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Are Recall Triggers the Canary in Your Coal Mine?

The triggering of recall memories are something like canaries in a coal mine. Their job is to prevent you from harm, like the poor birds flying ahead of minors sacrificing their lives to test for toxic air. Used consciously old memories can be a real benefit. Because they get triggered, you might catch onto who people are beneath the surface (he’s a trickster or she’s only out for herself) or what’s really going on in a situation more quickly than others. You’ve been there and done that and know what certain feelings and reactions may mean for you and others. However, if you let them direct your reactions in the present, you’ll never become an effective problem-solver.
Let me tell you about a client we’ll call Cynthia who was excited and proud that she was now pretty much able to identify when emotional reactions were triggered by memories. She was more and more able to recognize that when she had intense feelings which were out of proportion to a current situation, her memories were likely running the show and dictating her response. Her question to me was about what to do at that point.
Cynthia gave me the example of there being poor boundaries at her workplace and few guidelines for sharing office supplies, which made her irate. She kept her desk drawer stocked with pens, white out, erasers and other staples and co-workers would “borrow” them or simply take and never return them. Her boss had a more or less laissez-fair attitude and didn’t seem to care about or discourage this kind of behavior. Cynthia wondered if she was being selfish and petty by getting furious at her co-workers and boss and if she ought to be able to keep some items for herself at work.
We talked about how to manage her situation. The first task was to recognize that the power of her intense, automatic response was, in part, due to the fact that this situation was triggering childhood memories without her realizing it. Growing up as the youngest of three sisters, she hadn’t felt comfortable complaining when they wore her clothes or used her toiletries because her father’s attitude had been all-for-one-and-one-for-all. She was also generous by nature and hated to say no to her sisters who were kind and loving to her. When these memory got triggered by her current (similar) situation, they included feeling that she had no choice about how to respond, but had to take what was happening to her or risk disturbing the workplace equilibrium. How could she effectively problem-solve about her present situation in which she had a choice of what to do when old family memories of powerlessness and uncertainty kept getting in the way?
Cynthia’s second task was to set aside her memories and figure out what to do in her current situation. She resented feeling a need to keep buying supplies like pens and post-its just to have them on hand for herself and didn’t believe that it was fair that she felt compelled to do so. We talked about strategies she could take to improve her situation, including talking to her boss and co-workers and even keeping a secret stash of supplies hidden in her cubicle. She did very well brainstorming ideas once she was focused on the present and not taken hostage by feelings from the past.
When you think you might be reacting from recall rather than reality as Cynthia was doing, take a sheet of paper and fold it in half length-wise. Write on top of one column “memory” situation and on top of the other column “current” situation. Then make a list of characteristics of each until you’re convinced that your present circumstance warrants a different response than the one from long ago. Are you new to the concepts of recall versus reality? Learn about it through my previous blogs on my website and from my archived blogs on memory and making meaning at