The Vicious Trigger Cycle Dance: “Why Don’t You Just…?”
One of the most triggering questions in the world is the innocently well intentioned “Why don’t you just…?” question-suggestion-judgment. It feels like an attack when it is actually meant as a suggestion. Inevitably, it’s asked by someone who does not understand the struggle I am feeling, the tempest inside, or the helplessness that is just bubbling under the surface.
A good friend once snapped at me with “Why don’t you just stop SAYING that you want to lose weight? Either do it or don’t. And if you don’t do the work, stop saying that you want to, but then make all these excuses as to why you’re not doing what you say you want to do.”
At the time, I felt attacked and horribly helpless. I just wanted to yell “I would if I could!” If only it were that simple to ‘just’ do as I say or say as I do, I would do it. Of course I would lose weight if I could. Of course I would stop talking about losing weight and just accept this fat me if I could. But I couldn’t. Or more accurately, I didn’t know how to. Or at a deeper level, there was a need that overeating was somehow meeting… a maladaptive coping mechanism!
Food was my addiction. I didn’t smoke, I didn’t drink, I didn’t do drugs. I don’t mean to sound holier-than-thou, although I probably felt that at one time. My addiction was (is) food. Eating was (well… uh… is) my escape from the stresses of work, from managing people, from the nonstop needs of my kids, from the messiness of my house, from the judgment of others… It was (and still is, did I mention that it still is…!?) my moment of escape.
My Side of the Equation
When in the throes a trigger or spiral, parents often have to keep it together to get through the day, which often includes keeping our children alive by feeding and clothing them. The energy it takes to get the basics done can be overwhelming. Those without children may not understand how hard it is; just as those who do not suffer from CPTSD may not understand how difficult it is to manage emotional flashbacks… just as those who are good at math may come up with solutions that go over the heads of those who hate math… etc. etc. I could go on and on with the examples… and of course, the energy it takes to act normal can take a solid chunk out of our energy bank.
Being a bit curious about this now that I have been doing the work, I have been thinking about this dominos effect:
- identifying something that I want to fix (feeling critical about me)
- not really knowing how to fix it (feeling dumb that I don’t know how to fix it)
- feeling that the challenges are too difficult to overcome (feeling helpless)
- coming down on myself for not being able to ‘just’ do it (attacking myself)
- hearing someone articulate a ‘simple’ solution (feeling attacked by someone else)
- feeling the inner critic rise up with reasons why I couldn’t ‘just’ do that (feeling defensive)
- feeling the anger rise in me that my priorities (excuses) were brushed aside (feeling hurt)
The Vicious Trigger Cycle Dance
I’m learning that when my trigger starts with someone telling me ‘why don’t you just…?’ I can get caught up in a trigger cycle dance if I’m not careful.
Maybe, they didn’t mean to say ‘just’ but my raw nervous system feels it differently. So their intention is to be helpful, but I interpret it as an attack, and therefore the impact to me is a trigger that starts off my spiral… and then my reaction may be something that is more aggressive than I mean it to be.
Their question might actually be THEIR trigger response to something I said that inadvertently set off their internal spiral and they just needed to shut me down so that they wouldn’t feel their discomfort from my spiraling. Which came first? The chicken or the egg? (I love that Peanuts comic where Peppermint Patty wails “It all started when she hit me back!~~”)
In any case, when someone says this to me, I’m learning to pause and sit with it rather than get drawn into an argument about “excuses”, “semantics”, or defending my need not to feel insulted.
I am learning not to get caught up in the Trigger Cycle Dance.
Focusing on the Here and Now
Everyone is unique, with different lived experiences, our own perspectives, and varying levels of stress we can handle. Which means that everyone will need to find their own combination of techniques that can help them manage triggers like this.
For me, I need to make sure I don’t do anything I regret before I get too caught up in my need to resolve the issue.
- being aware that I am triggered and no longer using my prefrontal cortex
- grounding myself so that I’m no longer in a triggered state
- noting down my reactions and pulling out valid points that I would like to explore
- slowing everything down to give my unconscious brain the opportunity to sit with it
- learning to be okay with not being okay
Here comes my whining… BUT WHY IS IT SO HARD?!?!?!?!?!?
And I think this is the crux of the challenge. It is here where it can fall apart. Everything up to here is intellectually almost easy to understand. It’s the application of it on a day-to-day basis. It’s the overwhelm from dealing with too many triggers at once. It’s the fear of a coming confrontation that I just want to avoid. It’s the self-blame when I figure out it was a trigger retroactively after I behaved ‘badly’ to make things worse…
It’s so hard because our brains are wired to protect us and came up with coping mechanisms helped us in the past. The problem is that these techniques are no longer serving us and are in fact making it harder for us to get done what we want to get done.
So whining done. But what next?
We Start Where We Start: Taking One Next Step
What I’m learning to do is to focus on one next step and not the final destination of perfection that I so desperately want. That seems to be a part of my healing journey. Everything else takes a lot of time and some of it requires work I’m not yet ready to do.
If I keep trying to accomplish things that are just not quite developmentally appropriate for me, given where I am, I keep setting myself up for failure and I keep running into the overwhelming challenges that I want to run away from.
But if I can focus just on one step at a time, I will slowly make progress. This progress will be slow, but steady. I break down my one next step into something I can do. If I can’t do it, it’s not small enough.
It may also be helpful to understand that this journey of getting from here to there is just not linear and it’s not the same for everyone. We each have different sets of skills, experiences, and barriers. It’s important to understand that and not cause ourselves even more stress by comparing or giving ourselves a hard time.
Here in this Community, we are big proponents of “One Next Step” and specifically in Sandwich Parenting, we also like to ensure that we remember that “We Start Where We Start.”
Can you name your one next step? Do you need help noodling it with your community? Can another perspective help you break it down? Do you need a peer reminder that you are doing your best and that you will get there?
You are not alone!
You are in the right place!
Let’s heal together!