to be. You’re doing fantastic. Keep going. Don’t stop now. And most importantly, forget about the finish line and the right answers.
I hope you continue to choose yourself over your triggers, and I hope you find things that trigger euphoria more than pain.
Keep fighting the peaceful fight.