Posts Tagged ‘childhood wounds’

Know Your Relationship Sensitivities and Own Them

August 26, 2009

It’s important to know what triggers you in your relationships to feel intense negative emotions, whether it’s scared, sad, angry, frustrated, or ashamed. Often, it is the same theme that keeps coming up in various relationships over time. The trigger is based on a wound that could have happened in your childhood, but it may have also been created in relationships with your exes, your brothers or sisters, or even something that happened in your social circle (or lack of) while you were growing up.

Common sensitivities include:

Fear of abandonment
Fear of relying on and trusting others
Feeling unlovable
Not being accepted
Feeling suffocated
Feeling taken advantage of
Feeling inadequate/worthless
Feeling abused/mistreated
Feeling ashamed of yourself or your partner
Feeling left out/not important/like you don’t fit in

For example, let’s say that your mother left your family when you were young. One day she was there, and one day she wasn’t. And that you didn’t receive any reasonable explanation for why she had left, and maybe you didn’t receive comfort around it either. This is an incident that would be wounding and could change the way you view yourself, others, and relationships. Without being able to address this incident, to process it and to heal from it, this is a wound you will likely still be carrying with you today. You may continue to struggle with a belief that you could be left again by someone important to you. In turn, your sensitivities would be a fear of abandonment and a fear of trusting people close to you.

Whether or not you consciously understand that you are carrying this relationship sensitivity, your brain remembers the original wound as if it happened yesterday. And it is extremely easy for important others to trigger that wound and unleash extremely negative emotions from you.

Clients often come to therapy unaware of their sensitivities and triggers. They really believe that their partner is simply behaving in any number of horrible ways that logically get them upset. They believe anyone would react the same way that they do. However, most of what triggers us is our perception of what’s going on, and our perceptions have a lot more to do with what we believe is happening in our subjective reality, based on our unique experiences and wounds, than what is happening in a completely objective reality.
That is why people often get so much out of therapy – because there is an objective third party to help make sense of some of these issues that are too difficult to sort through when you are in the midst of it.
Our sensitivities make relationships difficult to navigate our way through. Not to mention that your partner has a set of their own experiences and beliefs about relationships, which create their own subjective reality about what’s going on, and often their sensitivities trigger yours and you both just go around and around and around.

For example, if you have abandonment issues, you may have chosen someone who feels easily suffocated in relationships and needs a lot of space. But their needing a night off from you triggers your fear of abandonment and your brain experiences this as just like what happened when your mom left. So you react. Your reaction, which is likely going to be a mix of scared, sad, and mad, may seem over the top to your partner, but makes a lot of sense in the context of your history. Someone with a different history may not be triggered by this at all, so it’s up to you to know what your triggers are, how they affect your relationship and take ownership of them.

If you don’t understand that these two incidents are a similar (abandonment) theme, then you will not be able to take responsibility for your sensitivity and you will put all the blame on your partner. Your partner will likely feel confused, scared, and even angry at your behavior and will need more distance from you, which will be even more agonizing for you.

The way out of this is to make your sensitivities conscious and accept them as a part of you. This will make situations less overwhelming when they happen, which they inevitably will. Our partners aren’t perfect, and will likely trigger us many, many times over the course of a relationship. When you take responsibility for your triggers, you can talk about them in a different way with your partner. When they understand why you react the way you do, they may feel more empathetic to your experiences and be able to be a healing presence for you, instead of a re-wounding experience.

Tell your partner what your sensitivities are, how they developed, and when they get triggered the most. A quick exercise for identifying your trigger(s), and your typical moves after you’ve been triggered is to think about the last 3-5 arguments you had with your partner and fill in the following:

When ___________________________________(identify the situations that trigger your negative emotions with as little blame as possible, i.e., When I felt like you didn’t think my opinion mattered, When you didn’t want to sleep over, When you were talking to that girl in the bar, When you don’t seem to be listening to me, When you leave during our fights) I feel insecure about our relationship.

