When Life is the Trigger

Healing Attachment Wounds and Complex Trauma Patterns in a Wounded, Triggering World

Last week, an 18-year-old with a gun killed 19 children and two teachers. The reports started out that over a dozen were hospitalized, but quickly changed to report a growing death toll. Like many parents across the country and around the world, I scrolled through news articles with tears streaming down my face, lead in my gut, jaw clenched.

I searched for the faces of the babies killed, for the faces of their parents and schoolmates, feeling as though I owed it to them to see them; to burn their faces in my memory; to cry for each one individually. To know some small piece of them and to let each tiny piece lodge itself into the gaping wound of my grief and rage, so that each child and teacher who died could claim their own territory within me. 

By the end of the day, I had a pounding headache. My eyes were swollen and my jaw cramped on one side. I managed to keep the content and the more intense expressions of my grief out of view of my own small kids, who are much too young to make sense of what happened (not that any of us really can). I noticed myself hugging them longer and harder, smelling that quintessential top-of-the-head smell and giving extra grace during a slightly hectic dinner. I felt good in that I could at least hold my grief and parent my kids at the same time, without allowing one to crowd out the other. 

But with my partner, my husband, it was a different story. I watched myself fall into a very old attachment pattern of avoidance and resentment; pushing him away, and then feeling abandoned and frustrated when he did not immediately walk upstream through my avoidance to offer me love and nurturing. Through my headache fog, I picked a disagreement and went down to nurse my resentment in the bathtub. It was only after getting some physical space—and finally having the enormous cry I’d been holding in all afternoon—that I realized what was playing out. 

In moments of intense stress, we are much more likely to resort to old patterns—even those we thought were long healed—because that is where our nervous systems feel safe. The problem is that many of these patterns rob us of the connection we need in difficult moments. For my nervous system, it felt much safer to shield myself and cut myself off from my partner than it did to say, “I really need you right now. I’m hurting and confused and have no idea what to do.” It’s then easier to tell myself that it’s my partner’s fault I feel abandoned because he did not work harder to care for me.

So often, what survivors of complex trauma—this can be true for other forms of trauma too, but I think it’s really endemic in complex trauma—desperately want is to be rescued from our own coping strategies. I want to be able to avoid, turn away, pick a fight, and have my partner see through all of that and swoop in with love and understanding, as if he doesn’t have his own emotional experience that he is processing, or his own wounds that my avoidance and disdain are pressing on.

We want people to see through our efforts at smallness, see through our self-isolation, see through our anger, see through our perfectionism, or our need for control, or any of the other countless ways we strive for some semblance of safety, and to say, “Put this down. You don’t need this. I love you. I’ll keep you safe.” Perhaps what we want even more than to be told this is to be able to believe it when and if someone does say it. 

But it is not others’ job to rescue us when we are stressed, or triggered, or when the unfathomable grief of our world is smothering us. To expect anyone else to be able to read our minds, see through rude or anti-social behavior, and to take responsibility for pulling us out of ourselves and back to the surface is codependent and unhealthy. So what can we do when we notice ourselves lost in pain and grief, and using dysfunctional coping strategies to get our needs met?

First, it is important to PAUSE any arguments or fraught conversations when you notice that an old or unhealthy pattern is arising. Don’t work to rationalize or explain your behavior under the guise of “communication.” Recognize and take accountability for what is happening: This pattern is mine, and it’s my job to work through it

Second, identify the underlying need: I really want connection and nurturing, but first I need to take some space to sit with my emotions and get clarity about what I am feeling. Or, I really need physical touch. Or, I need to eat something and take a nap before trying to talk about this.

Notice that the immediate need can either be deeply connected to the pattern that is arising, or it can simply be a basic, physical need that must be met before the underlying pattern can be addressed. Either is fine; what is important is that you are honest with yourself about your needs. 

Third, ask yourself how you can meet that need right now. Do you need someone to take over childcare for a bit so you can take care of yourself? If this isn’t an option, how can you build that self-nurturing into your time after the kids go to bed or go to school? Do you need to communicate or set a boundary with a partner or family member about the space you need to meet your immediate need?

Fourth, meet the need. Even if you cannot fully pause everything and carve out enough space to meet the whole need, is there something small you can do in the interim, i.e. eat something delicious, make a warm drink, put on a favorite song and sing, move your body, draw or color, tickle your kids, or take a few mindful breaths? If you can meet your entire need, do it. 

Once you have taken some time to identify and meet your immediate needs, return to your partner, family member, or friend and be as transparent as you are comfortable being within the context of that relationship. Verbally acknowledge that an old pattern was coming up for you. Apologize if you caused harm.

Finally, clearly state what you need or want from the other person: I wanted to be sure to talk to you about this, but what I really need right now is some time to be alone. I love you and am not trying to avoid you. Or, I could really use a hug, or just to lie quietly together for a while. Or, I’m noticing that I’m starving but am not up to making food. Can you please help me put together something to eat?

Most of the time, the people who love us want to help and will be grateful not to have to decipher what we need and want when we are struggling. Taking accountability for our own patterns, meeting our needs as best we can, and clearly communicating with the loved ones in our lives preserves our most important relationships, and reminds us that we are capable of receiving the love and support for which we yearn.