In the comics this morning I read that well-known quote by Charles Swindoll, “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react.” My first thought was that it could be true all things being equal, but if you have been abused, or if you are highly sensitive then the world is much more difficult to navigate. Not reacting is far more difficult as the emotional life is often overwhelming, and our emotions lead to our actions.

We have strong reactions to events when those events trigger us. Triggers are things that are often buried deep from our past, part of our hardwiring of beliefs. It’s the cultural, familiar and personal experiences that teach us what the norms and expectations for ourselves are. Our beliefs can be so ingrained and learned so early in life that many can go unnoticed until they are triggered.

When I began dating my husband I had him over for dinner. I was nervous as I have never been much of a cook. I was relieved and proud when I served up two plates of chicken, rice and vegetable. Perfect! The first thing out of his mouth was to ask where the rest of the meat was.

My husband was a bodybuilder at the time and ate a large amount of protein. He also have a very physically challenging job. He would have been happier with two chicken breast. His question threw me for a loop, and I got triggered in my reaction.

I looked at him and said without thinking, “The person with the most food on their plate is the most important, and I am just as important as you.” We both were quiet for a moment trying to understand this logic. This had become my belief without my consciously being aware of it.

I came to realize that as a little girl sitting at the dinner table that I had confused family meal order with self-importance. In our family our mother served our father, who sat at the head of the table, first. He got the biggest pork chop, the largest mound of mashed potatoes with gravy. Then Mother served my brothers sitting on the other side of the table from me. In my four or five year-old mind it looked to me like those who got the biggest portions were the most important.

I hadn’t considered that my stomach was small or that my nutritional needs were small. I had a little body that didn’t need a lot, and I disliked pork chops anyway. It didn’t matter. I felt unimportant in my family and it was reflected in the small amount I was served and in the fact I was served last.

As I grew up I told people I had five brothers and knew not to wait when food became available. I remember weddings, birthday parties and other large social gatherings where others were involved in conversations and oblivious to the fact the food had been set out. It was like radar for me. I didn’t rush, wasn’t rude, but I did not wait long before getting into line.

Our beliefs can be tricky like this, not erupting or coming into focus until we are triggered. Life may be 90% of how we react, but how we react is quite complicated.

Birth order plays a powerful role in forming beliefs about ourselves and our place in the world, where we fit in. I’m thinking of Marcus, the oldest of three who was held responsible for his siblings. Marcus grew up to be a responsible person, but he also grew up with a Blame trigger. If in anyway he feels he is being blamed for something he gets angry. It’s quite noticeable with Marcus because most people would describe him has laid-back, calm and not easy to anger, all of which are true. Except when he perceives that he is being blamed. His wife told me she made a mistake on something she felt her husband would have caught if he had been there to help. When she talked about it with him his zoned in on the idea that she was blaming him for not helping her by not being there. It led to a big fight.

Marcus had been blamed for his siblings behavior, that he had less control over as they grew up. His father left the family when he was quite young and told Marcus he was “the man of the family now.” What a terrible things to do to his son. Now being blamed is a trigger for Marcus.

People talk about the challenges of the middle child. The one known to feel overlooked and left out. This isn’t true for all, but it’s the stereotype for a reason. Belinda had an older brother who was an athlete, lots of awards and accolades while her youngers sister was a talented musician. Belinda played sports well enough and she played the guitar for years, but she was never a “show off,” which is how she saw her siblings behave while their parents bragged about their accomplishments to neighbors, friends and family.

Belinda developed a trigger around being ignored. Whenever she felt left out she told herself she was not valued, wanted, loved or important. She came to believe that she was overlooked growing up and damn well would not be overlooked as an adult. She wore expensive and stylish clothes and held a position of influence in her job. However, if she walks into a store where the sales person doesn’t acknowledge her then she feels slighted. If the two sales people are helping one customer and not paying attention to her, she gets triggered. Her internal voice reminds her how insignificant she is, that her presence doesn’t matter and that others are more important than she. Her response is to lash out in quiet anger by shoplifting.

She is always filled with self-loathing and remorse by the time she gets home. She beats herself up and reinforces her negative belief system around being unloved and unlovable.

Being the youngest is the more complicated position as the outcome depends a lot on the personality. I’ve known people who were spoiled, undisciplined and self-centered as the youngest, but also those who are quite shy and avoid getting public attention. There is humility and fear for them. Being triggered could be about being put in the spotlight or it could be about not getting one’s way. When you see an adult act like an unhappy six year-old it’s likely someone who has been triggered.

I’m always telling clients to pay attention to how they talk to themselves. By being aware of our internal dialog we can follow our emotional states and catch ourselves before reacting to our triggers. Using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy tools we can work backwards from behavior to thinking to feeling to beliefs. From my experience it’s easiest to become aware of thinking when we notice a shift in our moods, especially if we are triggered. Try it and see if you can become aware of the beliefs you carry around.

(Names have been changed for privacy.)

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