ERP 347: Heal Relational Triggers & Reactivity — An Interview with Dr. Susan Campbell

By Posted in - Podcast November 22nd, 2022 0 Comments

Do you find yourself easily triggered by your partner’s actions or tone? Perhaps he or she really did something offensive, or maybe that’s just how you perceived it. Sometimes, you don’t even understand why you’re upset.

As you’ve probably heard a lot of times, relationships aren’t always glitz and glamour. It’s more of an attraction that, once you’ve established safety and gone a little deeper, differences begin to surface. At this point, many would presume that their love for their partner has waned or that they made the wrong decision.

Although discomfort in intimate relationships just flies in your face, these relationships also serve a deeper purpose: emotional healing and spiritual development. You learn so much more about yourself in a relationship than you could on your own.

In this episode, Dr. Susan Campbell discusses triggers, including how they manifest, the reasons behind our emotions, and—most importantly—the five steps to trigger mastery that she outlined in her most recent book.

Susan is a best-selling author of 12 books and is the creator and publisher of three entertaining and educational card games for couples, families, work teams, and singles. Susan’s work with couples has been featured on national television, including CNN’s News Night, Good Morning America, and The Dr. Dean Edel Show, and she has been widely published in popular magazines. In 2003–2004, she was the couple therapist on the reality TV show, Truth in Love, which aired on UPN, an ABC affiliate network.

In this Episode

 5:23 The couple’s journey and how it can be an opportunity for healing.

12:04 How to work with triggers in a way that is inviting.

13:05 Getting more comfortable with emotional discomfort.

33:23 How to deal with triggers that will inevitably arise in a relationship: co-triggering vs. co-regulation.

41:48 Dr. Campbell’s five-step trigger mastery: from triggered to tranquil.

46:30 Why is it in your best interest to make your partner feel secure?

49:18 Your inner good mother archetype.

Your Check List of Actions to Take

  • Take a moment to calm your nervous system.
  • Keep in mind that you have control over how you react when you feel triggered.
  • Be comfortable with emotional discomfort.
  • Understand that acting out of fear or anger is a normal part of the nervous system and doesn’t make you a bad person.
  • Allow yourself to ask for what you need from your partner in a much more vulnerable, loving, and effective way..
  • Draw some boundaries if necessary.
  • Examine your perceptions because they may occasionally be true or they may occasionally be motivated by past fears.
  • Tell your partner what’s going on inside of you and assure them that they are not to blame for how you feel.
  • Create a pause agreement with your partner.
  • Hold a space for the emotions and sensations that arise, and allow your inner good mother to hold you just as she would a tenderly loved child.

Mentioned

From Triggered to Tranquil: How Self-Compassion and Mindful Presence Can Transform Relationship Conflicts and Heal Childhood Wounds (*Amazon Affiliate link) (book)

Five-Minute Relationship Repair: Quickly Heal Upsets, Deepen Intimacy, and Use Differences to Strengthen Love (*Amazon Affiliate link) (book)

Getting Real: Ten Truth Skills You Need to Live an Authentic Life (*Amazon Affiliate link) (book)

The Couple’s Journey: Intimacy As a Path to Wholeness (*Amazon Affiliate link) (book)

ERP 305: The Surprising & Powerful Benefits of Learning to Tolerate Discomfort — An Interview with Dr. Anna Lembke

Relationship Map To Happy, Lasting Love

Shifting Criticism For Connected Communication

Connect with Dr. Susan Campbell

Websites: susancampbell.com

Facebook: facebook.com/drsusan99

Twitter: twitter.com/drsusan99

YouTube: youtube.com/user/drsusan95472?themeRefresh=1

Connect with Dr. Jessica Higgins

Facebook: facebook.com/EmpoweredRelationship 

Instagram: instagram.com/drjessicahiggins 

Podcast: drjessicahiggins.com/podcasts/

Pinterest: pinterest.com/EmpowerRelation 

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/drjessicahiggins 

Twitter: @DrJessHiggins 

Website: drjessicahiggins.com  

Email: [email protected]

About Today’s Show

Dr. Susan Campbell, it is such a gift and an honor to have you on the show here today.

Thank you, Jessica. I’m so happy to be here with you.

Yes, and I want people to know that I’ve been such a fan of your work. In my dissertation research, I actually cited one of your books, The Couple’s Journey, which has been such a contribution to the field of understanding the development of intimacy and couplehood. I just was telling you earlier that I wish I had reached out to you sooner. It’s just I’m so thrilled to have your voice on the show. 

Thank you. 

