Observing & Describing Triggers for What They Are

Observing & Describing Triggers for What They Are

I brought the new therapist up to speed as we reviewed my diary card. An event happened, I was triggered, and the usual suspects made an appearance:  low self-esteem, the idea I should not exist, suicidal thoughts. They all fed off of each other; as one negative reaction surfaced, the other two followed suit. “There’s little hope for change,” I explained.

“As difficult as all of this is to hear, Amanda,” my therapist said, “I don’t see it making much sense. You know, I don’t care whether or not you’re a good person or a bad person. It’s as if you’re comparing apples to oranges — it’s irrelevant. The quality of your character does not depend on the emotions that arise within you.”

She continues on, “you know, Amanda, they say it might rain today. Forty percent chance of rain. Imagine you’re walking home and you feel a couple of drops on your head. Is your immediate reaction to scream, Oh my God, a monsoon is coming!? 


“No. You’d probably say, Oh shit, it’s raining.”

“And that’s what happens when your emotions get triggered. Like rain, your emotions just happen. It drops on you like it drops on everyone else. Sometimes it drizzles, sometimes it pours, but rarely, if ever, is there a monsoon. What’s happening here is that you immediately jump right to the monsoon — I’m a terrible person, I’m a good-for-nothing, I’m an idiot, I should die. But there is no monsoon. There is only rain. You are experiencing emotions, not a character flaw.”

She looked at me as I took a deep, panicked breath. “It’s just that this I’m-a-terrible-person myth is so pervasive in everything I do,” I told her. “So much so, it pains me to hear someone compliment me. There are times that I literally cannot hear what they are saying because it is so incongruous to what I believe about myself. When I feel this uncomfortable I automatically think there must be something wrong with me. It so deeply rooted in all that I am. How do you expect me to change that?”

“We’ll work on it just like we would work on a muscle. We’ll start small and build from there. For now, let’s just bring you back to the rain, which are your emotions. No judgments, no attacks. Just observing and describing. What do you think are the emotions you feel often?”

“Fear. And a lot of shame,” I said.

“Okay. So breathe in fear, breathe out shame,” my therapist said as if she were me. “Breathe in fear, breathe out shame. Breathe in fear, breathe out shame.”

She continues my imaginary thought process aloud. “Okay I’m getting uncomfortable. It’s okay to be uncomfortable. Remind yourself, it’s okay. Breathe in fear, breathe out shame. But I’m a bad person. Okay, there it is again. Bring yourself back to the rain. It’s only rain. It’s only rain. It’s only rain. Breathe in fear, breathe out shame. Breathe in fear, breath out: I am worthless… breathe in shame, breathe out: you should not exist… breathe in anger, breathe out: go kill yourself. Okay, okay, okay, remember, back to the rain. It’s only rain. It’s only rain. You’re uncomfortable. It’s okay to be uncomfortable. Say you’re uncomfortable aloud. It’s okay. You don’t have to tie yourself up in a pretty bow. It’s okay. It’s only rain. Start over. Breathe in fear, breathe out shame. Breathe in fear, breathe out shame… It’s only rain. It’s only rain.”

For the first time in a long time, I finally can separate who I am from how I feel. My feelings can no longer tie me down and bind me to the quality of my character. I have an antidote now, it’s called rain. Naming it for what it is. So this is how you use observe and describe. If this is what freedom feels like, I’ll take it.

4 Comment(s)
  • Andre Lefebvre Posted August 11, 2014 9:22 am

    Hi Amanda, that was fascinating… but I don’t understand the “Breathe in >fear<." What does that mean, to own the emotion of fear?



    • Amanda Wang Posted August 12, 2014 3:49 pm

      Hi Andre, thanks for asking. I too have difficulty understanding this and will ask my therapist again when I see her and report back! I think you’re on the right track. I had a tendency to go straight from emotion (like fear) to my character flaw (I’m a bad person). I think breathing in fear and out shame allows me to stay with the present emotion and not have it escalate any further. It keeps me mindful of my emotions I believe. Does that help at all?

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  • Miguel Posted June 2, 2015 10:15 pm

    Thank you, Amanda. Your videos and posts have helped he tremendously.

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