Q&A with Susan Campbell, author of From Triggered to Tranquil: How Self-Compassion and Mindful Presence Can Transform Relationship Conflicts and Heal Childhood Wounds

Susan Campbell, PhD, is the author of eleven books on relationships and conflict resolution. She leads seminars internationally and has appeared on CNN’s NewsNight and Good Morning America. Dr. Campbell has also directed a think tank, run nonprofit organizations, consulted to Fortune 500 companies, and guest lectured at the Harvard, Stanford, and UCLA business schools. She works with private clients through her relationship coaching practice and lives in Sonoma County, California. More information at www.SusanCampbell.com.

You state that most people are basically “run” by their fear of emotional pain. Please explain what you mean here.

When I counsel people, I see how many inhibit their genuine self-expression out of fears like fear of being judged, fear of appearing foolish, that sort of thing. For example, a person won’t ask for a date or ask for sex with their partner due to fear of rejection. Or they won’t tell their partner they got hurt by a something that partner did for fear of appearing weak.

Our fear of emotional pain is largely unconscious. And it stems from our early childhood conditioning. We learn our attitude toward emotional pain from our early caregivers. Some adults are good at co-regulating their child when the child reaches out in frustration, hurt, or fear. They soothe and reassure the child, holding the infant with comforting touch, a calming voice, and eye contact. Or they hold the child close. This teaches the child not to fear the momentary upsets or frustrations of life. But most adults have trouble staying relaxed and reassuring when their child is upset. Their own nervous systems get agitated when their child is upset—even when they try to hide it. They may be able to be reassuring for a short time, but eventually, and it doesn’t take that long, they begin to feel agitated or upset. The adult is too busy for this. They haven’t got time for the pain, as the song goes. This signals to the child that if you’re in pain, afraid, or upset, you are a bother or a problem for your caregiver. So, that leads the infant to the conclusion that, “If I’m upset, this bothers others. Maybe there is something wrong with me, or bad about me, when I’m in pain.” This early association between frustration, hurt, or fear and badness or wrongness causes most people to fear or want to avoid emotional pain for the rest of their lives—when in reality, the best approach is to learn to comfort yourself when you are in pain. Instead, people judge themselves or try to hide their pain. Have you noticed, for example, how many people automatically apologize if they start crying or choking up with emotion? What we really need to do is to learn to show love, nurturing, and comfort to ourselves. From Triggered to Tranquil shows us how.

In From Triggered to Tranquil, you mentioned that in any given moment when we are communicating we are doing it from either the higher brain or from the survival brain. Can you explain?

  Over the past 30 or so years brain science has given us new ways to understand what goes on in our nervous systems when we are triggered. In the amygdala area of the mid-brain there is what brain scientists call the survival alarm system. This part of our brain is always on alert—scanning for threats to our safety or well-being. In primitive times, this little area was scanning for dangers to our physical survival, but now this same part of the brain scans mainly for threats to our sense of emotional safety or connection with those we love or depend on. So, a sharp tone of voice or an unfriendly facial expression can trigger that part of the brain into what we call one of the 3 F’s—fight, flight, or freeze. So, how do I know if I am coming from my higher brain or my survival brain? The short answer is if I am feeling calm, generous, friendly, forgiving, empathetic, if I can listen to a viewpoint that differs from my own, then I am in the higher brain zone. If I feel tense, guarded, upset, or resistant to something or someone, then I am probably in the survival zone. In the survival zone, my focus of attention becomes very narrow—I may feel like running away, or getting the other person to shut up, or I may numb myself. 

Of course, the point of knowing the early warning signs that I’m in survival mode is so I can recognize when I am coming from my lower, more primitive brain, and do some of the practices I teach in From Triggered to Tranquil to regain access to my higher brain capacities. The higher brain makes much better long-term decisions. So, we want to be coming from there most of the time—unless there really is a tiger in the room! 

How important is it to be aware of our triggers and our partner’s triggers? And how do we know we’re not projecting our stuff onto them when we remind them they are triggered? I can imagine that could cause some fights.

