I’ve been writing about triggers lately. This post is specifically about how triggers can affect parts for people with multiplicity, it builds on the information I’ve already shared in
- Managing Triggers – an overview of how triggers work and many different approaches to managing them
- Mental Health needs better PR – the risks and benefits of the different ways we think about triggers and why we want to manage them
- Using Anchors to Manage Triggers – exploring how anchors work and can be used to help with triggers around trauma, anxiety, and other distress
Sometimes parts get stuck, inside or outside, and this can cause problems. Sometimes a part may stop coming out when their trigger to do so disappears, and this can be a terrible loss. Perhaps a child part only came out around a favourite aunt who has passed away. Perhaps a quiet, studious part only came out at uni, and now that you’ve finished the course that part has gone missing. I have one who only comes out at night, down the beach. Wounded and different they have retreated from all the rest of our lives and it is moonlight and solitude that calls their name. When I was originally diagnosed and my shrink was hoping to make contact with some of these parts, we told them with despair that a counselling office was not their world and I had no idea how to get them here, or even if that was a good idea. The shrink was likewise baffled about how to engage with parts who only came out at school, or during storms, or in candlelight.
Two things lay beneath this dilemma – a fundamental question of the purpose and direction of therapy – was it about us making ourselves function and presentable in the shrink’s world, or about the shrink being able to follow us into our own… or some kind of collaboration and bridging of this Gap? Was it about illness or a Grand Adventure? The other was simply the lack of awareness on both our and the shrink’s part that triggers can be changed and wielded deliberately.
Sometimes it helps to change the triggers that call parts out. I have one in particular who responds to threat and manages violence. Parts with roles like this can become restless and destructive when things start to improve in your life, because they are inadvertently being written out of the life. As this role is needed less and less, they come out infrequently, sometimes inappropriately, and the rest of the system responds with frustration instead of gratitude. Heroes of the old regime, these parts find there’s no room for them in the new world order. Changing the trigger that calls them out can be a powerful place to start changing or expanding their role to have more life in it.
This can be a simple matter of forming a new association with being out. Every time they are out, to have a new chosen trigger present – someone calling their name, a piece of music, a bracelet, bare feet on grass, pink nail polish. It needs to be something they want and have chosen, something that resonates with them. A trigger that doesn’t evoke a response of some kind, an emotion, a feeling in the body, a memory, a sense of connection – is no trigger at all. In order to work as a trigger, it must evoke something, it must connect with something that is unique to this part and in some way represents them. Over time this trigger becomes more connected to the experience of being out. Once this link has been made, it can start to become strong enough to be used as an anchor, something that can be used to call them out and invite them to be present.
For my system there’s a sense of distance inside, sometimes some parts are close to the surface and easy to call out, while others are far out in the deeps and beyond any call. Some parts always respond to their triggers, others are unpredictable. Each system is unique, and the process is often more organic than mechanical.
Sometimes parts have a difficult time staying present when they want and need to. It might be that other parts are being triggered out, or that they habitually go away inside under certain types of stress. Sometimes some parts just seem to have a tenuous grasp on the moment, in the body, in the world. They are more like smoke on the wind than a plant in the earth. Anchors can help parts to stay present in times when switching would be dangerous, traumatic, or inappropriate such as driving, sex, or delivering a presentation at work. Clothes are an anchor my system often uses to help to keep a part present. If this part has her boots on, or that part her pearls, it’s much easier for them to stay present. Music is another powerful one, and it can have a lingering effect. An hour of listening to P!nk at high volume before leaving the house can be the anchor a part needs to stay present through the morning. Or the right music on the radio in the car can stop a child part switching out when we’re driving.
We were in some training a while ago and struggling badly. The facilitation was extremely poor, and most days at least one student became distressed by bullying behaviour. I spent a lot of time following people into toilets to offer comfort, and biting my lip during lectures. The group dynamics were being encouraged in such a poor direction that distressed students were maligned as ‘low functioning’ and probably unsuitable for study, rather than offered support. Each day that went by I became more enraged. The part who handles threats was constantly triggered, but their expertise is physical threat – violence, sexual assault and the like. This was an incredibly inappropriate environment for them because none of their skills were useful here. They could not physically respond, even by screaming, to the increasing sense of being trapped and forced to watch as people were hurt. In fact all their responses; their obvious pain, their supressed anger, their capacity for action, played against us in this setting. We lacked credibility when we responded this way, tongue tied, vehement, and desperate to escape.
It took a lot of thought but we finally were able to come up with a better approach. A different part who could handle this kind of ‘threat’ that was psychological and subtle rather than physical and overt. Someone who wasn’t afraid and therefore wasn’t sitting at a desk with their adrenaline thrumming. Someone who could speak up without anger in their voice, and who therefore couldn’t be told off for being rude. Someone who could laugh and break tension while speaking our truths. Once we figured this out, we changed which clothes and makeup we wore to the classes, changed where we sat and how we engaged. It was still a deeply unpleasant experience, like being a participant in a social experiment about power. We still had some troubles with the furious part being triggered out. But we had a better approach and were able to finish the course without being reprimanded for any behaviour, without self harming to cope, and without becoming compliant and submissive to the bully. Anchors can be powerful.
Sometimes they can be also be used against us in ways that hurt us. Multiplicity sometimes makes us more vulnerable.