Yeah, and I’m especially pleased about our topic. Because I think this is something that pretty much every couple is contending with when we enter into that stage of power struggle, when everything, the honeymoon and all the neurochemicals settle, and we start to see our differences. That can feel like a conflict, and how we negotiate that and what emerges in that? One of your philosophies which I resonate so strongly with, which is probably why I was citing you in my literature review and my dissertation, is that relationship and what gets activated can be an opportunity for healing and develop deeper intimacy. Would you like to share more about that perspective?

Yes. So you referenced my book, The Couple’s Journey. So ever since I did the research for that book, because I interviewed over 50 couples and surveyed over 100 more. Ever since I talked to that many couples as a young therapist, I did that when I was about 30 years old, the book came out in 1980 as you know. But ever since then, I have realized and wanted to put out to the world, that with a couple relationship, it isn’t all flowers and bells and whistles. It’s more an attraction that once you develop safety in a relationship, then you feel kind of like: Okay, now I’m safe. It’s something like that. I can let my unconscious material start to come up, like my needing somebody more than I thought I needed somebody, or my taking offense when they don’t like what I just said, or little things like just having a difference in where you want to go on vacation. So all of those little differences, push buttons, or trigger each other. That’s the new book that we’re going to talk about, From Triggered to Tranquil

But once we get into a relationship a little bit, and our differences start to come out, we don’t know what to do with those differences, a lot of people. We think: Oh, we’ve lost the love that we had, or there’s something wrong, or I made a bad choice. They baited and switched, that sort of thing, what happened to our love? But I’ve been teaching and learning from my clients all these years, that there’s a deeper purpose to couple relationships, and that is emotional healing and spiritual development. And here’s what I mean by that. 

Free Shallow Focus Photography of Groom and Bride Stock Photo

“You get to know yourself, once you’re in an intimate relationship, so much more deeply than you could discover by yourself.”

Just because of the fact that these old unconscious fears, that you didn’t even know you had perhaps, get triggered by your partner. Like I said, like a difference in wants and needs. The trigger looks something like this: Oh, they don’t want to be with me tonight, they want to go to bed early, I’m being rejected. Now, that’s the fear of rejection. Or: They’d rather go out with their friends than with me, and I’m sitting here all alone. That’s the fear of abandonment. And there’s a number of other what we call core fears. 

They’re the fears that some deep attachment needs, like the need to feel loved and valued and protected. Those deep childhood attachment needs, if they weren’t perfectly met when you were a child—and hardly any parent is perfect—your couple differences; those little threats that you make into threats because you don’t understand that that’s supposed to happen. Because that tendency to skew things and think you’re being rejected, when really, your partner’s just making a different choice. That tendency is built into any of us who have any unmet needs as children, which is pretty much all of us. I’m thinking of what we call attachment needs now, I don’t mean the need to have candy when you’re at the drugstore and your parents said no. But if your parents said no in a cruel and harsh way over and over, that violates the child’s need to feel safe and protected. Or if the parent criticizes a lot, that violates the child’s need to feel valued and accepted. 

So if these childhood needs are not met, they’re like stuck energy that you bring forward until you get in another really safe dependency and mutual dependency oriented relationship, like a marriage or a couple. It’s like those unfinished wounds are lurking in the shadows, until you get into another safe relationship that sort of mimics the parent child relationship. Then you can get all these things triggered, and not even realize what they’re about. But the development that we’re talking about comes from knowing how to work with these differences and these trigger reactions, in a soft, curious, compassionate way. Then we can actually heal those wounds as adults, heal our childhood wounds, and help each other heal.

Oh, my goodness, your articulation of this and your languaging is so helpful! I know we’re going to dive into how to work with these triggers in this way that you’re inviting, and I just also want to reflect that this is something we all are contending with. When you’re describing the development of relationship, it’s almost as if things settle and we let our guard down. It reminds me of long ago, I had this experience, noticing myself and physically, that if I was grinding really hard or pushing really hard for a deadline, and then once I was able, or I was on vacation, or had some time, then I would actually get a cold. I don’t have that experience now, but I did in the past. It’s like: Oh, now there’s enough stability for me to feel what I couldn’t feel when I was in that hyper overdrive. I know it’s not exactly that, but there’s something to what you’re saying around we let our guard down. 

And then, no better venue, no better experience to be reflected or have our self reflected, than intimate relationship. Because not only are we wiring and bonding in such a profound way that, like you said, mimics that bond, obviously very different. But the intensity and the necessity of it is so critical, that then we see ourselves that much more clearly. And hence all these things come to the surface, like the fear of abandonment, the fear of not being good enough, and then we get to work with it. The opportunity and the orientation that you’re really describing here is such a switch from looking at the thing that hurts and pointing to it as that’s the problem. Versus, something’s here for me to look at, an invitation or an opportunity.

