When we get emotionally triggered, our safety system kicks off a sequence of biological responses to danger. This process prioritizes the fight-flight-freeze-tend/befriend-dissociate reactions in our body and reduces resources for non-survival systems, including our mental processes. As a result, once triggered, we often have reduced capacity for making thoughtful agreements.
I created a drawing to show how two people’s trigger sequences can create a negative fight cycle that escalates and produces angry, hurt conflict, and often takes a lot of effort to resolve. My goal was to help clients find the early markers of their trigger sequence. If we can identify ourselves starting to get triggered, we can interrupt the process, re-center, and make a different move that produces a different result. Take a look at the drawing and notice how each partner’s escalation sequence has early stages of the cycle. If we can create interventions early on, we can de-escalate, rather than escalate conflict, create a lot less harm, and require a lot less repair work in the aftermath.
When we are negotiating changes in a relationship, often people attempt to get other people to change in order to manage their own internal state. I call this “externalizing.” Unfortunately, even the successful exertion of control over others doesn’t tend to make us feel more safe. It can even make us feel less safe, because we know the other people are rescuing us and their efforts to please us aren’t coming from their own desires and needs. Eventually, uninterrupted rescue tends to become persecution, and persecution is an extremely unpleasant consequence to our desperate attempt to control how we feel.
Our boundaries are limits that when expressed constitute consent for our bodies and selves. It’s helpful for us to internalize the dignity of our boundaries. We are responsible for holding our boundaries, and we express our boundaries in conversation and actions that are natural consequences of other people’s behaviors and choices.
For example, we might say to a roommate, “When you choose to play loud music in common spaces, and I want it to be quiet, the natural consequence is that I’m not going to stay in the same room as you. If you want my company, we need to figure out a way for both of us to get what we want.” Our dignified boundary is that we’re not willing to remain in a location where the music is too loud for us. We will either ask for the music to be turned down or off, for the person to wear headphones, or we will move our bodies to a different location. Hopefully, if we’re in a cooperative relationship, the person will value our desire for quiet as important just as their desire for loud music is important.