How to Stop Ruminating on Triggering Stuff

Something intriguing emerges when I witness my inner process during challenging situations…

First, there’s a flare of emotions, and it can be quite intense.

But if I resist the urge to get overly attached to the emotions, and I simply let them run their course, every single time…they pass. It never fails.

However, that’s rarely the end of the story, though, right? At least, not for anything more significant than, say, getting cut off in the salad bar line. 

When the situation is ongoing and far from resolved, well, it’s really easy to reignite the initial emotional flare up. Again…and again…and again.

And here’s where things get interesting. 

I became super curious as to what, exactly, triggered the subsequent flare ups, because it was often far from obvious.

Frequently, I was alone, I was doing something totally unrelated to the challenging situation, like mowing the lawn, and—boom! 

Suddenly, I’m in the middle of an imaginary argument, and the emotions are coursing through me like lava-spitting scorpions.

What the hell?

Turns out, my unconscious was trying to help me regain a little psychic equilibrium, because I had taken things too far to one extreme or the other.

Temperance from Ellen Dugan’s Witches Tarot

The psyche, you see, has a fundamental governing principle

…baked right into its core, and that is the principle of polarity.

If our conscious mind takes something super duper far to the right (metaphorically speaking), threatening to shift us perilously out of balance…

…the unconscious will step in to help by introducing energy from the left. 

And it’s often those moments when I’m on autopilot (mowing the lawn, for instance) or spacing out, when the barrier between conscious and unconscious thins, and that material more easily spills through.

Typically, we view this unconscious energy as an unwelcome intrusion, because, after all, it directly contradicts our conscious position, which can then trigger all sorts of self-righteous refusal.

What does this look like in practice?

Let me share an example (one of many) from my own life.

I have a friend who rarely initiates contact. If I reach out, they always respond, and we have a great time when we hang out, but I wouldn’t bet on them being the one to get in touch.

We talked about it once, and there was a short burst of change before things returned to the status quo. 

Well, every so often, this would suddenly bother the shit out of me. 

“Why am I always the one to reach out? Who do they think they are?! Okay, fine—if you don’t want to reach out, then we can’t be friends!”

And on and on the mental stories went.

So, why did this only happen every once in a while, and what triggered it?

In meditating and journaling on this, I noticed that I had an inner rule, largely unconscious, running in the background. 

(Side note: So far, I’ve never been in a resentment-triggering situation that, upon further exploration, wasn’t being fueled by a hidden inner rule.)

That rule was: Good people are always communicative and responsive.

And my ego was very, very attached to my identity as a “good person.” 

To maintain that identity, I had to see myself as being 100% communicative and responsive.

It didn’t matter if I was tired, on vacation, needing alone time, etc—if someone wanted to get in touch with me, as a “good person” I had to respond. 

So, if I wasn’t in the mood to talk, this could only mean one thing (assuming I wanted to maintain my ego’s good-person identity):

The other person was “bad.” 

“God, they’re always so needy! Why are they calling me after I’ve had such a long day!”

“I shouldn’t have to tell them not to email me while I’m on vacation!”

And on and on my indignant “logic” went. 

Because my ego was deathly allergic to being a “bad person” (i.e. someone whose communication style differed from my inner rule), this meant I had to project those qualities onto someone else. 

And the universe, in its wonderfully endless diversity, makes it incredibly easy for us to find people and situations on which to project our unwanted stuff. 

(Aw…thanks, universe!)

You need someone who has a more nonchalant approach to responding onto which you can project your baggage? Or someone who loves avoiding communication entirely, just to spice things up? Coming right up!

The Shadow Side (traditionally labeled the Devil) in Ellen Dugan’s Witches Tarot

Let’s return to the sudden outbursts of anger and their hidden source…

So, here I am, with my “good person” identity intact.

In order to maintain this shaky identity, I have to reject any information that might suggest that I am not 100% perfect when it comes to responsiveness and communication. 

And since every single thing in life is inherently imperfect, it’s inevitable that I am not, actually, 100% perfect in this, or any other area. 

Meaning, I’m going to encounter a lot of information that needs rejecting in order to maintain this identity. 

Day after day, a little more rejected information gets thrown into my shadow. A little here, a little there, and pretty soon, the shadow’s gettin’ pretty crowded. 

Something’s gotta give. 

Balance must be regained, because things are getting mighty lopsided in my psyche. 

On the one hand, I have my shining self-image of the perfect communicator, and in my shadow, I have a giant knapsack of crud that contradicts this image. 

Suddenly, the bag splits open, and out spews the unwanted information. 

My ego finds this information extremely threatening, so it’s once again projected onto the other person, at which point I find myself having imaginary arguments with them (or actual arguments) in an attempt to convince myself that I am still the “good person” and they’re the villain. 

Whew. Identity protected—victory!

Until the bag gets too full of crud again…aaaand I’m right back where I started, angrily ruminating and brimming with resentment. 

So, the only way off this hamster wheel is to acknowledge the shadow bag. 

In my scenario, this would involve a more honest look at my own communication habits and their human imperfection.

But even more importantly, I need to compassionately challenge my inner rule of “Good people are always communicative and responsive.”

As long as I allow this rule to run unchecked, I will act like a tyrant with myself, ignoring what I want, need, and feel in order to satisfy the demands of the rule. 

And if I fail to meet the rule, I will often repress the evidence and, instead, see it existing only in other people.

Thus, I need to be willing to sit with the discomfort that arises when I confront this rule and allow myself to make different choices. 

Often, this can trigger guilt or even shame. 

Can I be present with myself when those feelings arise, instead of shoving them into the shadow bag by, say, grabbing my phone and seeking a distraction? 

Here’s the thing:

When we engage this practice, the ego, which was once incredibly brittle and prone to flying off the handle at the slightest hint that its identity was being threatened…

well, it becomes more resilient

When confronted with information that contradicts its self-image (aka, life), with practice, the ego is better able to be with this. 

It becomes less reactionary. More curious. 

Less indignant. And more compassionate—to self and others. 

Does this mean you’ll someday reach a level of perfect peace in the face of all triggers?

Nope. But you don’t have to in order to live a deeply satisfying life. 

Simply expanding the ego’s resilience and flexibility even a little bit amounts to big dividends in your level of inner peace.

We can do this.

One day, one choice, one moment at a time. 

Are you with me?

P.S. Want more guidance on working with projections and building a more resilient sense of self?

Check out my free course: How to Alchemically Transmute Difficult Sh*t Into Electrifying Satisfaction