If you are like me, you are an empathetic person, a helper, a teacher, and (sometimes) a codependent. This means that it can be a real challenge to separate the facts of a situation from the negative emotions that arise when we feel that we have been treated unjustly or unfairly. Our first inclination may be to accuse or blame the other person for our own internal emotional state.
Who’s to blame?
“It’s because of your behavior or words that I feel bad,” we say. Then our next step is to build a wall to protect ourselves from further pain and to try to change the other person to avoid future injury. As instinctive as this reaction is, how helpful has it been in safeguarding your emotions? Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation where you think, “I can’t believe another person is hurting me this way again!”
Pre-programmed responses to specific stimuli
The truth is that emotions are not the same for every person. Are you aware of your personal triggers? We are all unique individuals, characterized by inherent genetic traits, dynamic personalities, cultivated life experiences, and different histories of trauma (physical or emotional). This explains why we can be participants in or observers of a scenario that makes our blood boil, while the person next to us seems to barely blink an eye.
I know that for me, any sort of perceived injustice (especially those perpetrated by a person in a position of power) trigger an immediate anger response.
But before you say, “Well of course it would! Injustice is always wrong,” please understand that there are many different ways to define injustice and many different ways to respond to it. This is not an article on the topics of ethics and morality, but on mindfulness and self-compassion.
Two (or more) sides to every story
I’ve been on both sides of the equation. I’ve been the patient who felt dismissed and ridiculed by her doctors when they didn’t understand my symptoms and I’ve been the nurse accused by a patient who felt ashamed of her condition and perceived a lack of support and understanding from me. I can only control the emotional response in one of these situations.
My experience as a hospitalized inpatient taught me a lot about taking responsibility for my own emotional reactions and better equipped me to know how to respond in situations where I felt disempowered. When I was at my lowest, both physically and emotionally, I accepted that I was not going to hear the answers I wanted from my medical staff.
This did not have to mean that they were evil, abusive, or negligent healthcare providers. They simply were not equipped or interested to hear my complaints. They were busy, overworked, and trying to prioritize their limited time and resources. I was not a priority and if I wanted to be, then I would have to search elsewhere. It was not personal, it was professional. This was their job, not their life.
Can you think of a situation where you showed up expecting a certain response or attention to your needs, only to be met with disappointment?
How did you respond? When you are feeling triggered and need to process your emotional responses, there is a way to do so mindfully.
Try these steps to cultivate awareness:
Take a deep breath. Give yourself space to cultivate the emotion you want to experience for your health, rather than one based merely on instinct. Pay attention to areas in your body where you are holding tension or feeling pain.
Take responsibility. No matter how evil or benign the intention of the person whose words or actions hurt you, only you can decide what intention you have in your response. No other human has the power to affect who you are unless you allow them.
Name your emotion. Place a title on exactly what you are experiencing, whether hurt, anger, fear, shame, disappointment, sadness, etc. Often these emotions feel similar, but if we sit with the feelings for a moment, we are able to differentiate.
Stop the narrative. Depending on our past experiences, it’s easy to begin writing a story to go along with our emotions almost immediately. The problem with this kind of story-telling is that it is not always based on facts if we haven’t taken the time to investigate them. Feeding a story prematurely almost always leads to unnecessary drama.
Remain neutral. This isn’t the time to go on the offensive, blaming the other person. Neither is it the time to defend yourself. This is the time to turn inwards and tend to your emotions. The rest will play out eventually.
Let yourself feel. This is the step that is most often overlooked when we are too hasty in our reply. What we need more than anything is to be our own best caregivers, to sit with our painful wounds, to let the tears fall, and to remind ourselves that despite the discomfort, we can still heal. We can learn the skills needed to tend to our own internal state despite whatever external circumstances we are facing.
Label your trigger. When the initial shock has subsided and you are feeling safe and comforted, notice what chain of events led to your emotional response in the first place. You may find that it was something familiar, an event or phrase that you’ve seen or heard before and that left you feeling the same way in the past.
Make a choice. Since we know intellectually that we cannot control others’ behavior or words, chances are good that we will encounter similar situations that will trigger us again if we don’t address them now. What kind of person do you want to be when you show up in the world? Someone who is miserable and who blames others or someone who is content and at peace with herself?
I decided that when I am faced with a doctor who doesn’t take me seriously, I want to show up as an intelligent, respectful, and kind woman.
Experience has shown me that I am unlikely to change their viewpoint during a 10-minute appointment, since it is one that they have developed after years of medical training and clinical practice. Instead, I want to leave them with the tiny thought that perhaps there are opportunities for them to do more research related to my concerns.
After that, I choose to leave (either the day’s appointment or the entire practice). I would much rather redirect my precious energy in search of a provider with whom I can partner and find the answers I seek.
We are all a work in progress
Despite our best efforts, we all make mistakes in how we act and speak from time to time. This is especially true when struggling with the lasting effects of chronic illness and autoimmune disease. Regardless of how we have behaved in the past, however, these are not reasons to dwell on feelings of guilt and shame.
Forgiveness, compassion, and hope, when directed at ourselves (as well as those who’ve hurt us), can help us to move forward in a way that transforms our minds, our health, and ultimately, our lives.