Tag Archives: triggering

Self Care and Relationships

My guess is that if you have good self esteem and a sense of self worth, then you’ll be more confident about when to step away from people. I’ve been paying attention to my own processes around this in recent weeks and have noticed some patterns I thought it might be helpful to share.

If something goes wrong and I express distress, there’s a small window where things can be ok. If the other person comes back with care and concern then I can work things through and it’s usually fine. Now, if I was watching a friend in this situation, and they expressed distress and the person who had caused it doubled down on them, I would have no qualms saying ‘get out of there, this person does not have your best interests at heart’. When it’s me, other things happen.

I think it’s my fault. I think I’ve done something wrong and brought it upon myself. I think it’s fair and deserved. Probably I wasn’t trying hard enough or giving enough. I should make more effort to be patient, generous, accommodating and forgiving. So when someone hurts me, if they don’t back off from that quickly I can end up trying harder to be nicer to them and feeling like a total failure while I’m doing it. I’ve got to the point where I can see myself doing it and I know it’s not good for me, but I still can’t stop the thoughts that come.

I find it difficult to step away from people. Even when I know they are harming me, a feeling of guilt can stay with me for years afterwards. I’m working on this. There are a lot of unhelpful places my brain goes when people double down on hurting me. It builds my expectation that any expression of distress on my part will be met with further punishment. I fight against feeling that people will hate me, blame me and want to knock me down for daring to say ‘ouch’. I find it really hard to trust people not to hate me.

Even when I’m not triggered into all the places this takes me, it remains in the mix. I’ve got to trust a person a great deal to express distress to them. I’ve got to value a person a great deal to give them the opportunity to double down on me. When it’s people I barely know, I just slink off – because I can manage that much self care, and the stress of raising discomfort with people is high.

When people respond to distress by telling me why it’s my fault, or justifying it, that sends me off to some really dark places. It brings up other, older, nastier hurts that I was told were my fault, one way or another. I can become unable to escape from those memories in the short term. Classic PTSD triggering.

I want to be someone who is reliably kind, patient and generous. I want to forgive everyone’s mistakes and shortcomings and I feel a deep sense of obligation to be nice to people who hurt me. I also know that this way lies madness, in a rather literal sense. I know that if I stay in there for too long with someone who keeps hurting me, I will end up in serious trouble. Self care means saying no to people around this stuff. If I put my own comfort first, saying no the first time someone doesn’t respond in the way I need them to would be the way to go. But the weight of the guilt is terrible.

I have a hard time accepting that I cannot be a good and kind friend to a person who triggers me and makes me ill. I feel like a failure every time I run into that. I feel like they are entitled to more from me. Even though I don’t have that to give. I want the people who care if I am hurt, and I want to feel entitled to only really deal with people who care about me, and not to feel obliged to care about who don’t reciprocate, but there’s a lot of old training to deal with here and it will take time.


After the gaslighting

Gaslighting is a deliberate process where one person sets out to destroy another person’s relationship with reality. It is often a feature of abusive relationships because a person who no longer trusts their own judgement is easier to harm and control. It’s also very normal for abusers to tell their victims that nothing happened. There was no punch. There was no shouting. It didn’t happen. The victim is mad.

When you hear day in and day out that you said things you are sure you never said, did things you do not think you did… you question yourself. If the person you love and trust keeps telling you that you’re imagining things, the damage can be done long before you notice what’s happening. You end up not trusting your memory or judgement and that’s terrifying. You’re so busy trying to hold on to a viable reality that you don’t see what’s being done.

I got out. What I’ve only just started dealing with is the legacy of gaslighting. I’ve not seen much about the aftermath which is part of why I’ve only just realised that there is one,for me.

If someone states as fact that I’ve done or not done something, where I think the opposite is true, then I fall straight into total panic. It’s easily done. A misheard word, a misremembering by someone else, a misreading, a misinterpretation… but I don’t default to assuming the other person made a mistake. I go straight back into that headspace where my reality was broken and I didn’t trust myself to know if something that hurt was in my best interests or not. I recognise it now as a form of triggering that makes me largely unable to deal with this kind of situation.

I can be put here by accident – we all make mistakes and many people pay less attention to their words than I do. What we remember is not always what the other person remembers – usually that’s fine, it’s when it gets thrown at me as unassailable fact that the panic kicks in. I can also be panicked by people ascribing meaning to my actions that was not what I meant at all and refusing to let me explain how I see things. I’ve gone a few rounds with this without recognising that triggering was part of the process. Evidently, I can be triggered by anything that looks like gaslighting and while it’s happening, I have no way of even thinking about whether this is an intentional attack or just poor communication. I don’t experience it as either, initially. I experience it as me being an awful failure of a human being who should crawl off somewhere and die quietly, because that’s where it puts me.

