The Psychologist Paul Ekman (who is best known for his work on facial expressions, a topic I shall blog on more in the future) makes the important distinction between our natural emotional responses (happiness, sadness, anger, disgust etc.) and when our reaction seems as if it has ‘triggered’ something from our past.
Experiencing ‘triggered’ reactions
He gives an example where someone can experience extreme sadness if their loved one is late. Here the emotion of sadness, may have been rooted in a childhood fear of abandonment: so if someone is late, this ‘triggers’ sadness.
This is a ‘triggered response’ as you are effectively experiencing an emotion (sadness) which is not connected to the current event of lateness – where irritation of being kept waiting or worry that something has happened to the person seems more appropriate.
When a simple conversation around lateness reveals these feelings of abandonment – a rich opportunity for healing (especially healing of intimate relationships) can open up. It also helps to deal with the confusion of why a response doesn’t seem ‘in-line’ with what is happening in the moment.
How reactions can be linked to beliefs and ‘core values’
An intriguing aspect of this kind of response is that it often links a belief around a value. Words such as trust, strength and loyalty are human principles or values – however, to make sense of these we often put them into a rule or belief; e.g. “You can’t trust people to get things done.”
The positive purpose of these limiting beliefs can be to try and help the individual make sense of the triggered response. However, such linkage is another aspect of their own confusion: they falsely believe that the person to whom they are responding has violated a core value.
For example, a client once told me that he felt an almost overpowering anger at sales people because they were ‘dishonest and pushy’. This didn’t really make sense: if someone is ‘pushy’ it doesn’t necessary mean they are dishonest and why the rage? Was his reaction simply because a value had been violated, or something deeper?
Looking back into his past, we found various incidents where his ‘pushy’ mother had forced him into difficult, embarrassing situations. This, he understood quickly, was the true source of the rage. This rage now resurfaced when faced with pushy people in the here and now: people like the salespeople.
To make that response acceptable, he had convinced himself that it was about those people’s lack of ‘honesty’. But in fact the real cause was not them, but the reawakening of his own childhood pain, triggered by the behaviour.
Using reframing to build new empowering beliefs
I then used Judith Delozier’s reframing technique. Did he know any sales people who weren’t pushy but were effective? Well, actually, he did – though he didn’t really see them as sales people, more as ‘advisors’ and ‘they were also the most effective ones’. His attitude seemed to shift and I sensed he needed some time to process this new approach.
I met up with him a couple of years later and to my surprise he told me that his role now included mainly selling and he had never been happier nor more successful in his work. A hidden talent had clearly been revealed which had previously been blocked by childhood associations and unhelpful beliefs about salespeople.
It can take immense courage to make this mental shift. We have often invested much emotional effort and built up a collection of stories about us behaving in an ‘heroic way’ defending our values. To see these stories in a new, less flattering light, where they are actually about our reacting to the pain of unresolved issues from our childhood, is not easy.
The reward is great: lasting change
But the reward is great: lasing change. When someone can both admit to the ‘wrongness’ of certain responses and, over and above this, understand the origin of these responses, their world, and their relationships with the people in it, can change dramatically.
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