When you become interdependent with someone—like in an intimate partnership—triggering is more likely to happen. The more you care about and need someone, the bigger the threat when this person isn’t behaving in a way that feels loving or caring. But it is also true that the more you depend on someone, the more likely you are to project your childhood emotional unfinished business onto the relationship. Your partner’s critical tone can sound a lot like your father’s tone when you were 10 years old. So, couples need to admit that they get triggered like this and each partner needs to learn to notice and take ownership for their own personal trigger signature—the things they typically feel, think, and say when they are starting to get triggered. It is never helpful to let these triggered behaviors—like arguing or walking out—to continue. I teach partners to admit, accept, and reveal to one another the signs that they, themselves, are triggered. When they notice one of their typical trigger behaviors happening—such as getting defensive—they can then pause and do some self-calming practices, like slow deep breathing. This will allow them to become present and resourceful again. But it is up to the person who is triggered to say, “I’m getting triggered. I need to pause.” It is not such a good idea for a partner to say, “You’re triggered.” I advise against this as it will often just escalate the emotional reactivity—even if it is meant to be helpful. Everyone I work with is encouraged to “stay on your own side of the net,” and to speak mainly about what’s going on inside you. When you talk about your own feelings, rather than pointing the finger at what your partner is doing, this creates emotional safety in a relationship.

Can you talk a bit about the fight-flight-freeze response? What’s a scenario when this might come about in a romantic relationship? 

Most people have a characteristic trigger signature—a few tell-tale signs or early warning signs that they are starting to get triggered. Some get argumentative or angry. That would be fight. Some change the subject, get defensive or try to reason with the other person. That would be flight. And some shut down, go numb, or get overwhelmed. That’s a freeze reaction. It’s good to be aware of your trigger signature so you can stop what you are doing and calm yourself and regain access to your higher brain resources.

How this might occur in a romantic or intimate relationship would be: you’re having a nice after-dinner conversation with your romantic partner, and they say, “I’m going to bed now, and they starting walking toward the stairs to go to the bedroom. You had been enjoying the conversation and were just settling in for a sweet evening together.

As you see them walking away, you get this familiar hollow sensation in your belly. You feel hurt. But you don’t say any of this, and you hardly realize it yourself because you are in the habit of overlooking your own feelings and wants. So, you say, “Okay. See you tomorrow.” This is a type of flight reaction—overlooking or denying that you feel something. There’s no blow up or anything obvious, but you are triggered. Probably, it’s your fear of not being valued or important coming up. You go to bed a while later feeling slightly uneasy. The next morning, you might notice that there is an air of tension between the two of you as you sit together having breakfast. The vibe is disconnected and guarded because you have not cleared the air about getting your feelings hurt the night before. But there is a way to get back to feeling connected. You would tell your partner that you have some feelings to clear. Then, you’d reveal that your fear of not being important got triggered last night, and you would ask for reassurance that you are still loved and important. If this sounds awkward, yes it can feel risky or awkward. But once you learn the self-calming and self-compassion practices in this book, you will find it easier to take emotional risks in the service of intimacy–to take this sort of normal emotional discomfort in stride. There is great benefit to a couple’s emotional intimacy when partners are able to admit tender, vulnerable feelings in a non-blaming way and request and receive reassurance. Most people need more emotional reassurance than they like to admit in intimate relationships. Once we learn to accept this, it’s easier to stay feeling close and safe in our intimate partnerships.

What happens to our communication when we are in fight-flight-freeze mode?

If we’re in fight mode, our communication can become unfriendly, suspicious, challenging, angry, pushy, controlling, judgmental, critical. Or a person can become the pursuer or convincer—trying to get the other person to be more attentive or responsive by going after them in some way. So, fight is a movement outward in an attempt to effect change in the other person. If we’re in flight mode, the most common communication is defensiveness—making excuses, explaining your good intentions, trying to reason with the other person or get them to back off. Or you might pretend not to hear, make light of it, or change the subject. Or you could simply refuse to talk about the matter. These are all attempts to get away from the issue or to get the problem to go away. That’s why we call it flight. In freeze mode, you’re in shock. You might feel immobile or stuck….like there’s no way out. You might dissociate or go blank in your mind. This is commonly thought of as a deer-in-the-headlights reaction. Most people have experienced all three of these modes, but we generally have one mode that we use more frequently than the others. It’s good to know which “F” you favor so you can more quickly notice yourself starting to get triggered and pause before doing too much damage.

As a partner of someone experiencing this response, what are some useful ways we can support our partners when they get triggered?