Yeah. Every time you catch yourself in one of these trigger reactions, like a trigger reaction would be, why couldn’t they have just done it the way I tell them that I like it? That type of thing, that’s a trigger reaction. Or judging how another person does things. Usually a judgmental thought is some kind of we’ll call it resistance to what is, and all of these trigger reactions are some kind of: No, I can’t handle that. The truth is, you really can handle it. But there’s tools and inner resources that you haven’t yet accessed in order to know what to do with those big fear reactions.

You also speak about how most of us are running from emotional pain. Do we want to talk about that before we go in, what would you like to say about that?

Yeah. Well, in a way, it’s part of human nature to not want pain. However, if we stay safely within our little comfort zones our whole life, we don’t grow and we don’t become more resilient and be able to handle life, and handle inconvenient truths. Humanity is faced with a lot of inconvenient truths, both personally and collectively. That we need to be able to go: Oh, this is really happening and it’s really happening to me. 

Free Portrait of Couple Sitting on Bedroom Floor Stock Photo

“In order to stretch out of our comfort zone and live a full life, we really do have to get more comfortable with emotional discomfort. We have to make that almost like a goal in stretching our comfort zone voluntarily.”

But then also, in this couple’s journey that we’re talking about. The discomfort just comes flying at your face, and you go: I didn’t ask for this, it just happened, my partner used that tone of voice again, and that triggered this unsafe feeling inside of me. 

Okay, that’s the kind of emotional discomfort that I’m talking about, that people run away from. They try to deny what they’re feeling, or they develop defense mechanisms where you can’t even hear when somebody’s unhappy with you. Some people really are in denial. Or they’re in denial about how much something hurts you, like your partner’s coming home drunk every night. Denial is one of those ways that we manage emotional discomfort, and the nervous system is built to go into a fight-flight-freeze reaction. So that’s running away from discomfort. 

But there’s a science here. Because that’s part of the brain’s job to instinctively either fight, which is get angry and say get out of my face! Or flee, which is just change the subject, try to reason with your partner. That’s what flight looks like. It doesn’t always look like running out of the house and driving away, although it could be that too. Then there’s freeze, where it’s like deer in the headlights. These are actually just biological reactions that are meant to protect us, and well, they were built into our nervous system when there really were predators out there. There’s the new human, like the Neanderthal, and the Tigers, and that sort of thing. That’s when that part of the brain developed. But we still all have that part of the brain that’s scanning for danger, scanning for some kind of emotional discomfort, and is kind of deathly afraid of that. So it goes into these extreme reactions. 

So the nervous system is biased to get away from emotional discomfort. But we as humans can develop the kind of consciousness and self-awareness, and in a way, self-mastery, that can go: Oh, there I am going into that automatic amygdala reptilian brain reaction, fight-flight-freeze. There’s a few other F’s that scientists have developed too, like fawn is another way where you just sort of go: Oh, anything you say. So you’re overly adapting. But those all, in a way, they’re not exactly functional anymore. They served a good purpose, and they even maybe served a good purpose when you were small if there were overwhelming traumas. I mean, the ability to freeze and dissociate and not even feel your body if you’re being beaten as a child, that’s actually a functional, healthy reaction. 

But when you’re big, see, the thing is, we’ve got that wounded child inside still motivating us that says: Okay, now there’s that ugly-looking face. It may not even be that ugly-looking, but it’s associated with somebody doesn’t like me, and they’re going to come after me. So we’ve got that child reaction still inside of us. Because it’s unfinished business, it is core needs not getting met. So those needs are still pressing for fulfillment now, to feel valued and protected and loved, and that’s what we bring into our adult relationships. 

So being able to actually learn to witness. This is the real inner work of the couple’s journey towards healing and healing each other. The inner work is being able to go: Oh, there’s my nervous system going into fight-flight-freeze again, what else is happening in me, what is the old emotional wound (the unmet need) that might be underneath this, that really does need my attention? I’m not going to drive off in my car or punch walls. That wouldn’t solve the issue. I can meet this emotional pain and go: Okay, what’s this feel like in my body, and what’s the message that this is telling me? Now, what it’s almost always telling us if we tune into it is: Ooh, there’s a tender part of me that’s asking for some loving attention, some acceptance, some guidance from other resourceful parts of me. 

Because we have parts that are other than the wounded child, and one of those parts is the compassionate witness who can say: Oh yeah, I can see why your partner’s look on his face, I can see why that might have hurt you. Because you can kind of see the whole history of your wound itself, and you can see how the childhood that you had had some angry faces in it that were terrifying to you as a five-year-old, and you begin to develop compassion and tenderness for this almost hidden part. This part has been hidden in the shadows all the time, it was just waiting for that safe time and intimate relationship to emerge again and see if it can get its needs met now. 

