In pretty much any relationship I find myself in, situations come up where the other person does something triggering emotions—sometimes really strong ones. And of course, the same is true in reverse. For instance, I am becoming more and more familiar with a pattern: during a conversation, I find it difficult to keep my attention on what the other person says. And because I do not yet know of a way to refocus, sooner or later I will do something that creates some annoyance in the other person.
The key phrase for me here is “I do not yet know of a way to …” And I will do my best to explain how I experience this as mattering to me. Looking back into my past, I find it painful to observe that I have often played either the victimhood card myself or, on the other side, found myself having to respond with what I felt was a forced apology.
This pattern, most broadly described, goes something like this: person (or groups) A and B are engaged with one another. Initially this could be in a friendly way, or it can already be tinted with animosity and barbs being thrown around. One side is acting in a way that triggers an emotional reaction in the other side. And from that moment on, things spiral into a victim and oppressor dynamic, by which the triggered side thinks of the other as having done something wrong.
Playing out this pattern then gives the victim quite a few options—unfortunately none of them is a solution that resolves the conflict. The person (or group) could for instance redraw from the engagement with feelings of distrust and, possibly, a desire for later vengeance. Another approach might be to confront the other person with the thought of wrongness of their behavior, in short an accusation. And in that case, the person accused has then similarly an arsenal of responses at their disposal, none of which breaks the pattern or dynamic. The one creating an actual spiral is by choosing to become a victim as well, requiring some form of gaslighting—how could both people be a victim in the same situation without a perpetrator?
How does this matter?
As part of a course I am taking, the instructor pointed the participants to this maybe already familiar heard gem of wisdom: the map is not the territory. At the same time, it seems obvious that we cannot help but live by, and play from, our maps. Or rather inside the stories inside our own minds. Every step that I am considering taking requires that I understand where I stand in relation to everything else that is going on.
Unfortunately, I often do not appreciate that by thinking of what the other person has done as wrong, I have already made the most fateful choice of which map I am applying to the situation. If I choose to label myself as a victim and the other side as necessarily wrong in their behavior, this fundamentally limits how I can move forward.
It feels a bit like placing myself—maybe not entirely voluntarily, but certainly with no objection of mine—into a narrow canyon on a map. While there are two or three exits, they are each under the watchful eye of my opponent. And so I can either retreat or try to punch through with some aggression of my own.
What’s the alternative? The first step is noticing that I am actually using this map (whenever I am doing so). If I can become aware that through some sort of blaming attitude I put myself into that canyon, I can choose a different map altogether, like an open landscape. Nothing prevents me, for instance, from becoming curious about any of these questions:
- What the heck did just really happen?
- Why do I feel triggered by this?
- What was the other person trying to achieve with their behavior, assuming they are not my enemy?
- How can I communicate what I find out about these questions without using the victimhood (and/or blame) map?
To get to the place in my heart where I can let go of victimhood and blame as a good starting point, it is incredibly important to understand one aspect of these maps: they come pre-made by evolution. We do not have to learn cognitively how it feels to be a victim. The feeling of being attacked by an aggressive other, with the back against the wall, comes free of charge. And I assume that over the millions of years that it took for selection to shape human beings, it was a useful map to play by. For one, it creates a strong motivation to survive. It simply does not provide a true resolution.
How does this, in turn, matter?
Our bodies are a critical component in how we perceive the territory we are in, and in consequence which maps we choose to use in deciding our next move. A kind of hack that was discovered some time ago is that through consciously chosen breathing, we have the ability to signal to our bodies that, despite our initial, triggered response, we are not, in fact, in any serious danger.
To get from a triggered state—one that suggests placing ourselves into the canyon of victimhood—to a state of open curiosity, the next step after noticing might be to focus on our breath. By taking as little as 30 seconds filled with three deep in-breaths followed by slow out-breaths and a brief moment before the next in-breath, we can kind of jump out of the canyon our bodies demand from our subconscious mind as the map to use. And then we may have gotten to a place where we start asking questions, and take it from there.
The result is clearly unpredictable. That in itself might make you feel uncomfortable. Anything might happen. As you cautiously explore the new territory, the other person might for instance react even more aggressively: you have left familiar ground and drag them along to a new, potentially even more scary place. So, be gentle—with yourself and the other person.
A good first pass might be to say something like, “hey, you know, we’ve been playing this game so many times already, and we both know it doesn’t end well. How about we look at what just happened together? Two pairs of eyes see more than one, no?”