This is one of the things that makes triggering so difficult to deal with. While it’s happening, you often can’t tell it’s happening – a previous reality asserts itself over the top of the one you are currently in. You’re back in the place or the headspace where the trauma happened. It doesn’t leave room for questioning it, or thinking about the mechanics of what’s happening. With gaslighting, being put back there suddenly is terrifying and disorientating. It reasserts a former reality that wasn’t real and that was all about trying to break me. I feel the things I used to feel, and they are not good and further, they rob me of all means of dealing with whatever’s caused the trigger. If I’m panicking because I no longer know what’s real, I can’t deal with the other person’s mistake. Or my own.

I’m working on a strategy to cope with this next time it comes round. Here’s what I’ve got so far: I am entitled to feel however I feel regardless of whether it makes sense to anyone else. I am entitled to have opinions, even if they are at odds with other people’s opinions. I am entitled to feel safe, so if I’m not feeling safe I should step back from a situation and make some space to get myself on a better footing before I try and sort anything out. I do not owe anyone a response or explanation straight away, I can have more time. There are usually other people who I can check in with about what I said and did, and how it might be interpreted. I should do that as soon as I can. I have people I can trust to help me navigate. I need to develop these ideas when I’m not triggered so that I have them in my head when things go wrong.

I recognise that what has happened to me was not of my making. That makes it harder to deal with alone. However, the support of people around me makes a lot of odds. Trust is something I find difficult, but increasingly I think trust is the way out of this for me. It is in trusting the people who think I am sane enough, and good enough that I can build resistance to the triggering.


Comfort and discomfort

This weekend has brought a radical change of thinking for me, so I’m going to share it on the off-chance someone else finds it useful.

Triggering and panic attacks are big issues for me. Less of a problem than they used to be, but still things I have to navigate through. I know that people can trigger me in all innocence. They can do things that look like other things and panic me. My panic is not the measure of whether someone else is a good person or not. So, for years now, I’ve tried very hard to manage my reactions so that I don’t upset someone who has accidentally triggered me.

My experience of talking to people (usually, but not always men) who have triggered me is that many resent being asked to do differently and have expressed the idea that its unfair being held responsible for dealing with the consequences of something they didn’t cause. I’ve heard that and taken it onboard.

It means that much of my behaviour in response to panic and distress is about trying to keep other people comfortable. It’s not been about my comfort, or what I need to do to heal. Some of it is because I feel safer if I keep the men I’m dealing with comfortable. Thankfully the men I live with are not an issue on this score and are willing to hear, change and support. My safety is not dependant on their comfort. But in any other situation, if there’s a tension between my comfort and someone else’s, I tend to feel that asking for my issues to be heard is risky and may make things worse, not better.

This is where I’ve decided to make radical change. I never feel comfortable dealing with people who trigger me and expect me to deal with that. Even when they aren’t setting me off, I don’t feel safe and I am always on edge. I’m going to stop putting myself in those situations. I am not going to show up, or if I really can’t dodge it, I am going to get out at need. I’m going to stop investing energy in trying to make comfortable the people who make me uncomfortable.

If they call me a drama queen, or they say I am making it all about me, or being unfair to them, as has happened before in such situations, maybe I’ll just agree. And get out of the situation. I do not have to feel emotionally responsible. I do not have to feel obliged to comfort and reassure people who discomfort and unnerve me. I do not have to make their opinions the measure of whether my feelings or needs are even valid. It occurs to me that I don’t even have to get this right, or be fair or reasonable, that I can say no because I want to, and that I do not even need to justify it.


After the triggering

People who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (not all of whom will have a diagnosis because mental health resources are scarce) experience triggering. Triggering is a process that takes you back into experiences of trauma. It’s very hard, through to impossible to get the resurgence of memory under control. It can mean anything from hours of revisiting terrible memories, unable to stop the flow, through to re-experiencing the trauma as though you are back in that situation and reliving it.

People become traumatised when they experience terrible things – violence, cruelty, assault, psychological torment… and when that becomes normal. A person can experience a terrible one off thing and not take massive psychological damage if it doesn’t then become part of their sense of how the world works. However, if you spend time in a literal or metaphorical war zone, it becomes your reality, and at some level it’s hard to feel safe after that, and so easy to go back there.

