You are currently viewing The broken toe (pre-existing wound) and the toe step (the trigger)

The broken toe (pre-existing wound) and the toe step (the trigger)

This is a metaphor that I sometimes share with clients.  It comes up when people are trying to make decisions about whether they should move toward something or away from it.  They are feeling some emotional pain, but feel confusion about whether or not they should remove themselves from a situation (e.g. relationship, work situation, friendship) around which they feel the pain.

Why would they feel confusion?  If it’s causing them pain, they’d simply be wise to leave, right?

What’s going on is that there is an inner conflict between a protective part of us and an open part of us.  We have been here before.  We know that if we were to simply leave any uncomfortable situation, we’d stagnate, and sometimes miss a great opportunity.  We also know that ignoring our pain and intuition can lead to staying in harm’s way and wasting valuable energy.

Therein lies the problem.  Can we trust our feelings or not?

Imagine you had a broken toe in a dance class.  Your partner accidentally steps on your broken toe, and a shocking jolt of pain shoots through you.  Is the correct conclusion that you should avoid that dance partner?  Of course not.  Why?  Because you know you have a broken toe and that is 99% responsible for the pain you just felt.  The correct action would be to get the broken toe healed.  Then you can dance with whoever you want.

But now imagine that you don’t have a broken toe, and a dance partner intentionally stomps on your foot out of anger.  Well, then the problem is with that partner, not your toe.

Therefore, it is critical to discern how much of your pain is from a pre-existing wound (the past) and how much is from the present situation.  If it’s about the past, then you are simply dealing with a trigger, and the path forward is to heal, not exorcise the trigger from your life.

Pain can also come from weakness.  For example, when you start exercising, you will typically feel more pain than someone who has been regularly exercising for years.  The problem is not the exercise, and quitting the exercise would lead to sustained weakness.  The problem is the weakness, which is overcome through consistently moving TOWARD the pain, not away from it.  

On the other hand, if the exercise is an unhealthy one, for example too much weight or a damaging/unnatural movement, then the problem is the exercise and a different exercise should be done.  

So in order to determine whether or not a situation is healthy or not, it’s about determining if the pain stems from a pre-existing condition (weakness or wound), or if the pain is caused by a new wound or weakness being created by the present situation.  

Telling the difference

So, how do we know which it is?

The short answer is to stop and turn inward, and let your emotions settle.  This could look like sitting or lying down with eyes closed and focusing attention on your feelings and thoughts, without any agenda other than to watch them, just as if you were sitting down to watch a movie on Netflix.  We don’t try to control what happens in a Netflix movie with our minds, so try not controlling what happens during your mind movie.  Just watch it.

If the situation you are confused about is very important to you, it will likely come up at some point, accompanied by emotions.

Here’s the key.  If the situation is merely a trigger, your stress around it will tend to reduce as you let your emotions settle.  Your higher self will kick in and realize that you were, in fact, quite safe and merely uncomfortable.  You may have insights about what pre-existing experiences, or lack thereof, led to feeling triggered.  Don’t worry if these insights don’t come up, you can’t force them, you can only watch for them.  You may even realize that the trigger is actually good for you, because pain is always a signal that there is some wound or weakness to pay attention to and heal or strengthen.  Without the trigger, we don’t receive this signal and so continue to ignore the problem.

On the other hand, if the situation is itself damaging to you, this will become more clear with stillness.  You may feel increasing anger over time, which is a self-protection emotion.  When you visualize staying in the situation, you will tend to get a sense that it’s unhealthy, and visualizing removing that situation or person will tend to lead to a more restful and calm state.

But – the caution here is that the feelings will be mixed and muddled at first.  At first, it’s all going to feel the same: this person/situation hurts!  So it’s about the DIRECTION OF CHANGE over time as you let things settle, not about the absolute level of emotion at the beginning.  Sometimes a huge trigger can lead to a huge feeling, and it’s still just a trigger.  

Also, a small harm can lead to a small feeling, and it’s still harm and good to eliminate.  Just like you need time to see which direction an object is moving, you need time to see which direction your feelings move.

This is why people sometimes get back in touch with partners they ran away from if they broke it off too soon without exploring the underlying issues each person had.  They were spooked by the trigger, and it took time to realize that.  Ideally though, we can identify if we were triggered or harmed BEFORE we leave, because often it’s too late to repair the damage by then, and it’s a missed opportunity.  Fortunately, more opportunities will likely come.

Telling the difference can take time.  I have spent weeks deciding if a situation is good for me or not.  I think about the situation and notice stress arising, and then ask myself if that stress is simply due to being out of my comfort zone, or if it’s because of some untenable conflict between what it requires of me and what my path forward is.  Bigger decisions tend to take more time, given the weightier consequences they tend to carry with them.  A graph of our stress over time might look like this: 

The time on the horizontal axis might be minutes, hours, days, or weeks.  Perhaps even months or years, in the case of a serious relationship.

Notice that the stress curve is not a straight line.  You might feel increased stress in the short term while contemplating a trigger.  But over time, those thoughts will be decoupled from the situation/event because it isn’t actually harmful.  It’s as though you’re being shown a picture of a snake – it might scare you but it can’t harm you, since it’s a picture.  Over time it loses its power to scare, because our bodies don’t like to waste energy being afraid of things that aren’t dangerous.  It just takes us a while sometimes to realize what is dangerous and what isn’t.

Attention is key

With enough time, we’ll tend to sort what is a trigger and what is harmful.  I do think it takes attention though, and a willingness to feel uncomfortable.  Many people choose to turn away from and avoid stimuli that lead to discomfort.  The downside of doing this is that we wind up rejecting things (people, jobs, activities) that might actually be good for us in the long run, but trigger us in the short run.  We throw the baby out with the bathwater.  In this way our world gets smaller and limiting.  But if we take the time to explore what is simply a trigger of a pre-existing wound, most of us will be surprised how much more of the world is safe than we previously thought.

Healing the wound

This process of discerning between a trigger and an ongoing injury is a healing process in itself.  The trigger is actually like rehab of an old injury.

Imagine you broke your leg.  You went through some surgery and time in a cast, and at a certain point, it’s time to start walking again.  The first time you walk, it hurts.  You decide that walking is harmful because it causes pain and it must be injuring you, and avoid walking the rest of your life.

This sounds silly, but this is how we live our emotional lives much of the time.  Someone cheats on us and we think about breaking up with our next partner as soon as we see them talking with someone attractive.  We were bullied as a kid and so we avoid anyone who teases us a little.  And so on.

But this approach, in addition to making our world increasingly small, robs us of the opportunity to rehabilitate ourselves.  The leg NEEDS some stimulation and micro-breakdown from walking, in order to expedite the flow of blood and nutrients and healing biochemical signals to the leg.  If we stop using our legs because we mistake trigger pain with harm, we become weak and fragile.  Emotionally, it’s the same.  By tolerating minor stresses from moderately challenging situations, we are given a chance to feel tough emotions and build resilience to them.  This IS the healing process.  The definition of an unhealed wound is one that still hurts and limits us.  If we practice feeling tough emotions, they become less tough.  Eventually, we are walking again, with normal levels of exertion, and our world opens back up to us.

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