So that’s the purpose of all these emotional reactions or this emotional pain that just flares up. We’re afraid of it. But if we pause and start to study it and learn from it, and listen and feel it, it does its work. It moves the energy that was stuck in that five-year-old who was just terrified of any frown on a face or something like that, and you bring more ability to actually handle uncomfortable feelings. 

Free Couple Sitting Under The Tree During Daytime Stock Photo

“That’s what you have to do, you have to actually go back in and feel things in a gentle way, with some self-support. Feel the emotional pain that you were never safe to feel when you were five or ten, because your nervous system wasn’t developed enough and you also didn’t have the skills that you have now.”

And possibly, the environment didn’t hold the safety or the regulation to be able to do whatever repair work or getting back into regulation. 

So, Susan, I want to just slow down. Because as we move forward, I can tell how important this is, and I also just want to name a couple of things as I’m hearing you describe. First of all, I love how you describe this flying in our face! That’s what it feels like, it comes so, so fast in nanoseconds, what gets activated in a couple of dynamic. Also, you’re really normalizing, in human development, that what lives in us and our nervous system is this tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain on a very rudimentary level. 

It reminds me of the author that wrote Dopamine Nation, we can reference it in the show notes. She was talking about how we are just so tending to get that comfort, that fix, and it can even take the spectrum of addiction, just this constant needing. That when we look at our bodies, we’re always trying to get some homeostasis. So if we’re always pressing on pleasure, the natural tendency is then to feel a little depressed or feel a little down because we’re trying to get that balance. So she’s inviting what you’re describing here, which is tolerating some discomfort, not only in relationship, but in our lives, to be able to do this work to grow. 

So there’s something here happening in our maybe collective development as humans, that’s not easy, that it’s actually very difficult to be cognizant of this. Then when we put it into relationship, and what you’re talking about, our environment or our blueprint that was laid in, in our childhood, around how we were responded to, and that there is trauma, either little t’s or big T’s, and relational traumas. And that you’re saying, no one, none of us have perfect environments growing up. So it’s likely that there’s something here. And that when we feel that in our nervous system, that activation, that it can feel different in different people. Whether or not this is like: Oh my God, it’s starting to get fuzzy and cloudy, or I’m feeling myself wanting to get in the ring and go toe to toe with you and fight. That we can feel that, and that it’s happening so, so quickly. So you’re inviting a first step here, which is not easy. It’s A: to recognize there’s another option.

Yeah, and to accept that, hey, you’re not a bad person if you react instinctively in what we call a negative way. If you react with anger or fear, you’re not a bad person. That’s built into the nervous system. The thing to do is then, how do we develop in a way that says: Okay, I’m not a bad person, I can let in the fact that my nervous system is acting up now and doing a fight-flight-freeze type of reaction? How can I bring some loving attention to this, so that I can see what’s the need underneath here? Then what you can do, once you’ve really accepted that need in yourself, is you can go ask for what you want, in a much more vulnerable, tender, effective way with a partner.

Yes, and we’re going to turn towards that in a moment. I just want to thank you for saying that, that it’s likely many of us are aware of our behavior and what we’re saying and what we’re doing. In some ways, I’ll even say, I’ve definitely been here in my life, where I didn’t even want to acknowledge. It’s like, I didn’t want to have that nervous system reaction. So I thought, in some ways, if I say the right thing or do the right thing, then I can appear that I’m not triggered or something.

That’s extremely common, we call it acting over the top of your trigger. It’s so sophisticated. Like, we kind of know we’re triggered, but we don’t fully accept it and we go, I’m still in charge of my own words that come out here. But you get a little bit stiffer, a little bit more protected, but you’re still saying pretty good sounding words. So you think you’re problem-solving with your partner, or you think you’re really understanding and trying to be understood. But you’re kidding yourself?

Well, and what’s even more fascinating is, I could say all the right things, and my husband, I feel like, I always tease that he’s been such a great biofeedback tool for me. It’s like, he doesn’t buy it, he can feel through the neuroception that I’m not regulated even as much as I’m pretending or trying to act as if. Again, the intention there is not bad. And there’s so much welcoming, and also looking at what’s effective, even if we do our best attempt. Because I think, so much, in this information age, we’re all getting tips, tools, resources, and research around what to do. So we try to do the thing and it doesn’t work, and that can be very frustrating. The intention is good there. But if we can welcome that it’s okay, it’s so much more effective. Because when we look at the long-term, like I just said, it didn’t work for me, even if I did dial in all the language and the behavior. That it’s much more effective and I can raise my hand and say, this is absolutely true. When I speak the thing I don’t want to say, or the very thing that I’m ashamed of, or don’t feel great about or get vulnerable, that’s where my husband responds.