Traumatised people respond dramatically to things other people may think are no big deal. This can make it very confusing to deal with from the outside, because from the outside, it doesn’t look like a reasonable pattern of cause and effect. This can lead to treating the trauma survivor as though they are a drama queen, or totally unreasonable, or being unfair.

I have on enough occasions dealt with people who weren’t going to walk on eggshells around me and who weren’t going to be careful about not triggering me and didn’t see why they should have to. This, for me, is now a deal-breaker in a relationship of any shape. If someone doesn’t value me enough to at least try not to trigger me, it’s not a place I can afford to stay.

When a person doesn’t make sense, it can be hard to find empathy, or to work with them. It is easy to dismiss what seems illogical or out of all proportion.

After someone has been triggered, things can go one of two ways:

One: in the aftermath of the triggering they may learn that it was a reasonable response. They aren’t safe. They can’t trust the people around them. What looked ominous was indeed a real threat, and they were right to respond as they did. The normalising of the trauma continues. They learn that what they fear, is true.

Two: they learn that it was a mistake, and that the people around them care and want to fix things and keep them safe and help them feel better. The sense that traumatic experiences are normal and to be expected diminishes a little, and the world becomes a slightly better place.

The difference in these situations is the behaviour of the person who caused the triggering once it’s evident that there’s a problem. Do they add to it, or do they try to sort things out? Do they blame, shame, mock and belittle the victim, or do they encourage them and help them get back on their feet? Do they take careful note of the problem in the hopes they can make sure it never happens again, or do they call the victim a snowflake?

We have so much power over each other. So much potential for good and for harm. So often it comes down to whether we are willing and able to care about things that may at first make no sense to us.

 


Triggering and justice

I do not have any kind of formal PTSD diagnosis, although it’s been suggested a few times by people qualified to say, that it might be an issue for me. To get a diagnosis, I’ve have to show up and answer questions, and I have resisted this strenuously. This week really required me to look hard at what’s happening there.

I’ve just had a wholly different situation in which professional scrutiny was an option. It went fairly painlessly, and well on the day, but the level of anxiety, panic attacks and flashbacks beforehand were startling. I haven’t been like that over anything in a while. If you suffer from PTSD, then you will have triggers that give flashbacks and really bad reactions. I do seem to have these symptoms, and it would appear that professional scrutiny is a trigger for me. This makes it nigh on impossible to bear the prospect of asking for proper help.

How I might have got here is no great mystery. People who experience trauma and who are not helped are more vulnerable to being further traumatised. There is nothing worse for a trauma victim than being made to revisit the memories, but for several years, I was repeatedly forced into contact with professional people who demanded I did just that. Every new professional in the equation wanted a retelling of the worst things that have happened to me, so they could come to their own decision about whether or not I was telling the truth.

What that adds up to is ten different occasions when I had to talk in detail about traumatic experiences. There was also one hideous physical examination. Most of the professional people I had to deal with were not professionals when it came to dealing with my issues – they had other roles, and no training in how to minimise the damage for me. Several of them were disbelieving and hostile, putting me in situations of having to revisit trauma whilst being told off, blamed, humiliated and otherwise made to feel awful and responsible. Several were keen to minimise both the physical and psychological impact of what I’d experienced. Perhaps because they did not understand and were unable to imagine. The one additional round of talking to a professional who was in the mix just to help me – a counsellor – resulted in being taken seriously, but by then I was so damaged and demoralised by how I’d been treated by other professionals, that I found it difficult to make good use of her time.

In any compassionate situation, what happens to a trauma victim post-trauma is that support is given to make sure they do not carry a sense of blame or responsibility for what happened. This is key to recovery. However, we have an adversarial court system, and what I’ve been put through is the exact opposite. I had years of a process of being blamed, held accountable and told it was my fault and my failing, or that I was lying. The idea of professional scrutiny has become unbearable to me, and there is now no way I could now bear to submit to letting anyone try and help me with this.

What troubles me most about this is the certainty that it won’t just be me. All victims of crime are vulnerable to feelings of distress and trauma. Victims of violent and sexual crimes are likely to be traumatised by their experiences, and to need professional support to overcome this. What we have instead is this adversarial justice system that exposes victims to hostile questioning, requires them to repeat, in great detail the worst things that have happened to them, thus increasing the trauma, and where attempts to humiliate and discredit are pretty much a given. This is not justice. Even if you win, having to endure the process is not justice. Given our increasing levels of understanding about human psychology, this whole process needs a radical rethink. I do not have any answers, but I feel strongly that we need to be asking questions.