Partners who experience co-triggering need to make a pause agreement. They will be motivated to make such an agreement once they both realize that nothing good comes from trying to resolve issues when their higher brain power is off-line. So, they agree to pause at the first sign of triggering, calm their own nervous system, and then say or do something reassuring that helps their partner calm down. If your partner seems agitated, you might offer a gentle touch, or a reassuring phrase like, “I’m here for you,” or “I know we’ll get through this.” It can also be helpful to show empathy, as in, “I can see why this might be upsetting to you. I get it.” Or if an apology is in order, you can say, “I’m sorry I spoke to you like that. If I could do it over, I would say______.” But sometimes a partner will be so upset that they can’t even hear you until they have calmed their own nervous system. So, it is important for all couples to learn the early warning signs that they are starting to get triggered and then to practice self-calming and self-compassion as soon as they notice this.

Tell us about the process of Pause-Calm-Inquire-Repair and how to use this process to heal relationship misunderstandings. 

The goal of trigger-work is to teach you not to fear emotional pain and to use upsets or pain as a doorway to discover where you need healing. So first, we need to accept that we do sometimes get triggered. Then we need to learn what behaviors and thoughts to watch for that indicate we are starting to get triggered. Then, we need to pause and regulate our nervous system—so we can think straight and not do damage. And once calm, we take some time to feel our feelings and sensations, and hold these with empathy and compassion. We do an inner exploration of the feelings, fears, and stories that are associated with this trigger reaction that I call the Compassionate Self-Inquiry Practice. Sometimes we can do the Compassionate Self-Inquiry exercise right away the moment we feel something. But often it’s best to do that practice later on when we are alone and in a safe environment. This is the step that helps us heal childhood wounds and learn not to fear the normal pains of adult relating. The book offers a step-by-step process for bringing tenderness to your fearful or hurting parts, much like a mother would comfort a much-loved child. Once you have done these steps, you are no longer blaming your partner for upsetting you. You learn to find value in the whole process of exploring upset feelings and allowing your feelings to be as they are. So, then you are ready for the final step, Repair, which is where you vulnerably reveal what you discovered about yourself during your inquiry. You might also reveal what old childhood fears got re-stimulated—like the fear of not being good enough. After revealing this, you would ask for reassurance that what you fear is not really how your partner sees you. This type of sharing can really deepen a couple’s emotional intimacy.

Are these tools only for couples, or can singles and people who are just friends use them too?

Any relationship where you get triggered can be used for deepening your self-awareness and self-healing capacities. Some friendships have a pursuer-pursued dynamic similar to what we see with couples. Some parents get triggered by their kid. And adult children often get triggered by their parents. Triggering happens in the workplace, also. I encourage people to learn and use these trigger mastery tools in all their important relationships. The book includes specific chapters on how to introduce and use these practices in your relationships with friends, family, kids, and groups you lead or are part of. There is also a chapter on what to do when you get triggered by what you hear on the news or see on social media. That chapter describes how any inner reaction you have can be a good entry point for deepening your self-knowledge and self-compassion.

You have a chapter about what to do when we get triggered by our own children. What should parents do if this happens? 

The most important thing here is for parents to understand and accept that they do get triggered sometimes and to be able to take full responsibility for their own triggers—to understand that your trigger reaction comes from your own unhealed wounds and childhood unfinished business—so you don’t come across as blaming your child for your upset emotions. Children have a tendency to feel responsible for a parent’s emotional state, and we don’t want to reinforce that mistaken view. Children need to feel safe enough to be children—without taking on the undue burden of “trying to keep mommy from getting angry or upset.” Ideally, you would model for your children that when a person is upset, there are ways to calm and regulate themselves. They would teach their children by example that when the parent gets upset, the parent calls for a pause. The parent does not yell and scream or look for someone to blame. Start with even young children using the phrase, “I’m starting to get upset,” or “I’m starting to get triggered.” This shows children that it is possible to notice and catch a reaction before that reaction builds up too much steam. Children who have this sort of parenting will have a head start in life. They’ll be less likely to go through life afraid of their own and other peoples’ emotions—because they know how to be with their emotions rather than being run by their emotions.

We are living in a time of so much uncertainty and crisis. What does your book offer to people who are in fear or anxiety about the world situation? 