It’s good to get familiar with the words, I’m starting to get triggered. Just call it a trigger. A lot of people don’t like to use that word, it feels like they’re insulting themselves or something. It’s not an insult. It’s a normal biological reaction. Once you can name that, that helps you accept it, and it helps your partner realize you’re not blaming them and you’re not going: you always, you never. You’re going: Wait, I’m starting to get triggered, or I just got triggered five minutes ago, and that’s why I’m behaving this way. If you can learn to presence that, it takes the threat away. Then your partner is not threatened by you, because they’re realizing you’re taking responsibility for the fact that you yourself are having kind of a vulnerable reaction.

Now, some people say, I’m starting to get triggered by you, which implies you better stop right now what you’re doing. Okay, so mark a boundary, if you need to. But don’t use the words: I’m starting to get triggered, and so this is hell to pay for you. Don’t use that phraseology when you want to mark a boundary. But being able to admit, I’m triggered, I’m going to practice not being too ashamed of that until I get to the fact that I really accept it, and accept that it’s human. If I say that, then I realize, I’m on automatic, I’m perceiving the world through the lens of my fear, so I’m seeing my partner as somebody who can’t protect me or who’s about to abandon me or reject me or overwhelm me in some way—these are the core fears that we bring from childhood—and I’m seeing it through a distorted lens. The reason I distort is because I’ve got these old fears still needing to be integrated into my psyche. 

So now we’re talking about shadow work, a lot of your listeners have heard of that. That basically means stuff that’s been either unconscious, like I was unconscious that I was pretty much run by my fear of emotional pain or my fear of rejection or fear of being alone, not valued, not good enough; those are the classic fears. So wait, now I can pause and realize that old fear is what’s motivating this big reaction, like a tiger just came into the room and is about to bite my head off. So once we get familiar with that territory—and it starts with the admission, I’m getting triggered—then we’re in the driver’s seat again. We can do that shadow work and we can go: Oh, another piece of my shadow that I wasn’t aware of, how good that and own that, now I have more of myself available for my life. 

Ah, how good! Instead of, oh no. Because of what’s on the other side, it’s almost like pieces and fractured parts of myself that have been so disjointed. I can start to welcome and bring in that sense of cohesion and integration, it’s so much more healthy and solid. This is, again, just such a difference from how we typically societally view a reaction or a trigger.

More and more of us are beginning to get this, Jessica, where we’re saying, this inner work is very satisfying in and of itself, and then what it allows you to do is move through the world and be able to ask for what you want. Or if you hear unfriendliness, you think you hear unfriendliness, you can check it out and go: Oh, are you upset with me now, are we okay? Not sure what I heard in your tone of voice, but it kind of scared me. You can just bring more awareness to the moment and check out your perceptions. 

Free A Couple Kissing Each Other  Stock Photo

“Sometimes your perceptions are accurate, but sometimes they’re based on those old fears. Just admit that that’s part of human nature to not always perceive the other the way the other thinks that they’re presenting themselves.”

No kidding! Before we go into a few more tips that you’d like to share with us today around how to work with the triggers that will get emerged in a relationship, what would you like to say? Because it’s something you also help people with is understanding, it can be confusing in couplehood when maybe both people are triggered or activated, or one is and then it’s easier for the other one to react, and it’s the snowball effect. I’ll just say, I know a lot of my listeners know that and I just told you, that my husband and I are currently dislocated due to toxic mould, and it’s been very stressful. We’re probably two and a half months in now. 

So there was a moment in a morning a few weeks ago where he was feeling anger, maybe even part of the grief process, and I noticed myself I had work that was going to start in like 20 minutes. So I was asking him, in some ways, I was setting a boundary. Because he wanted to brainstorm, and I was like, I don’t know that this is the best time to do this. A: I’m going to be working, and B: if you’re really upset, I want to honor that, but I also don’t know that it’s the best place for us to try to brainstorm or get creative. So in some ways, I was setting a boundary. But also, I didn’t recognize in the moment, Susan, that I was actually feeling scared or triggered by his anger. Like, I didn’t want to lose my own sense of center, so I was trying to kind of nip it between us. So I later apologized. I’m like, I’m sorry I couldn’t hold space, because I was feeling myself getting activated, and I didn’t see it in that moment. So obviously, we’re in a pressure cooker, and we’re going to see more things emerge.

That was really good that you were able to see that and do that.

Well, just to even say: Oh, this isn’t a bad thing. Like you were saying, the pressure is on right now, but it’s also allowing us to see areas that I don’t think I had known that dynamic in that way specifically. I know it’s existed, but it just allowed that much more visibility. 

So can you help us? So many people are like, I don’t know what’s yours and I don’t know where’s mine. How would you like to help people with that?

