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  • Writer's pictureRyan Wilson

Sneaky Ways Our Past Hijacks Our Relationships

The way it happens is always the same…so let’s look at some actual examples and what we can do about it!

When we get triggered

Isabella (not their real name)

  1. Uncertainty: Getting overwhelmed at work – started to feel not

good enough (one of their old stories that triggered fear of rejection by tribe) and it threatened their sense of mastery (that they were good at something- one of things we need to be well)

  1. Survival Map:  Isabella learned that her sense of worth comes from her work and getting things done. She had learned she could only depend on herself, so asking for help was not an option. So when uncertainty triggered her survival map, her map actually was to over-invest in work.

  2. React: Isabella started working even longer hours, often staying until mid-night, at the expense of her health, and her family (even though this was not in line with her values and seemed irrational to her family but she was not in a place to hear it). Even when Isabella was home, she was pre-occupied with work issues.

  3. Damage Control: Isabella’s husband and kids pulled away from her and felt rejected. Her teenaged kids started to act out with her by being disrespectful and her husband started an emotional affair with a co-worker and spending money excessively, which further triggered Isabella’s drive to work. Because Isabella was too focused on work to notice any of these things brewing, it took their partner threatening a separation before she even became AWARE that her survival map was triggered and that she had not been living her values of being a present and supportive partner and parent for almost a year.

Felix (not their real name)

UncertaintyTribe was threatened – their daughter called them to vent about a work situation that impacted her husband.

  1. Survival Map:  Felix learned that their sense worth comes from fixing things for other people and that their safety depended on the emotional states of the people around him. He grew up with a very volatile father who would sometimes beat his mother and was often emotionally and verbally abusive with him, so he learned to be hyper-attuned to the emotional states of others and to try to keep people around him happy as a way to stay safe.

  2. React: Felix felt he needed to take control of the situation when his daughter was upset and started giving advice and telling her what to do and what she should have done in a forceful tone and demeanour. (For more about advice giving, follow the link). He didn’t even register his daughter’s multiple attempts at re-directing him to the fact that she just wanted to vent and felt she wasn’t being listened to when he carried on about what she needs to do next.

  3. Damage Control: Felix’s daughter got triggered to past times she felt not heard by him and yelled at him in anger. Now both of them are left to deal with the aftermath of feeling hurt and rejected by the other.

Jackson (not their real name)

  1. UncertaintyTribe was threatened – Jackson’s son came home from

school upset because he was bullied by another kid.

  1. Survival Map:  Jackson felt helpless to do anything about it and since his sense of worth came in part from being a good parent, this was very unsettling for him. Growing up, Jackson lived with an emotionally unavailable alcoholic parent and everyone in the family made excuses for them and minimized the negative impact it had on the family.

  2. React: When Jackson was triggered to feeling helpless again, he started asking if maybe his son had misinterpreted or done something to upset the bully, focused on maybe the bully had a bad home life (making excuses) and that it wasn’t so bad and to move on (minimizing). Notice how neither of these responses were about what was best for Jackson’s son, instead it was about Jackson settling his OWN distress at the expense of his son now, which was completely not in line with his value to be a good parent. (If he was doing what was best for Jackson, he would have validated that he was right to be upset when he perceived he was treated poorly and how can he support him or problem solve with him as his dad- this would teach his son that he deserves to be treated with respect and that he is capable of coming up with his own solutions but his dad is there to help if he thinks he needs it).

  3. Damage Control: Jackson’s son got the message that it was wrong or bad for him to be upset when he was treated disrespectfully by the bully and that he should make excuses for other people’s behaviour because they are more important than him anyway and to stuff his emotions. This message was sent in many other contexts also when Jackson would get triggered (since it was one of his main coping mechanisms), so his son received that message on multiple occasions and he ended up choosing friends who did not treat him with respect. When Jackson would ask his son why he hung out with kids who weren’t consistently nice to him, his son also made excuses for them and minimized the negative impact of their behaviour.

So what can we do about it?

Energy e-book cover 2013_4

Energy e-book cover 2013_4

Think of feelings as balls of energy… when we get angry, we get energized and it makes us want to DO something. Similarly, we get tired after we have a good cry (we used up the energy).

We have feelings/ energy connected to the main people or circumstances where we LEARNED a particular survival map. When we don’t face and process (click here for more about leaning into feelings) those feelings, whenever something triggers us to that memory or feeling, we UNCONSCIOUSLY and AUTOMATICALLY default to using that same old survival map.

It is not intentional and we are not aware we are doing it. After the fact we may even be surprised by our reaction and try to rationalize it or justify it so it makes sense, but it often doesn’t because when we are triggered, it doesn’t make sense because we are not reacting in the present.

All change starts with awareness

  1. Begin by noticing the times your behaviour hasn’t been consistent

with your values or who you think you are

  1. Notice the situations that give you that panicky feeling – this is the feeling we get when we go into fight/ flight and our survival maps are activated. This is when we NEED other people to respond a certain way and when they don’t say or do just the right thing, we “loose it”

  2. Make a list of the situations or people that seem to “Hook” you to become more aware of your common triggers so you can come up with alternative ways to respond to them when they come up (Russ Harris has a great worksheet called the “Getting Hooked” worksheet on his website.

  3. If you are noticing these old patterns of responding are causing problems in your life and relationships and you are struggling to deal with it on your own, see a therapist. Cognitive work will help you recognize the triggers and old stories, and emotion focused work tends to help us unhook from them. See our therapy page for more information.

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