In times of such uncertainty and multiple intersecting crises, more and more people are going through their daily lives in a chronic state of anxiety or high alert. People carry a burden of chronic fear and anxiety when they do not know how to process the daily challenges and ongoing crises of our existence. They do not know how to really attend to themselves in a nurturing way. When a child is anxious or fearful, it’s natural to go to a nurturing adult for comfort and support. But where do we go now—now that we are adults? Well, sometimes we have trusted friends we can go to. But when there is no one to depend on, we need to find or develop our inner good mother archetype. That’s the part of yourself that can hold yourself with love when you’re anxious or afraid. It’s the part of you that says, “I’m here with you. You are not alone. I feel and empathize with your pain or distress.” The practices in this book show how to develop this kind of relationship with yourself so you can use anything going on in your environment—things that are out of your control like political polarization or the climate crisis—to further your self-knowledge and self-compassion.

In From Triggered to Tranquil, you mention people getting triggered by the polarization between groups who hold different values and beliefs. What tools does this book offer for people affected by this sort of conflict?

I relate a story in the book about a woman of Mexican heritage, who would find herself getting tongue-tied and almost paralyzed when she heard friends and neighbors bad-mouthing people who voted differently from themselves in the recent US Presidential election. This woman cared deeply about respect for differences—because she herself had been on the receiving end of such bad-mouthing and put downs—having grown up as a Mexican-American in a mostly Anglo community. It upset her to witness people throwing pejorative labels around at people they didn’t even know….just on the basis of group identity and stereotypes. And this was not a political issue for her or an issue of identity politics. It felt very personal. At first, she was puzzled by why this sort of situation triggered her so much. But after working with the Compassionate Self-Inquiry process that I outline in the book, she was able to recall actual childhood incidents where in-group/out-group divisions had caused her to feel inferior and not good enough. Through this process, she got to re-experience some of these old hurts, but now she was feeling these things with her inner good mother archetype activated. This allowed her to face these past hurts soberly and tenderly—so that the next time she found herself in polarized discussions, she could take constructive action on her desire to help her friends and neighbors get beyond polarizing rhetoric. She found she was now able to re-direct these conversations simply by letting people know that it was painful for her to participate in demeaning and finger-pointing conversations due to her early life experiences being Mexican in an Anglo community. In doing this, she became a force for good and a respected thought leader in her community.

You have two chapters on how to deal with triggering in a group—like a team meeting at work. What should a person do if they get upset in front of a bunch of other people?

    Once a person has learned the five steps of trigger mastery, they can better see their trigger reactions coming. They are familiar enough with the signs that they are starting to get triggered, so they don’t get caught off-guard so much. When you are able to feel the heat rising in your face as you’re about to speak in a meeting, for example, you can pause briefly right where you are to notice your breath and body, to get grounded in the felt-sense of this moment, to feel your feet on the floor or your butt on the chair. You can focus your eyes on something that feels safe, like a friendly face, and then start speaking once you are calm. Or another scenario, which happens so often in work groups, is you got triggered and now you are afraid to speak, perhaps afraid of calling attention to yourself. So again, if you recognize this as a familiar pattern—as part of your trigger signature—and if you are already practicing these trigger work tools, then you are going to be able to move from reactivity to calmness more quickly. The more familiar you get with these tools, the easier it will be to navigate triggering no matter where you are. Sometimes, however, you might have to exit the room in order to feel safe enough to slow your breath and practice self-calming. So, in such situations, it may work best to take a bathroom break so can really be present to yourself. When you get safely inside a bathroom stall, then go ahead and practice slow, deep breathing, give yourself a hug or a reassuring hand on the area of your body where you feel stress, and just say something to yourself like, “This is normal to get upset sometimes. This is just an opportunity for me to love myself in the places that I often tend to neglect—like my tender feelings.” Then later, when you are at home, it’s probably a good idea to spend some time consciously sitting with the feelings that got triggered during the meeting, allowing feelings to be witnessed and held for a bit longer, sort of like a good mother would attend to a much-loved child. The upset part of you is like the much-loved child. When we learn to love ourselves where it hurts, we become better able to handle the normal pains of adult relationships. And we actually do get triggered less and less as time goes by.

From Triggered to Tranquil: How Self-Compassion and Mindful Presence Can Transform Relationship Conflicts and Heal Childhood Wounds

By Susan Campbell, PhD

Category: Personal Growth / Relationships

Pub Date: August 31, 2021 * Price: $16.95 * Format: Trade Paperback

Pages: 272 * ISBN: 978-1-60868-740-4