“I had a great teacher in India who said to me, ‘If you think you’re spiritual and evolved and enlightened, go home for Christmas and see how it goes.” —Elizabeth Gilbert
What’s up with that?
Well, simply put — your family installed the triggers. When you get around family, certain things are said, events transpire, and your buttons get pushed. Once this happens the pathway in your psyche that you used to survive your childhood can set off immature reactions.
I don’t know about you but I hate acting like a twelve-year-old now that I’m fifty-something. I used to get my buttons pushed and act out a lot when my mom was alive. Thankfully, toward the end of her life, I got really good at boundary setting and our relationship got better.
But before boundaries — anytime I lost my adult sanity and acted out in a child-like manner with my mom and family — and believe me before boundaries it happened a lot — my cheeks lit up like a red hot burner set on high flushing with guilt and shame. I felt like an out of control twelve-year-old.
What’s up with that?
My mom was bipolar and as a child, I was her primary caregiver which put me in many compromising positions that installed the buttons that when pushed sent my cheeks flaring, my heart pounding, and an untapped river of anger flowing up which I had to work so hard to suppress. This went down even as an adult who lived thousands of miles away from my parents. And the really weird thing is it could happen with other people who acted out in a similar way as my mother.
Here’s the down and dirty on my biggest button
I couldn’t go shopping with my mother as an adult without being triggered because when I was a child she was a compulsive shoplifter. Her issues meant I spent many childhood shopping trips taking care of my younger siblings while my mom was hauled off to the manager’s office.
I swam in a sea of shame as I waited in the store for her to be released. People would look at me and my little brothers and sister as I tried to control their unruly behavior. I was often pulling my brothers out from under sales racks or picking up items they’d knocked to the floor as my sister sat crying out for mom. It was a holy mess.
The sales clerks glared at me like I was guilty of doing something wrong which matched how I felt. I thought I was bad because I was a part of mom and I knew what she was doing was wrong and bad. And as far as my siblings were concerned they were only struggling kids but that didn’t stop me from thinking they were bad too.
My shame voice in my head
It said. “You’re not good enough because you can’t stop mom from acting out or get your siblings to behave. That voice was in my head for as long as I can remember. And there was no one around to help soothe me and say, “You aren’t the problem. Your mom has a disease.”
As an adult I faced myself
I went to work on myself and my issues with my mother. She was the biggest cause of stress and anxiety in my life. So, I went to talk therapy, worked a twelve-step program, studied Yoga Therapy, and the energy systems of the body.
These practices made me realize that my mom was one of my greatest spiritual teachers. When I was with mom and began to feel my heart racing, my breath shortening, my cheeks burning and panic set in — I was being presented with a spiritual lesson and could either keep reacting out of childhood guilt and shame or change my behavior and my reactions.
I chose to change and observe
And noticed — everyone in my family including me was shaming my mother. Expressing how “bad,” we thought she was with almost every encounter. I guess I felt I was “bad” too because I felt responsible for her as a child. So for me, it was like shaming myself.
My child-like mind decided since I was responsible for my mom and I couldn’t stop her erratic behaviors then I must be bad too. Wow, lots of clarity just from stopping myself and observing.
But It wasn’t until I got clear on boundaries that I really found a tool to help me with my mom. And it was boundaries that allowed me to manage my entire family of origin. That, in turn, helped me deal with others I met who reminded me of my family.
I explored many different ways of setting boundaries and it was through my understanding of the energy body that I found the system that worked for me. I needed to move my body with a gesture as well as saying what I needed to say with my words.
I’ve taught this method to hundreds of students with amazing results. One of my students, Cara said, “Embodying my boundaries has helped me to stop feeling like a victim with my family and others.”
Here’s how I set boundaries:
Internal boundaries — All boundaries start with setting a boundary inside of myself. I own my values and the commitments to myself and choose to keep them. I call this boundary an internal boundary.
First, I get clear on my values and commitments to myself. Then, I make them a priority in my life. From that firm foundation, I can choose to stay in alignment with my values and commitments with every “yes” or “no”.
Next, I breathe deeply into my belly and exhale a “haaaaa” out of my mouth. This clears my power center.
I then place my left (represents the feminine internal self) hand on my belly and state the boundary to myself. For example with my mother it often was, “Remember mom is mentally ill and that is not your fault. Don’t take on her problems. Approach her with the same compassion you’d have for a physically ill person.”
External boundaries — Once I’m solid with my internal boundary, I’m ready to establish a boundary outside of myself. I call it an external boundary.
When I know a choice isn’t in alignment with my internal values and commitments I decide to say “no” to that person or offering. If it is in alignment with my values and commitments and I have the energy to do it — I say “yes”.
I inhale deeply into my belly and exhaling a “haaaa” breath out of my mouth. This clears my power center.
I bring my left hand on my belly and take my right (represents the masculine external self) hand and point it out toward the person with whom I’m setting a boundary and say what I need to say maybe something like this, “I notice ____ and that upsets me. Would you be willing to stop that behavior?” Then I listen. Or I may say, “That is an amazing offer, let me check in with myself before I accept.” There are a few times when I just blurt out, “yes”.
Remember, not all people are safe to be around
Create some distance and love that person from afar when a boundary isn’t honored. I learned that I could only maintain my adult sanity with my mom by being around her for only three days and to say “no” to going shopping with her during that time. I had an internal boundary to not shop with mom and leave after three days or I’d risk acting up.
My mom died five years ago and with her death went most of my childhood guilt and shame. I can go visit my father, siblings, and other family members with very few incidents that trigger me.
The best part of all, when I do get triggered the observation and boundary settings I used with my mother allows me to stay in my adult self.
Hmmm? Thanks, mom. You taught me the spiritual lesson on how to remain a rational adult even when I’m triggered.
Check out the Ageless Movement Boundary Setting Practice to get really good at setting clear boundaries.
How do you react when you visit your parents or family of origin? I’d love to hear in the comments below.