Diving into Part 2 of the Adulthood series, I will recap what it covers. And if you haven’t read Part 1, you can do so here before returning for the rest…
What this series covers are recent discoveries about what it means to be a part of the “adult” club. I cover three main topics, and I refer to them as pillars as they are essential to our growth and therefore have a large impact on our approach to life as an adult.
Like anything, if practiced and honed, they become a consistent way of behaving in relation to others. They also have the effect of developing us into more mature individuals with a clearer, healthier sense of self, building better relationships with others, and making life more rewarding.
All three address the importance of getting in touch with our own bodies, feelings, and belief systems. I’ve put a framework around it: a “me first” awareness, response, and reaction.
The hazard of not exercising these pillars promotes a state of confusion or fogginess as to our sense of self, purpose, and existence as a human. Let me explain: we must first begin with ourselves (our values, needs, mental wellbeing, etc.), before we can authentically give the same to others.
Imagine serving other’s needs despite your own. This can only be sustained for so long before the structure of yourself starts to wear away and eventually crumble. But imagine tuning into yourself first and operating from that place, then serve others accordingly. Both you and the relationship with others will be built off a stronger, more authentic relationship structure, not a structure that has integrity issues and is already compromised.
All three pillars talk about being self-aware and in tune with our inner world in a very basic human way. But, unfortunately, some of us have lost awareness of this basic human capability. Perhaps it was never fully developed in the first place.
For a quick recap, the first pillar talked about getting intimately in touch with feelings, from moment to moment. This can be hard to do, because sometimes we block out certain feelings or our awareness of them. Our busy minds get filled with defensive, accusatory or self-preserving thoughts that further activate our emotions, oftentimes in unproductive ways. When this happens, it can be very difficult to process a situation rationally as our thoughts dominate and fuel our emotions, which can lead us to spin out of control.
Let’s now dive into understanding how we are wired and where our wiring came from.
Pillar #1: Let’s Talk Trauma and Triggers
Throughout life, we are constantly in situations where we receive input and apply meaning to that input. This, in turn, alters our beliefs and associated behaviors. These new beliefs can become a set of guiding principles about ourselves and others. They can inform how we interact with others and who we enjoy interacting with.
And, as new events occur that have a similar “appearance” to the original set of events, we label and apply the original beliefs and behave accordingly to it as we had in the past. It’s the process of an emotional imprint and behavioral patterning.
What am I referring to? Triggers.
Triggers are impulses – emotional hijacking – that can throw our calm existence into chaos. When triggers appear and reappear, it’s our body’s way of communicating to us that we’ve been adversely and deeply affected by something in the past that still is affecting us today.
If we don’t understand their origin, what meanings we tie to them, and how they show up in a variety of situations, then we will likely be subject to a constant repeat of emotional hijacking and dysfunction in how we relate to others when we get triggered.
So where do triggers come from? Triggers are a result of some level of trauma. Many things can create trauma. Trauma can be a singular event or a series of events occurring over time. Trauma is very personal to each individual. What might be highly traumatic to one person, may not be as traumatic to another.
Sometimes we don’t even realize that we’ve been subjected to trauma. Sometimes we are a recipient of someone else’s dysfunctional or volatile behavior. And sometimes in a family dynamic, we are neglected as a result of someone else’s need for attention.
Trauma can be a hurtful statement or even a non-response or a discouraging expression made by someone we look up to for support, validation, or approval (e.g., mother, father, or caregiver). Sometimes trauma can result from a natural catastrophe or an accident we have been involved in or an observer of.
Trauma can be anything that affects us in an adverse way that causes an intense emotional response. And trauma can also be subtle. Subtle trauma can repeat over a series of years or many decades before we even understand the effect it has had on us.
Once the traumatic event has occurred, we assign meanings to it – beliefs we create about ourselves or others. These beliefs are oftentimes false. They are not overarching truths to live by – but we often do, unfortunately.
Those beliefs now show up in future situations and relationships. As false beliefs, they become the underlying meaning that we assign to various interactions with other people. We get triggered by situations and people who call up or bring to the surface those overarching false truths we’ve assigned to ourselves and others.
These interpretations and associated meanings and emotions suppress our ability to operate at a more productive level. They can result in conflict with others and/or we may withdraw from others. They can affect the degree of pleasure we have in relationships. They can affect our capacity to trust. They can impact our ability to manage our own emotions and behaviors. They can alter our interest in things and people.
Trauma and triggers have the power to significantly alter the course and outcome of our lives. But there is hope, as it starts with an awareness and understanding of them.
How To Address Them
Whatever trauma has been experienced, the body keeps the score.
An excellent book that I adamantly suggest anyone read is “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk. Van der Kolk is one of the world’s foremost experts on trauma. He explains how trauma reprograms our body, mind, and brain. He explains how it affects the sufferers’ capacities for pleasure, engagement, self-control, and trust.
But, there is hope. Van der Kolk provides ways of dealing with trauma, so we aren’t hijacked by these beliefs and emotions and instead are better able to reclaim our lives.
History informs today and today is a reflection of yesterday. So we make every effort to learn from history. We actively work on stopping the emotional cycle that can often repeat itself. We actively do the work to fully understand our triggers, their origin, and the meanings we apply to them. And as we do this, we will experience a new, more productive way of relating to others.
If we understand trauma and its potential negative impact, then perhaps we can minimize our exposure to it or remove ourselves from certain situations.
Because trauma happens without warning, our best action is to be aware of our body’s response to it and then address it as quickly as possible. This might require counseling or actively addressing the person who created an uncomfortable or hurtful situation.
The action of identifying and vocalizing our feelings towards an event, to the person causing it, and/or to a trusted and trained counselor, we begin the healing process. Dealing with trauma and triggers can be a very arduous and painful undertaking.
This article is not intended to cover every aspect of trauma and triggers, nor to provide actionable steps to resolve them. The main point here is to gain awareness of them and their impact on our lives.
Understanding trauma is not about pointing blame. It’s about understanding that it has happened, how it has affected our belief systems (about ourselves and others), and how it shows up and affects our interactions and the decisions we make over our lifespan.
I’d like to end this pillar with the works of therapist Dr. Walter J. Broadbent Ph.D. I introduced him in Part 1 and shared two points from his document titled “69 Characteristics of Successful Adulthood.” Here are 5 more that fit nicely with our discussion of Pillar 2:
1. Adults seek out an understanding of their internal struggles.
2. They are self-responsible.
3. They don’t try to push their responsibilities off on others.
4. They seek to continue to establish who they are.
5. They want to grow personally even more than they already have. They strive to do this.