martha beck advice
Illustration: Dan Page
Everyone knows Mary as a sunny optimist—until she starts talking about herself. Then she turns so bleak she makes Debbie Downer look like a motivational speaker. Angie routinely receives leadership awards at the office, but at home she's a shouting dictator whose husband and kids feel perpetually steamrolled. Shauna is the kind of dependable friend you'd want by your side during a medical procedure or your ex's wedding. But when it comes to everyday conversation with people she doesn't know so well, she either clams up, overshares, or blurts irrelevant trivia until even passing strangers feel embarrassed.

Many of us know what it's like to be extremely emotionally intelligent in some areas and to display the social skills of a wounded badger in others. We go along seeming functional and well-adjusted, then suddenly find ourselves causing mayhem in social minefields. The good news is that these minefields can be cleared. Yes, it's a slow, painstaking process, but if you're tired of the badger life, it's worth the effort.

The Making of a Minefield

Healthy relationships are created through a combination of observation, communication, and testing. As we get to know a new person or group, we watch their behavior, express our own perspectives, and notice the reactions that ensue. If we do this while maintaining a confident, secure, yet humble sense of self, bada bing, bada boom: functional relationships.

The problem is that no one feels confident and secure all the time; we all have fears, sometimes hidden even from ourselves. Social minefields are created whenever we ground our actions in some form of fear. Emotional "triggers" are set when we suffer trauma-dramas—experiences that wound us, and the stories we attach to those experiences.

It works like this: Our feelings can be hurt by almost anything—from horrific abuse to a comment we misunderstand as criticism. And once we feel wounded, we tend to reactivate the pain in any situation that resembles the original scenario. The resulting anxiety causes us to tense up in such situations, leading to odd or exaggerated responses. Soon we're walking through a minefield.

For example, Mary's mother narcissistically insisted on outshining everyone, even her own children. Whenever Mary attempted to succeed at anything, her mother killed her hopes with icy criticism. To avoid the painful attacks, Mary became almost aggressively pessimistic about herself.

Angie's trauma came from a military father who raised children the same way he trained recruits. His shouted orders and emotional inaccessibility made Angie desperate to escape to school, where her teachers were kind and encouraging. Now she unconsciously models her professional behavior on that of her teachers and her parenting behavior after that of dear old Dad—hence her leadership awards and her frightened family.

Shauna was a bookish kid with a precocious vocabulary. Adults loved this, but her peers often mocked her as an egghead. She's still afraid that if she talks in the way that comes naturally to her, she'll be disliked. Any attempt at friendly conversation leaves her either tongue-tied or blurting.

All these minefields were once invisible to the women who dwelled in and around them. Mary didn't know why hoping made her nervous. Angie was horrified when her dad's harsh words blasted out of her own mouth, at her own kids. Shauna didn't know why conversation freaked her out. Most of us don't really see the specific dynamics of our emotional triggers. But we do know the general areas of our emotional lives where we tend to blow up or implode.

Try this: Briefly imagine the social situations you expect to encounter for the rest of this week. When you get to a minefield, just picturing it will cause physical tension in your body. It might be your jaw, your shoulders, your throat, whatever, but something will tighten. If nothing you imagine creates this reaction, congratulations: You have no land mines to contend with this week. But if you're now fixating on an upcoming event like a soldier being sent into enemy territory, this may be a good time to take action.
martha beck advice
Illustration: Dan Page

De-mining Your Life

In real life, de-mining can be horrifically dangerous, costing limbs and lives. But these days, a small army of particularly effective de-miners is helping get the job done more safely. I mean an extremely small army. As in, each soldier weighs only a couple of pounds. They are giant African pouched rats, and please stop making that face; they're way cuter than they sound. Wearing jaunty little zip-line harnesses, paid only in bananas, they sniff out mines without detonating them. They're called HeroRATs, which is convenient for our purposes: RAT is an acronym that will help you remember how to defuse your own emotional land mines.