Yeah. Well, here’s the scenario. Your husband is starting to get worked up about something, so his nervous system is agitated. So we could call that a trigger reaction, he’s afraid of something. Then you pick up his disequilibrium in his nervous system, and so it affects your nervous system. So people will say, well, who started it? If you hadn’t been so worried about that, then I wouldn’t have used that tone of voice. I mean, people can imagine scenarios like that.

Round and round and round.

It’s better if we realize that so often, more often than not, if my partner is triggered, my nervous system is going to feel unsafe also. So I’m going to be, on some level, triggered as well. Even though I’m trying to be the calm one, I’m trying to tell them why they shouldn’t be angry, or you weren’t doing that. But that’s a common thing, talk the person down, tell them to relax. But when you’re triggered, or a little bit triggered, your partner picks up that vibe. So it’s better for each person to just notice: Oh, I’m triggered, my nervous system needs some attention to calm myself and to do some inner inquiry. Like we were suggesting a minute ago, I’m just admitting what’s going on in me, I’m not trying to blame you or pin it on you or do if only you hadn’t. 

Free Women Laughing on Beach Stock Photo

“Once we get into any kind of trend to assess who started it, it’s just the wrong place to put your attention. It might be an interesting problem-solving discussion sometime. But it’s not going to get you to the looking inward at what needs healing, and speaking vulnerably to your partner about what you need from them.”

If you’re trying to assign blame, or even responsibility, whatever you want to call it, you’re both responsible—or you’re each responsible, I should say—for the state of your own nervous system, no matter what the other person did to trigger that. It’s just a more pragmatic and useful attitude. 

It’s what we have power and control over. Even as much as one might feel exposed to something triggering or activating, at the end of the day, we’re still responsible. I’m thinking on an aside, like, if someone ran into my car or I happened to be in the car, something happened that wasn’t anything my fault, I’m going to feel that. And I’m still responsible for managing that, even though it wasn’t something that I necessarily did or I’m at fault for. It’s almost as if you’re describing the co-regulation in the couplehood, we’re both wanting to take care of and be responsible for. So if one of us is off track, then with the goal of having regulation in our couplehood, which, again, is like a moving target, it’s not ever static. But that that’s the goal, rather than who’s to blame. That’s, again, a very different orientation. 

Yeah, and let’s define co-regulation for our listeners. That means giving somebody reassurance that they’re loved; a loving touch, a soothing tone of voice. Co-regulation is the kind of thing that babies need from a good parent. Like, you’re safe, I see you, that type of thing. So we can often give that to a partner who’s triggered, if we’re not very triggered at all. Otherwise, we both have to have an agreement that we will calm my nervous systems a little bit, and then try to co-regulate. Because when there’s this co-triggering, it’s hard to be sincerely available to your partner. 

But hey, it wouldn’t hurt even when you’re triggered to say let’s hug for a minute, if you learn together that that really works for both people. Now, many people, though, one partner will say, well, I’m just going to hug you and then everything will be okay. But the other partner doesn’t want to be touched at that time. So I’m not saying that in co-regulation, hugging and touching is always the right move after a trigger. But sometimes it is, and you learn through trial and error or discussion, what helps your partner when one of you is triggered and I’m not triggered, and what can I do for my partner.

I imagine, and I’ll just say, from my own experience, when I am in the practice of this, my skill has increased, so I’m much more aware of the landscape and know how to manage it much more than when I did when I first started. That I know there are times where I have capacity and I can hold space for my husband when he’s angry and dysregulated, and I can kind of track that. Then there are times where it might slip and I might say, whatever the language is, I feel myself losing at ground or activated or whatever. Or there might be times out of the gate, I’m like, as much as I want to, I can’t. 

Okay, great. This is awesome. Would you agree, though, that it’s a learning curve that we develop?

Yes, you can learn through practice to hold space with things that used to freak you out, by valuing it. But then, like you said, it’s good to realize, my patience just wore thin here, my partner is repeating themself for the third time and I’m starting to go whoa! Then you have to say, well, okay, I’m triggered too now, let’s pause. That’s the key intervention besides being able to say to yourself at least, whoa, I’m getting triggered, and that’s okay. That’s the first step. 

Then, let me see if I can pause and calm my nervous system down and actually reassure myself that there’s no tiger in the room, this is my beloved partner, we’ve kind of had this same fight before. Because that can make it even scarier, like, we’re never going to get out of this hole. But it can be reassuring to say, we’ve had this same fight before, and now—Jessica’s podcast to the rescue, Susan’s book to the rescue—we’ve got tools to dig ourselves out of the hole.

