We hear a lot these days about letting go of fears and conditioned patterns that get in the way of intimacy and lasting happiness in love. In our book Five-Minute Relationship Repair, we show how to work with such fears and unconscious patterns as a portal to better self-awareness, mutual healing, and deeper intimacy.
We find that if you can be mindful of the fact that at times fears do get triggered in you, you’re in a much better position to heal the parts of yourself that are afraid. This, in turn, helps you express your wants and needs to your partner in a healthier, more effective way. When you know how to embrace your vulnerable feelings, and offer yourself some tender attention around any fears and pains you find, you have what you need to heal these. This offers a way to overcome reactive cycles and keep love and intimacy thriving.
Which of the following fears have you felt in your intimate relationships? What reactive behaviors (blow up, shut down, judge, avoid, complain, etc.) do you fall into when a fear in you gets triggered?
- Fear of being abandoned: You fear your partner might leave. You feel that your partner doesn’t need you as much as you need him or her.
- Fear of being unimportant or invisible: You fear you are not as important to your partner as other things or people, or that you don’t really matter.
- Fear of being rejected: You have trouble feeling accepted or valued just the way you are. You fear that you, or your needs, will be rejected.
- Fear of being inadequate or a failure: Complaints or criticism triggers fears that you are not good enough, that you are inadequate or unlovable.
- Fear of being blamed: You fear being seen as wrong or as the cause of relationship upsets, so you either defend yourself or shut down in the face of negative feedback.
- Fear of being controlled: You fear feeling weak or vulnerable. You instinctively try to be in charge or control of any situation.
- Fear of being trapped or suffocated: You fear intrusion, losing yourself, or being consumed. You’re uncomfortable with others’ expectations or too much closeness.
Any of these core fears promote an unconscious stance that braces you to survive the feared occurrence. Thus braced, you become hypersensitive to cues that this feared event may be about to happen.
Here’s the secret to using fear as a portal to healing in six steps. Say you are triggered by your partner arriving home very late without calling. You react by criticizing them, which results in both of you getting more upset. Instead of letting unconscious fears automatically ruin the rest of your night, you want to do something different. So you do these six steps:
1. You accept that you sometimes get triggered, and this is nothing to be ashamed of. Our nervous systems are wired to detect and react to cues that our connection to our partner is possibly in danger in some way. This is normal. Everyone gets triggered at times.
2. You become aware of the early-warning signs that you are triggered: What happens in your body? (For instance, a knot in your stomach.) What emotions come up? (You felt frustrated.) What fear-based stories come up in your mind? (“I’m last on the list. I don’t matter.”) Noticing these signals helps you realize that you need to pause and get in touch with your deeper, more vulnerable feelings. So you ask your partner to pause. You then give yourself some comforting reassurance that you’re really okay. Calm yourself in whatever way works for you (e.g., by using slow, conscious breathing).
3. Stay in touch for a while with the feelings that underlie the triggered reaction. (Under all the frustration, you really felt hurt and lonely.) Get as sense of what is deeper inside of you that really needs to be touched. The vulnerable feelings that arise are usually associated with one of the fears on the list above. Read the list again and ask yourself, which of these fears is motivating your triggered reaction? (You identify the fear of abandonment.) Hold this with an attitude of compassionate holding and witnessing.
4. Sometimes as you do this, a memory will surface from some painful earlier part of your life. (For instance, a father who wasn’t there for you a lot of the time.) If it does, recall how that younger version of you felt at the time. Give this part of you some loving attention. Reassure yourself that you will get through this. Listen to this tender, vulnerable part of yourself to discover any core needs that may have seemed threatened. Core needs are things like: the need to feel you matter, the need to feel respected, the need to feel accepted, and the need to feel that someone has your best interests in mind.
5. After recognizing your core needs and owning up to the fact that you may have drawn some worst-case conclusions about your partner’s upsetting behavior, you can now go back to your partner and share what you have learned about yourself. You are now ready to repair any misunderstanding that may have occurred during the triggering episode. So now it’s time to reveal your real needs to your partner from a deeper, more vulnerable place. Tell your partner that you realize you were triggered and that worst-case scenarios were playing in your mind. Tell him or her what you have discovered about the childhood roots of such fears (if applicable). And then tell your partner you would like to re-visit the conversation, but this time, you want to share your core feelings and core needs instead of your fear-based reactive behaviors (like raising your voice, becoming critical, or getting cold).
6. State exactly what you wish you had said or done if you had been more aware of your deeper needs and feelings. You can use the following script. So in this case, to repair this and help heal the underlying fear with your partner, you would say:
“When I ____ (criticized you), I was triggered.
“It was probably my fear of ____ (abandonment) acting up.
“When you ____ (came home late), it triggered a fear that ____ (I don’t matter to you, that I am not that important).
“If I could take it back and do it over, I would tell you that ____ (I get afraid my needs don’t matter and I need reassurance that I and my needs do matter to you).”
The above six steps represent the key ingredients of our Five-Minute Relationship Repair process. It is based on the idea that your triggers are portals showing where you need healing. When you inquire into the source of your fears and share vulnerably with your partner, fears can be a doorway to self-compassion and deeper understanding of each other. This leads to really knowing one another and accepting each other unconditionally.
By being curious and openly exploring a core fear, you come into a more compassionate relationship to a lost or rejected part of yourself. You become more whole. So, instead of berating yourself for the fact that you sometimes get triggered, try to remember that you actually build more self-knowledge, self-compassion and self-trust from accepting the fact that you sometimes get triggered. Plus the vulnerable sharing that comes afterward leads to a more whole, healthy, secure, and intimate relationship.