How to deal with triggers: avoidance or confrontation?
We all have people, situations or even foods that trigger uncomfortable feelings in us. Feelings such as not being (good, strong, beautiful, valuable…) enough, being “too much” (too intense, too complicated, too needy…), being abandoned, powerless… or the fear of any of those.
We now have the following choices: We can avoid those OUTSIDE triggers in an attempt to run from our uncomfortable feelings. Or we can use the confrontation with them to actually get to the root of and transform those uncomfortable feelings INSIDE of us. After my article “Feel it – Deal it – Heal it”, you can probably guess which road I am usually taking and recommending to my clients.
This is why I was so surprised to read the following in an online course that I recently took on Healing the Inner Child:
“Don’t put yourself in a position where your triggers will be triggered. If you know what they are, make the deliberate choice, and decision, to not go or do things that you know you’ll be triggered by. That’s the difference between choosing to live peacefully or living in pain. … We resist what’s good for us and accept what is not, because in the moment it seems easier. Well, it’s not. If you do it anyway, it’s because you aren’t thinking enough about yourself, to love yourself the most. Why? Because you don’t know you’re worth more. If you know your worth, it would make picking you a whole lot easier.”
In other words, according to the author, avoiding your triggers is a more loving choice, because it makes you feel more comfortable and searching out comfort is an indication of self-love, which is a “difficult” choice to make for many.
While I can see how this could be true in some very specific circumstances, this notion does not sit right with me personally in general. It is the same kind of dissonance I always felt about Susan Anderson’s theory of “abandoholism” and “the addiction to the emotional drama of heartbreak”. According to Anderson, abandoholics have felt abandoned in the past by people they loved and in an attempt to avoid this pain of abandonment by someone who really cares in the future, they are only able to feel “love chemicals” with partners that are physically or emotionally unavailable or uncommitted to them. For her, “love chemicals” have more to do with the anxiety caused by the lack of commitment than with true love.
While this seems to make sense at first sight, my own experience tells me differently. I HAVE chosen what seemed like the most loving and “good for me” option in the past, by being with someone who loved me dearly and was completely committed to me. I thought that the reason this “save” option did not excite me that much (= make me feel “love chemistry”) was because I simply did not love myself enough yet to be able to fully appreciate his commitment, and that once I did, things would change. So I rationalized away part of my body wisdom, which was clearly indicating that something essential was missing.
By now I know that I do love myself big time and that I would not choose self-destructive options or people that are not good for me. I know that I can and in fact MUST completely trust the signals coming from my mind AND my body. And I have to say that playing it safe and staying within my comfort zone is not the most loving choice – not for me nor for the other parties involved. It is not the more difficult option either. Staying in this “save” relationship would have been FAR easier for me, even if it did not completely satisfy me, than exposing myself to situations in which my buttons get pushed big time regularly.
Yes, some people might indeed have to learn to make better choices for themselves, to love themselves more, to stay away from toxic people, situations, substances or even foods – at least until they are stable enough and have gained enough consciousness to be able to slowly start exposing themselves again to the trigger and respond to it in a different way. But if you do have a fair amount of self-love, then avoiding your triggers is not the best idea in my opinion. Growth does not happen within the comfort zone.
In fact, if you want to grow as a person, you have to dig very deep and that includes healing old wounds, and thus allowing yourself to be triggered. The trigger is never the problem. You have to be able to look beyond the trigger, to go to the root of the discomfort and transform it at that level. You have to take back your projections. In that way, you can even be grateful for people or situations that trigger you, because they bring the usually unconscious issues closer to the surface, making it easier for you to access them and thus allowing you to do that important healing work.
This is NOT easy, it is extremely hard, difficult and confronting work! Yet, if you want to introduce MORE consciousness into your life rather than less, confrontation is usually a better strategy than avoidance.
Of course, eventually the right answer depends on the concrete circumstances of the situation. You should always respect where you are currently at in your own development process. It is NOT about playing the hero and exposing yourself to more pain than you can bear or than is absolutely necessary for your current growth.
If for example, you have to go to the dentist, but are afraid to do so, avoiding your trigger would mean to simply not go – at the potential long-term detriment of your oral health. Confronting yourself with the trigger would mean to go even though you are afraid. It does NOT mean to ask the dentist to extract your tooth without anesthesia though.
You do not necessarily have to actively seek out your triggers either, although sometimes that can indeed be a good thing to do. Simply let things go their natural flow and trust that your triggers will show up exactly in the moment that you are ready to deal with them.
Because they will show up eventually. It is not possible to avoid your triggers in the long run, even if you wanted to. Yes, you can try to run from them, you can try to get rid of all the symptoms outside of you or – if that is not possible – try to cover up your discomfort with food, excessive exercise or overworking. But they will always end up finding you anyways. The more resistant you are, the more painful the process usually will become. The more receptive and courageous you are, on the other hand, the easier and quicker the process is likely to be.