Something Important

by Gretta Keene from her forthcoming book, A Practical Guide to Being Human,  with illustrations by Bill Murray

The argument starts and the panic, anger or sudden urge to switch the dial becomes unbearable. Humans tend to respond with the hard-wired, prehistoric responses to fight, flee or freeze. Bill and I noticed that clients used the word “triggered” to refer to those moments where there is a shift to an emotional danger zone. We wanted a term that did not conjure an image of the person fighting, fleeing or freezing with a gun in hand. We understood that the emotional response we wanted to discuss was much more complicated and could take many forms. We chose the word “activation” to describe this reaction common to all humans. 

Activation represents the combination of thoughts, emotions and physical sensations of a heightened, reactive state. The part of our brain formed back when we were primitive critters crawling out of the swamp is activated and transmits an urgent message: “Attention and reaction is needed – NOW!” Physical sensations are a good clue that someone is activated. There can be a tightening of shoulder muscles, tightness in the chest, or a clenching of jaw or fists. Others feel a shift in the stomach — either nausea, churning or tightness. Heads hurt or eyes squint. Some people get jittery, jiggling legs or fingers. Some get hot and red in the face — or cold, like a block of ice. Some get loud, some get silent, some get belligerent, and some get seductive. All are activated. The activated person believes Something Important (and in some way dangerous or uncomfortable) has either happened or is about to happen. 

First there is the “action.” This can be something said or done or something significant not said or not done.  It can also be an event that is happening or an environment where something might happen. Then there is an interpretation of that action.  Interpretation is the true meat of the matter, the stuff that creates the story and fashions the memory. The interpretation of an action—the meaning—is what requires understanding. 

An activating interpretation often involves a judgment of ourselves and the other humans involved. We label the participants as bad or good, right or wrong, smart or stupid, aggressive or abandoning. The context and history of the action is important. The activated person experiences the activating event as “evidence” that “just goes to show” that the activated person is correct in his or her interpretation of what the action (or non-action) “means” about themselves, life, other people or one person in particular. Big, threatening, traumatic events or chronic judgments tend to produce what Bill and I call Sticky Beliefs (because they stick like super glue and seem all encompassing and “truer than true”). The words “always” and “never” are clues that a person is activated.

illustration by Bill Murray, PhD

illustration by Bill Murray, PhD

A Sticky Belief is an often unrecognized, persistent belief propelling and supporting the interpretation leading to activation. Placing a high value on mutual understanding leads us to utilize the conflicts—whether our own or those our clients describe-- to create greater awareness. We can be curious. “Oh-oh. Humans feeling upset! What is happening here?” We can pause and choose patience, curiosity and compassion. Or we can react with defensive interpretations that are sure to escalate the mounting conflagration. 

It takes effort to do something different from the habitual, defensive response. There is wisdom to the old adage: “It’s the thought that counts.” Activation is a call to understand the thought, the interpretation, the Something Important stimulating a response. Without a commitment to understanding our own inner workings and refusing to even consider what might be going on in the other person (other than what the “evidence” proves in the court of our minds), humans tend to reinforce defensive walls, call on bigger emotional Bodyguards, fuel self-righteous positions and collect more stories of self-pity and self-blame. 

With compassion and greater understanding of the interpretations, the personal movies of all involved, we can negotiate differences and institute more useful behaviors.