Mastering Our Triggers

Psychotherapist Barry Michels has a tool for everything, including: how to overcome the worst parts of ourselves, how to regulate our thoughts, how to prepare for getting triggered, and how to make sense of and process our emotional wounds. On this video call with GP, Michels breaks down the three-point plan that his clients have been using during the COVID-19 crisis to cope with a sense of powerlessness, feelings of negativity, and the realities of being cooped up with family. (“You know I’m a specialist in denial,” says GP.) But the plan is about more than coping. It’s a guide to harnessing your potential, to finding unexpected opportunities for inspiration, to feeling grateful, and to being of service. Before they wrap the conversation, Michels works with GP’s shadow and shows you how to connect with the meaningful, necessary parts of yourself that you might be afraid to present to the world.

Watch it when you can and let us know how the tools work for you. Some of the highlights and things we are practicing:

Moving from anger and sadness to action.
“As soon as I turned the corner and realized that people needed me, I began to give more,” says Michels. “And I think that’s a key to recovering and dealing with the crisis. Which is: Human beings are at their best when there is an outflow of positive energy rather than looking for some kind of comfort or reassurance from the outside world. Because we experience ourselves as having something to give when we’re giving.”

Harnessing our potential and not losing our minds.
There are three things you can do to harness your potential. And conveniently, says Michels, regulating these three things—your thoughts, how you spend your time, and your media consumption—will help you not lose your mind. This involves various forms of self-mastery and overcoming the worst parts of yourself, says Michels. “How do you master your worst tendencies?” asks GP. Practice.

Regulating how we spend our time.
“Believe it or not, at some point, this crisis is going to be over,” Michels says. “And the people who are going to own the world at that point are the people who used their time productively now, during the crisis. Whatever it is you’ve ever wanted to do with your life, do it now. You’re never going to have this much time on your hands. Whether it’s writing a screenplay or working on a business plan or connecting with people you haven’t connected with in a long time. If you can’t think of anything you want to do, then just be of service. Check up on your neighbors. Give love and reassurance to the people around you.”

Regulating our thoughts.
“You have to regulate what you allow and disallow during this time,” Michels says. “For most people, they are allowing their minds to become just a cesspool of negativity.” This creates a compulsive, self-sabotaging, negative loop. Which we want to avoid. But…

It’s not that easy.
If you’ve ever tried to just substitute a positive thought for a negative thought, Michels says that you probably discovered a nasty little secret. “Negative thoughts have much more power than positive thoughts. That voice of doom in your head has tremendous power.”

Instead, Michels suggests creating an experience for yourself—of a universe that is constantly giving you things and supporting you in ways that you take for granted. The weird thing, Michels says, is that you don’t have to believe that there is something greater than you giving you things: “I learned this tool when I was an atheist. And I have taught it to many, many skeptics. It’s effective because it actually goes beyond what you believe into the realm of experience. If you can actually experience something greater than you, giving you things, then you can relax. And your mind can stop spinning without all the negativity.”

A tool for gratitude.
In advance of using the tool, think of some things you’re grateful for. Michels says he’s grateful for the way the human brain works (“it’s a miracle”), for the beauty in the world (seeing the Pacific Ocean, the stars at night, a rainbow), and music (what other force gets so inside of you and makes you want to move?).

When you are in a negative loop, close your eyes and follow these steps to be embraced by something greater than you. So even if shit is going down, you don’t have to get trapped in a negative headspace.

  1. Start by recounting specific things you are grateful for, internally. Don’t worry if it’s a slight struggle to come up with new things, says Michels. That’s part of the tool—your mind is working in new ways. Keep coming up with ideas and see if you can gradually get the feeling that there is much more to appreciate than you’re usually aware of.

  2. Feel your heart soften and open up, like a flower in the sun. Let the specific things you are grateful for gradually fade away. Sense the presence of a mysterious source giving you all those things. You don’t have to have a name for this source. You just have to feel it and receive what it’s giving to you.

  3. Feel that unknowable source of goodness draw near to you, like soft breath on your cheek. Feel your heart melting with thankfulness.

  4. Mark this moment in the back of your mind: This source of goodness is always with me, even if I’m no longer aware of it. It’s giving to me, boundlessly.

Regulating our media consumption (talk about ambition).
It’s of course good to stay informed, Michels says: “But staying informed takes five minutes.” You don’t need to spend all of your day checking the news.

Expect to get triggered by things we would normally drop.
“I don’t wake up and say, ‘I hope this is a great day, and I’m not going to get triggered,’” says Michels. “I say, ‘I’m going to get triggered. There’s no question.’” When you’re prepared, you’re in a better position to deal with what’s triggering you before you create more damage.

“We constantly want the outside world to be easier than it actually is, more validating, softer, reassuring than it is,” says Michels. Because it’s not: Try a tool called “dust” to nullify the outside world momentarily.

  1. When you get triggered, cover everything and everyone in the outside world with a thick layer of dust. This renders the outside world non-emanating, says Michels. Light is a symbol of what we want from the outside world. And dust says: I’m not receiving that. Nullifying the outside world cuts down on hurt and anger.

  2. Inside of you, imagine there is a fountain of infinite light. And all you want to do is light up the world with that light. This might be an image that you carry around with you.

Human beings are at their best when they are in a giving, outflow posture, rather than reacting, says Michels. This tool downgrades the importance of the outside world as a source for you. And it allows you to put out more. The moment you become the source, you don’t have to get triggered.

But we still get triggered—how do we process what upsets us?
At the end of the day, after you’ve gotten annoyed (however many times), go somewhere quiet and talk to your shadow. The shadow is a little bit like your alter ego—it’s almost another personality living inside of you. It’s an essential part of you, but you might be afraid to show it to the world. Whenever you have an extreme reaction to someone else, Michels believes that your shadow is having a reaction to you. So if it bothers you that someone is acting like a know-it-all, perhaps your shadow feels like you act like a know-it-all to it.

Want to meet GP’s shadow and your own? You’re going to have to watch for that.