This situation reminds me of _______________________________(identify the first time you remember this sensitivity forming, i.e., When my mom left when I was five and no one told me what was going on, When my brothers left me out and didn’t want to play with me, When my dad drank and got abusive, When my friends all turned on me and I was all alone, When my ex cheated on me, When I realized my sister was the star of the family and I was a nobody).

What I take the situation with you to mean about ME is _________________(What do you tell yourself your partner’s behavior means about you? i.e., That I will never be cared about, That I am not lovable, That you just want to get away from me, That I am worthless, That I’m always going to be taken advantage of).

What I take the situation with you to mean about YOU is_____________________(What do you tell yourself your partner’s behavior means about them? i.e., You are not trustworthy, You are a failure, You will leave me, I can’t rely on you, You are irresponsible, You don’t care).

What I take the situation with you to mean about our RELATIONSHIP is____________________ (What do you tell yourself your partner’s behavior means about the bond that you share? i.e., This relationship isn’t going to work, This relationship is too scary…too unsafe…too unstable…too hurtful, This relationship will never meet my needs).

The move I make when I feel negative emotions about these situations is________________________(identify what you usually do when you are upset, i.e., I lash out at you, I shut down and pretend I have no emotion at all, I get quiet and give you the silent treatment, I get critical of you and shame you).

The feeling that I show you is__________________(keep it simple, i.e., mad, sad, bad/shame, scared, frustrated, numb).

But underneath that, what I’m really feeling is ____________________(Try to identify the very first feeling that comes up. Often when we feel scared, sad or ashamed, we display anger or numbness. Think about what happens FIRST. Did your feelings get hurt? If so, you were sad. Did you believe that your partner didn’t care? Then you probably felt sad or scared. Did your partner give you the message that you were a bad person? Then you may have felt ashamed. Did your partner betray you somehow? Then you probably felt angry, hurt and/or scared).

I gave you the message that ______________________________(What message do you send your partner when you have a negative emotion? i.e., Do you pretend you don’t care? Do you only show anger when you are really hurting? Do you say you want to be alone when you really don’t? Do you act like you hate your partner?)

What I really want from you is_______________________(Figure out for yourself what you are really wanting at those times and tell your partner, i.e., For you to stay and talk to me, For you to hold me and comfort me, To get some time to cool off).

Once you complete this exercise you should have a good understanding about what your specific sensitivities are, how you behave when you are triggered, and what you really need during those times. Share with your partner any information that you think could be helpful to them in understanding your behaviors and emotions.

One important thing to look out for is whether your partner genuinely can and wants to be a healing presence for you. That means that you chose a good partner who wants to be a healing presence for you and simply needs your help identifying what your triggers are so they can be more sensitive to them. That doesn’t mean that you put all the work on your partner. It is your job to manage your triggers, but it is your partner’s job to help you with your job.

There is a chance however, that you chose someone who only has the ability to rewound you. An unfortunate relationship paradox is that we often generate a lot of chemistry with people who constantly trigger our core sensitivities. For example, if you have issues with abandonment, then it is a possibility that you are most attracted to people who really don’t have the capacity to have a secure, loving relationship. You may constantly feel insecure in the relationship because your partner seems to have one foot out the door at all times. Often we take this personally and try to get our partner to change and love us better, when it means a lot more about them, their own wounds, and their inability to be loving in any relationship.

Try to differentiate between a generally loving partner who just needs some education about responding to you when you are upset and is motivated to work with you on creating an emotionally safe relationship, and a partner who may be abusive or otherwise further damaging. Can you tell the difference between a partner who really has one foot out the door and one who it just feels like they do because that is the issue you are always struggling with?

If you have difficulty in knowing for sure whether you are attracted to people who are hurtful and can’t change or whether you are simply with someone who needs skills about how to be in a relationship with you, try couples counseling. Don’t forget that you have sensitivities but so does your partner, and yours are most likely triggering theirs, and it can be extremely difficult to get out of that negative cycle on your own. A good couples counselor can help!

This article was written by Relationship Coach & Communication Consultant, Barbi Pecenco. Barbi specializes in individual and couples relationship counseling and coaching. For more information, see her website at www.sdcouplestherapy.com.

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