Possibly, you said even in relationship, if our partner has capacity, that we might be able to say: I’m afraid you’re upset, and I notice I’m getting scared or worried. That might even be an opportunity, if our partner has capacity and can respond, to be able to say: I’m not mad, here’s what was happening, or I’m just super passionate. Or whatever it is to help clarify that threat, that we could start to have some support from our partners.

Yeah. I think if you get more self-accepting around your trigger, you’re able to report it in a way that the other person can hear as not blaming. Like, oh, I am so triggered by you! That’s the opposite of what I’m talking about. So if you’re able to just report it, a lot of times, you can work through these triggers without it becoming a four-alarm fire.

Yeah. This is where someone who’s in a support role, and even the Emotional Focus Therapy (EFT) of Sue Johnson, is a lot about this work, is helping get that deeper connection for the individual around what’s on the inside, send that clear signal in a vulnerable way so that the partner can see it more clearly and is more likely to respond. 

Okay, great. Well, I know we’re winding down here, and you have five keys around how to work with triggers. You’ve named two really clearly, around just recognizing the trigger, trying to bring some welcome and positivity and gentleness and that compassion. And then also looking at how can I give myself the environment to soothe here and really give myself some space to calm and regulate? Is there anything else you want to say about the other keys?

Well, I have five steps to trigger work. The first one, as we’ve gone into, is accepting that I do have triggers. The next one is knowing some of the early warning signs that tell me I’m triggered. Like, whoa, I’m frozen, I’ve got this can’t even talk reaction. Well, if you can at least observe that, you can probably at least say the word pause. So couples at least need to have a pause agreement. So that’s part of it, pausing. Or if you’re just in a work situation or in a meeting, you can pause yourself and calm yourself. So knowing your trigger signature is like, I see what my own early warning signs are; my mind tends to think somebody’s against me, my body goes into a freeze, the emotion is fear that I’m not safe, that sort of thing. So any of those that you can be aware of, that can say: Okay, I’m triggered, bingo, this is a good thing, let me do what I know how to do. 

These are the other steps. Pause to regulate my nervous system, which can mean 10 slow, deep breaths. I’ve got some other tools in the book, but you find ways to pause yourself. Then being with what you’re feeling. You can’t always do that in the business meeting. But later on, when you are home, recalling that agitation in your body and feeling the feelings that you weren’t able to feel then. Or even with your husband, you might not be able to feel all your feelings while you’re in interaction. So you need to pause and take a little break from each other, make sure you know when you’re going to come back and check in and talk. I’ve got a way that couples can quickly decide how long they’re going to need to calm themselves. So that’s the next step is regulating your nervous system and allowing the feelings and sensations that are able to come up to be there. 

Be held by yourself, by your inner good mother, as if you’re holding this tender beloved child. And it’s you. It’s you at five or ten years old, who really didn’t get all your attachment needs met, who maybe did get yelled at or punished inappropriately, that sort of thing. You’re able to be with that old memory of pain and expand your ability to handle pain in life. 

Then once you’ve worked yourself through there, I have a little repair script that I give people. So they’re able to say in a concise, vulnerable way, now that we’re talking about it, when I walked out or when I talked to you in that tone of voice, I was triggered. So you fill out, when I had this reaction, I was triggered. It was probably my old fear of not being good enough coming up. You might then say what happened in your inquiry. Like, I came back to a memory when I was five, or you may not have any memories at all; memories are not necessary to this process. The final punch line is, I need some help to feel that I am good enough. That way, you’re just opening your heart to your partner, to show them what motivated that trigger, and that you’re over it now and you’re fully owning that you have this need, and you are kind of coming to them with a vulnerable need. And whether they give you that reassurance or not right in the moment isn’t so as important as you just revealing yourself. Because in a way, you’re affirming that you’re lovable and okay, even with your needs hanging out there.

Yeah, it’s almost that re-parenting work. That we’re showing up for the part of ourselves, as you were talking, like being able to love that part and the ability to have some stability and our feet underneath us to be able to reveal that. I do find likely partners will respond. But oftentimes, if there’s a tonne of history, there will be a block. But when we can send that vulnerable cue, that that is so much more setting it up for success for that person to be responsive. But what you’re saying is, even the act of being able to show that and reveal that is so transformational.

Yeah. Remember, though, as the partner who’s listening to that, it’s in your best interest to help your partner feel safe. It’s always in your best interest. So if you can reassure, if you can at least say I get it honey, or something. You don’t have to say you’re the most wonderful partner I’ve ever imagined. If you can say a little something to acknowledge, you’re going to help your partner feel safe, and that’s going to help your relationship.

Okay, set aside the blocks, we can kind of work with the blocks. Meaning, I don’t trust this, you’ve never showed this to me before, I don’t know what’s happening, it’s all new. But most of the time when there isn’t as much backlog, that’s the natural response is: Oh my God, I love you, and you’re tender right now, and you’re showing me!

