Positive and Negative “Triggers”

Ah, the dreaded trigger. Trigger is a word bandied about these days that almost always carries a negative connotation. I recently discovered that I can uncover positive triggers that counteract the negative ones and catapult me to positive action.

It required some introspection and some “running the tapes” to be able to positively identify my major negative trigger, and then to dig up the antidote to it. I am working very hard on coming up with the bones for my memoir*, and Marion Roach Smith’s ideas have recently been motivating me. She’s got a lot of good stuff to say about the art of memoir, and this post, “Writing Motivation: Workarounds for Those Emotional Triggers”, helped me to discover what Smith calls my “transcendence” – that positive trigger that can create an avalanche of good motion, not just in my writing but in traversing my world.

That a positive trigger exists was a new idea for me, and it’s one I’ve been clinging to since I read Smith’s post the other day. So I sat down with my Freewrite smart typewriter and started working it out. What is my major negative trigger? Shame. It’s always lurking in the shadows, waiting for the opportunity to leap out and tackle me. Wait, isn’t shame the result of being triggered by some other event? Maybe, but the things that trigger shame are often outside of my control – they’re often things that other people do or random images that I see. I can’t stop these triggers, they’re just out there.

But shame itself turns out to be its own very consistent trigger that incites all kinds of self-sabotaging, unhealthy behavior. It’s an avalanche of emotion, a growing boulder chasing me down a steep hill. Getting flattened is inevitable.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I enrolled in the Fashion Design program at Tampa’s International Academy of Merchandising & Design. The school provided me everything my heart desired for learning how to design, illustrate, pattern, construct, and market high end clothing. I was in my element; my heart soared everyday as I absorbed delicious tidbits of knowledge: sketching with charcoal and painting with watercolor; textile identification; embellishment; design theory; pattern draping and drafting, and more.

The final exam for the year was to design a line of clothing from start to finish, including fitting the designs on runway models for the end of the year fashion show, a big hyped event that was held at Ruth Eckerd Hall and covered by the Tampa Tribune. My first year, all my designs were approved and one of my outfits was the finale on the runway, a show-stopping floor length black wool crepe cape and gown. I was super motivated and pleased with my success: something to be proud of – something I could point to as evidence of my ability and worthiness. Look mom, I did something right, in spite of your rejection.

The next year when it was time for final exams, high on my achievements, I drew up my sketches for approval. Not one of them was approved. My instructor’s notes said something about “impractical” and “not well thought out”. She was surprised, she said, because she expected more of me. When I picked up my sketch portfolio and saw the marks and comments, I left the building, got into my car and drove away, never to return to the school I loved so much.

I didn’t cry, I didn’t ask why, I didn’t stay to find out how I could do better. Instead, my world closed in on me and I went into hiding at my home, ignoring the phone calls and letters from the school wondering where I was. All of a sudden I was that broken hearted girl all over again, the one not good enough to be kept . I was weeks shy of graduating with my degree in fashion design, and who knows where I might have gone, where I might be today, but shame forced me to retreat and surrender to its painful punishment.

Thirty plus years later, the fact that I allowed shame to stop me in such a dramatic way remains one of my biggest regrets. Even now as I sit here and think about it, it takes my breath away. I have shame about having shame. I feel my chest tightening and my heart rate increasing. That’s just one example, one of the most dramatic ones, but there are hundreds, maybe thousands of other times when shame has beaten me.

It’s something I fight almost every day.

I’ve learned some coping mechanisms – mostly unhealthy ones in the past, but lately some actual healthy steps, especially over the last ten years. And through Smith’s guidance, I was able to identify a consistent antidote to shame, one that when used, crushes the boulder and launches me away from self-destructive behavior and into peace.

More about that tomorrow. Here’s the link to the next post: https://tinagasperson.com/index.php/2020/09/18/acceptance-as-transcendence/

*I think I am finally closing in on a theme and structure for the memoir I’ve been writing for the last ten years. I’ve got a lot of “flesh” to put on the bones of this story – it will take some paring down but with a structure I at last know where to put the knife.

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