R is for Recognize

We often mistake our emotional triggers for something that's wrong with the world, not with our own thinking. But you can't fix an error if you don't recognize it for what it is. If Mary had never seen how unreasonable her pessimism really was, she would have continued believing her future was utterly bleak. If Angie hadn't realized she was being dictatorial, she'd probably be blaming her family for their hypersensitivity. If Shauna had never identified her conversational awkwardness as an acquired behavior she could modify, she'd never have learned to relax and relate.

Fortunately, even though we rarely understand what's really happening in our minefields, we often have some awareness that they exist. If you find yourself wondering, "Why do I always [talk too much at parties/snap at my sister/scream at other drivers even though it never helps and often gets me arrested]?" you've probably got psychological explosives hidden just below conscious awareness. Recognizing this, you can get down to dealing with dangerous emotional triggers.

A if for Analyze

Analyzing unwanted behavior uncovers the emotion that triggers it in certain situations or relationships. Therapy is a great way to get help understanding your triggers, but you can help yourself in a pinch. First, remember the last time you found yourself doing that thing, that stupid or cruel or embarrassing thing you always do. Then, slowing the memory way, way down, ask yourself these questions:

1. What was I feeling right before I began acting badly?
Give this some time, and be honest. You were probably experiencing an emotion you devalue, such as anger or fear. Be kind to yourself, and let the emotion surface.

2. What thoughts do I associate with that feeling?
For Mary, feeling hopeful brought on waves of anxiety, and thoughts like "Don't get a big head!" and "Look at Miss Too-Big-for-Her-Britches!" Angie felt a rigid anger at home, along with thoughts like "Harden up, dammit! Don't be so weak!" When Shauna thought about engaging in conversation, she felt despair and thought, "Nobody likes me" and "People think I'm weird."

3. When did these thoughts begin?
You may remember a specific trauma-drama, or you may have so many painful memories that they all blend together. But you'll remember the general social context—what was happening, who was there, and how you got hurt.

4. Do I want to keep re-creating that trauma?
Honestly, do you really want the meanest, ickiest people in your history to keep dominating your life? Your narcissistic mother, your pompous father, the mean girls at your high school? I didn't think so.

T is for Tranquil Eyes

Because all our destructive triggers are fear-based, reducing fear—in other words, tranquilizing—is always necessary for clearing minefields. Though chemical tranquilizers can do the trick, it's easier on your liver just to revise the thinking around your triggers. Then you can regard formerly alarming situations with tranquil eyes, which work even better than drugs.

To begin the tranquil-eyes-ing process, imagine your present self walking into an early trauma-drama. If there's a bully present, like Mary's mother, Angie's father, or Shauna's classmates, shoo them away. Then imagine sitting down with your wounded self and saying what you'd say to a dear friend who'd been hurt in a similar way. The right words are the ones that bring you tranquillity. Keep searching until you find them. Then repeat them mentally, often. It helps to write them down.

Once you feel somewhat calmer, examine the situations that trigger negative emotions in your current life, and begin listing differences between those dramas and the traumas that originally wounded you. There will be similarities. Refuse to focus on them. Put all your attention on the differences. Again, I'd advise making a written list.

Finally, imagine yourself walking through a potential minefield with no fear whatsoever. No anxiety, no apprehension, no dread, no tension. Just tranquillity. Picture a potential situation several times, stopping as often as necessary to relax and release all fear. No one said de-mining is quick or easy. But it's so worth it to have a life free from emotional triggers.

Taking it to the Real World

If you repeatedly recognize, analyze, and tranquil-eyes your emotional minefields, you'll gradually find that you don't create as many trauma-dramas or react so explosively. Your negative behaviors will occur less frequently and lose intensity. It's working for Mary, who's becoming more hopeful about her future. At Angie's house, de-mining has led to less shouting and more smiling. And Shauna, with her therapist's help, is gradually becoming downright chatty.

One day you, too, will watch yourself hit a familiar trigger—and calmly choose a wiser reaction. Eventually you may even become an expert at disarming explosive situations before anyone gets hurt. At that point, pat yourself on the back and have a banana. You'll be making the world a safer place.

Martha Beck's latest book is The Martha Beck Collection: Essays for Creating Your Right Life, Volume One (Martha Beck Inc.).

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