This essay is the first in a series on why turning towards what activates us is the path to setting ourselves free. The rest of the series will feature modalities & tools for working with our triggers and welcoming suppressed emotions.

Turning inward — taking our shadows, insecurities, and relationship dynamics into our own hands — and resolving our inner conflict day in and day out is the first step in walking the path towards collective flourishing.

Whenever I commit my energy to writing about an area of my life I’m grappling with, it’s as if I’m tempting the universe to pressure test how deeply I’ve integrated it in my life. As I wrote A lifetime of should-ing, I found myself in the throes of shoulding myself. As I shaped Year of doing the damn thing, every ounce of my being seemed to resist doing the damn thing. After I published The mourning of a new dawn, I was hit by the most intense waves of grief I’ve experienced in a long time.

A few weeks ago, I decided to write about turning towards our triggers and how my relationship with triggers has evolved meaningfully. I used to think that “self-improvement” was about mindset work and focusing on the positive. All I needed to do was control my thoughts and then I wouldn't feel nervous, anxious, incompetent, fill-in-negative-emotion.

Now, I know that tuning into our bodies and shining a light on our unwelcome feelings is the path towards understanding ourselves more deeply. As I began drafting this essay, the universe took it as a sign to stress test whether I was really ready to thank my triggers and whether I’ve truly embodied the wisdom of being activated.

The past month has brought about a lot of change. Our move to a new neighborhood coincided with the start of the year, a time of hitting reset and starting fresh. I had anticipated that the new year and a new environment would create space for cultivating new routines and beliefs, allowing me to shed old habits that no longer served me. Our new apartment and upgraded routines would be up and running in no time. Or so I thought.

Instead, I found myself floating in the liminal space, unsettled and ungrounded. Like a plant that’s outgrown its pot, I uprooted my life and repotted myself in a new planter, expecting myself to acclimate and flourish immediately.

What I underestimated was how it would feel to be pulled out of the familiar. I forgot that with a new environment comes exploring the bounds of the new pot, experimenting with what type of routine makes most sense, and taking a breath to ground into the new space. As a result, I spent most of January feeling activated and out of my depth.

No better time to write about the gift of being triggered than when I’m actively navigating new growth edges and dancing with triggers, new and old.

big feelings: unwelcome

This past year, I’ve often found myself asking, “In what ways am I not free?” Whenever I’ve sensed that I’m holding myself back from doing something I want to do or feel myself getting triggered, I’ve made it a priority to tune into what’s happening within me and around me. This is a far cry from the girl who used to pride herself on her ability to subdue and silence any “unproductive” feelings that didn’t serve her in whatever goal she had in the moment.

Part of my defense mechanism to numb out inconvenient emotions was a survival tactic I’d adopted. Growing up, we may have been made to feel that our emotions are too big and that there isn’t space to fully feel them through.

Rather than being equipped with the tools to welcome intense feelings and trust the wisdom of our body, we’re taught to get over it and focus on the positive. Without the resourcing and safety to be with the big sensations emerging in our body, we learn that it’s easier to push them away as best we can, living in our heads and numbing ourselves from the neck down.

what goes up must come down

The nature of being human is riding the roller coaster of highs and lows. When we only allow ourselves to go up, but stave off the descent, we trap the tension of negative feelings, leaving the energy of coming down with no where to go.

Whenever I feel frustrated, the last thing I want to do is feel more frustrated. But, when I don't allow myself to fully feel through the bottom of frustration, I’m bottling up that energy rather than allowing it to find release and resolve on the drop. Eventually, it turns into stagnant energy, pushing me further into discomfort.

It may seem counterintuitive, but the path towards liberating ourselves from spiraling is allowing our energy to flow freely and expressing the full spectrum of our emotions, welcoming the negative sensations just as warmly as we embrace the good feelings.

Joy is the matriarch of a family of emotions. She won't come into your house if her children are not welcome.