It’s amazing! I mean, you do couples work too, it’s amazing. When you give your partner the opportunity to feel even a little bit safe, they want to connect with you; they’re just waiting for that little bit of opening. And they want to forget the past. I mean, they want to forget, okay, we have had this fight 20 times before and my mind can kind of make that into a real problem. Like, I’m really scared, are we stuck in this forever? Maybe you are going to have the same argument 20 times and you’re going to have to repair the same thing 20 times. That’s not necessarily bad, it’s just what your systems need. It needs a lot of repetitions of going through this practice, because you need these little homoeopathic doses of emotional pain to let them in voluntarily to expand your capacity to handle, I call it the normal pains of adult relationship.

Yes. Okay, I know we don’t have time for this, but there’s just one more comment. In your fourth being with, it reminds me, I know you do a lot to support healing of trauma, and we are talking about that today, just not super explicitly. Part of the EMDR work, when I’ve done my own therapy with this, part of the process of EMDR is confronting the difficulty, so that we can metabolize it, so that we can integrate it. So it feels like that’s part of that. Also, again, part of your work is looking at some of this growth from a spiritual perspective. I will also say, for me, when I’ve been able to be with, it’s been helpful for me to have spiritual almost as a resource, like the Divine Mother or like the Benevolent Father or like that. It’s almost not a physical person that I’m thinking of, but it’s this energy that feels very pure and very high. So it’s been a resource for me to access in this being with, when maybe I haven’t had the template because of whatever circumstances. So is there anything you want to say about that, those two things?

Well, some people, when we start to activate that compassionate witness, will discover an inner spiritual resource, like the Divine Mother or Christ. It doesn’t have to be feminine, but some resource. Your inner guides that are just always there for you. Or some people will think, life itself wants me to thrive. So some people bring a bigger frame to this self-compassion work, and some people just feel like there’s a actual part of myself that I never knew about before that feels tender and compassionate and loving toward this wounded part of me. We call that the Good Mother archetype from Carl Jung’s work. 

Free Close Up Photo of Men Looking at Each Other Stock Photo

“Everyone has, inside themselves, a Good Mother template, even if they didn’t have good parents. Because you know what feels good and nurturing, and what doesn’t.”

So that tells me that you have a Good Mother archetype in there. So by pausing and getting a little distance from that tender place—we’ve got the tender place, and we’ve got the more witnessing place—just by bringing that separation and having a tender attitude, it activates a bigger, more loving part of you. We could say, you activate yourself as love.

Beautiful. Alright, well, so I don’t know that I’m going to recap this perfectly. But it sounds like there’s an acceptance that there will be in our triggers. It sounds like there’s a getting to know and witness to what’s our tendency or our kind of trigger responses. Then, to pause. I love that word, pause. It just means, we’re in process, we’re going to come back to it even if we do pause in relationship, or even with ourselves if we’re in a business meeting. So I love that. Then the being with, and then the repair. I just love it so, so much. 

How do people get access to your work, and what would you like to invite people into?

Well, my website is SusanCampbell.com, and I’d like people to go there and subscribe to my newsletter. I only put it out once a month. But there’s where I describe the seminars that I do where I teach this kind of thing. I do coach training, so I train other people to do what I call getting real coaching. Because one of my books is called [Getting Real], about authenticity in relationships. That’s just a way to find out also about my free monthly group coaching call. I just love it when people that I don’t know come on and start getting exposed to how I work. Because I teach a lot of practical things, and I even work with some people sometimes in those one-hour webinars, I do them on Zoom. I’m just at the stage of life where I want to leave my legacy now, so I’m doing more free things. If you get the newsletter, you’ll see other free events and podcasts like this and so forth.

That’s beautiful. And your seminars and the information about your group, is that on your website?

Most of it is on my website. But some of it I don’t get to update, so the newsletter is the best way to find out everything that I’m doing. Most of what I’m doing is on the website.

Perfect. And can people find your books on your website?

Yeah, I’ve got 11 books on relationships. They can buy them at SusanCampbell.com or at Amazon. It’s fine, wherever you want to buy them. I do one in-person workshop a year here at my house in Northern California, and then I do various webinars. So I’m always doing some kind of webinar for the general public or for coaches. 

So you serve people in relationship and couplehood, and you also serve practitioners who are coaching and facilitating this work with couples. Okay, wonderful. I’ll make sure to have that link and the links to your most recent book on today’s show notes. Again, thank you so much, Dr. Susan Campbell.

It’s been a delight talking to you.

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Dr. Jessica Higgins ~ Relationship and Transformational Coaching