The other day Chris and I had a couple of interactions that did not go smoothly. Ok, this is an understatement. I walked away from them feeling FURIOUS. I felt boiling mad…imagine steam coming out of my ears!
I tried to calm down, but it wasn’t working like usual. Thankfully, the kids were not around at the time so I opted for a little alone time and talked with Jesus about my big feelings. As I interacted with Him, the intensity of my feelings did not lessen like they usually do. However, I began to realize that maybe, just maybe, I was overreacting; a little bit. It occurred to me that Chris and I often have misunderstandings, and usually I feel frustrated and we quickly recover to joy. This time was different. I didn’t feel frustrated, I felt FURIOUS. I wasn’t recovering. I gave my feelings and the situation to Jesus then I asked Him what else He wanted me to know. I realized I was feeling way out of control and like my husband did not care about what was important to me, which, sadly, is a familiar feeling from my past. While the interaction with Chris was upsetting, the intensity I was feeling was out of proportion for the current situation. My past was unapologetically invading my present.
If there is something I have learned over the years, it is this. When I react with out-of-proportion intensity, there is more going on than meets the eye. This is known as being triggered, and our friend Dr. Karl Lehman also identifies this as unprocessed implicit memory, which refers to the feelings that are present without the information or details that go with the feelings. When a situation in present day life unconsciously reminds me of unresolved feelings (or situations) from the past, we call this being “triggered.” The difficulty with being triggered is we usually do not recognize it at the time and the intense feelings from the past spill into the current situation. What should be a minor frustration sky rockets into big and unmanageable emotions that are “off the charts.” In these moments nothing is going to go well until I can can quiet and have Jesus help me turn down the intensity from the past enough to resolve the problem in the present.
A number of things help me when I am triggered. Sometimes the simple act of quieting is enough. Since this is the easiest, I usually start there. If I need more, I talk with Jesus about how I am feeling and invite Him to help me calm down or show me what He wants me to know about the situation. This helps me feel seen, validated and understood so that I am not so alone in my feelings. I find that practicing appreciation warms up my brain and greatly increases the chances that I will be able to sense Jesus’ presence – even in the midst of my distress. When I have quieted and can clearly see where my past feelings are active, I can see the present problem and take responsibility for my part in the current situation.
After calming down I was able to follow-up with Chris on our earlier interactions. I could now own that the intensity of my reaction from earlier was not justified by the situation. I was able to express to him how I felt hurt by our interaction. My patient husband heard me and was apologetic. We discussed how the situation could be handled differently next time around. We were able to come up with a plan that felt good to both of us and we felt like we were again on the same team. Peace and joy was restored.
It is amazing how quickly things can spiral downward when triggered feelings go unrecognized. In most cases, our spouse has the response, “You are overreacting!” We may be overreacting but when our past pain includes feeling invalidated or minimized,things will be more explosive. Once we are able to calm down, recognize where the past is sneaking into the present and turn down the volume on the big feelings, the interaction has a much higher chance of resolving in a more satisfying way for everyone.
To learn more about triggers and implicit memory, I highly encourage you to read Outsmarting Yourself by Dr. Karl Lehman here or attend one of our Joy Rekindled Marriage Retreats to practice useful skills.