— Joe Hudson, Emotional Fluidity (The Art of Accomplishment)

There’s wisdom all the way down. It’s in the pit of despair where I can acknowledge and see my deepest insecurities clearly, patiently being with the discomfort and making way for my fears to soften. When I take responsibility for warmly greeting and hosting all parts of me, I’m no longer a guest in my own home. I’ve stepped into my authority, transmuting my inner turmoil into an integrated alliance.

meeting and re-meeting our edges

Let’s use a seemingly innocent example that we know all too well. Think of the last time you were upset with a friend — an innocuous interaction that takes on a life of its own when we allow it to fester.

We’ll call this friend Sally. Sally says something over dinner that doesn’t land right with you. As she speaks, you feel waves of embarrassment and frustration wash over you. You find yourself quickly suppressing the emotions, feeling guilty about the emerging frustration and shame about the embarrassment.

The first set of emotions, embarrassment and frustration, were elicited as a natural course of the conversation. In reaction, you feel a need to justify these negative sensations which is when the second derivative emotions, guilt and shame, show up.

It’s in this moment, at the arrival of guilt and shame, where we often turn on ourselves. Rather than clearing the air with Sally on the spot and letting her know that you’ve noticed yourself dissociating from the conversation, we ignore the signals our body is sending us.

As the conversation continues, you can't help but feel annoyed by her comment and guilty for feeling annoyed. You’re less engaged and resentment begins to breed.

The reality is Sally likely has no idea that she’s offended you. When you see Sally next, you find yourself in an activated state. There's clearly something keeping you from connecting with Sally more deeply, but the shame of feeling this way prevents you from broaching the topic.

Rather than tell ourselves to get over it, what if we connected with our frustration, embarrassment, guilt, and shame? In our attempt to not make the feelings mean anything, we avoid and suppress, inadvertently stoking and fueling old triggers.

Shadows have an interesting way of unveiling themselves, surfacing as old thoughts that emerge as a byproduct of unfelt feelings. Like a child being excluded from a campfire, these parts feel left out and abandoned. With enough force from an external trigger, they rebel.

Dancing with our shadows

When we’re activated, it’s often a direct reflection of an unresolved issue that we’re evading or a boundary we’ve failed to keep with ourself. When we feel at peace, a previously triggering comment rolls right off us because we’ve untangled ourselves from what’s held us down. Rarely is it actually about the other person — rising activation almost certainly pokes at a part of ourself that we’ve suppressed or feel ashamed about.

Triggers show us where our edges are. Whenever you find yourself triggered by someone or something, it’s a sign to turn towards yourself and get underneath what’s coming up for you. What is it about that comment that’s activating you? What is it about the interaction that’s leading you to numb out and dissociate?

a road laden with potholes

…at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what's happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That's the world's greatest lie.

— Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

Think of your journey as a road. Triggers are like potholes along the way.

You find yourself driving down the road, hitting potholes every so often. In a particularly challenging season of life, it may feel like you’re driving on an unpaved road. Rather than taking the time to get out and fix them, you move about your life, driving over the bumps and racing time to arrive at your destination.

Without realizing it’s in our power to pump the breaks, examine what the potholes are telling us, and fill in the holes along the way, we opt to degrade the road over and over in pursuit of “arriving.” We’d rather work hard to trade up for a top-of-the-line model than see what’s happening on the ground.

We forget that the whole point of the journey is the road and that we’ll spend the rest of our lives driving up and down it. Until we muster up the courage to get out of our car and repair the pot holes, our unmet needs will direct our life and we’ll allow our route to be laden with craters.

If you enjoyed this essay, you may also like: Dancing with our shadows.

New Comment
1 comment, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

Thanks for the post. I wish more people looked at things the way you describe, i.e., being thankful for being triggered because it points to something unresolved within them that they can now work on setting themselves free from. Btw, here's an online course that can help with removing anger triggers: