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Iona 40

Out of Proportion: How Over- and Under-Reactions are Equally Skewed

The phenomenon of triggering is widely recognised now that trigger warnings have become commonplace. We often know when we have been triggered because we experience some kind of unpleasant emotional and/or physical response to an event, situation or circumstance. We might not immediately understand exactly why we have been triggered – disentangling many years of trauma and layers of self-identity is an ongoing process – but inquiry enables us to at least be aware when we are triggered and gives us tools to look at what is going on.

We may be conscious that our triggered reaction is out of proportion – at least in some respects, if not all – to the actual situation. Intellectually, we can clearly see that the levels of distress, fear, anger, grief or shame we are experiencing are not fully accounted for by what is happening here and now. Around 90% of an iceberg is under the water, and so it often is with triggers. While the conscious 10% may be a proportionate response to circumstances, the far larger part is often hidden from view until we look. The intellectual knowing that our response is out of proportion may assuage the feelings a little, but often it makes no difference. The horse has already bolted – our systems have reacted spontaneously and viscerally – and we can’t think or reason our way to the response we think we should be having.

Generally speaking, it is easy to tell we are triggered when our response is an over-reaction. Over-reactions, by definition, are vivid, visible and easily felt. We cry, tremble, shout. Our hearts pound, we sweat, we feel strong bodily sensations and emotions. We think non-stop about the situation, going over and over it in our heads. Over-reactions can be intense and all-consuming. We might think about little else for a few days. And yet, when we take time to inquire and discover what has given rise to the over-reaction – be it a sense of threat, a feeling or belief of some kind of deficiency or lack in ourselves, a past trauma – the over-reaction quiets. The recognition and acknowledgement of the previously unconscious material that gave rise to the trigger allows us to put the present circumstance or event back into proportion. Our present-day triggers or over-reactions inevitably stem from unmet feelings from the past or the abandoned, suppressed or fragmented parts of ourselves which we have tried to avoid or deny. Once brought back into the fold, so to speak, and given space and time in which to be seen and felt, they are no longer triggered in the same ways.

However, our out of proportion response may equally be an under-reaction. Something happens to us which would upset or anger most people, and we shrug it off or say it doesn’t really bother us. Or we jump to spiritual teachings to put a positive spin on what has happened. Under-reactions tend to go unnoticed, of course. We may have a subtle sense of flatness, emptiness, deadness or inertness, but it may not be disturbing or concerning. In fact, we may even take pride in our lack of emotionality. Particularly within some spiritual circles, people aspire to respond to all life’s travails with calmness and serenity, as if non-reactivity were the apogee of spiritual attainment. I have heard many people – myself included – berate themselves for being emotionally reactive to situations, as if that were a bad thing which the people we deem to be more spiritually evolved than us would not do. Yet if we lose sight of the fact that under-reaction is just as skewed as over-reaction, we will fail to recognise that bypassing, denial, avoidance, over-intellectualisation or an unwillingness to feel might all masquerade as equanimity, when in fact they are nothing of the sort.

The hoisting of rationality and non-reactivity above all other qualities has profound and detrimental consequences, in my experience. It leads to judgement and manipulation – both inter- and intra-personally – and cuts us off from the truth and aliveness of our deeper selves. It supports existing power structures by framing the proportionate responses of oppressed or disempowered peoples – outrage, anger, grief to name a few – as unreasonable and over-reactive. It paints our natural, human emotions and responses to the large and small tragedies, shocks and joys of our lives as something to be ashamed of or to shrink from. A lack of reaction to our lives and the world around us is no more or less out of proportion than an over-reaction, but it is much more readily sanctioned by the powers-that-be, both temporal and spiritual.

Inquiry, therefore, is not about investigating our triggers in order to dampen or quiet our responses, either now or in the future. It is about giving full rein to our humanity and admitting to the whole extent of all our emotions and reactions, including the ones we have previously attempted to avoid or deny. As we do so, our responses begin to become proportionate to events and to the circumstances we find ourselves in. For some of us, this may manifest as a greater sense of calmness. For others, it may manifest as more emotionality. There is a time for calmness and a time for perturbation; a time for peace and times for rage, anger, and indignation; a time for happiness and a time for grief or misery. When we are willing to be with our experience just as it is in each moment, the idea that there is a state at which we need to arrive no longer makes sense.