It happens all the time. A colleague has an edgy tone of voice we interpret as impatience with us and we feel stupid. A certain look on someone’s face or an eye roll can trigger feeling judged. Excitement and delight on a child’s face when we arrive home elicits a warm feeling of being loved.  This is how it works for us human beings. We are interpretive and socially interactive.

Consistent, trusted attachments with other people, being included as part of a family or group, is a survival level imperative. Humans need that to live and our primitive survival systems support that. We have evolved to notice social cues and constantly adjust our behavior to maximize our chances to stay within the safety of the group.

Associations help us be socially intelligent. We are able to recognize danger because of prior experience. When someone is critical of our work, we might feel anxiety. Of course that look on their face may or may not have anything to do with us or our work but that doesn’t matter on one level. Our interpretation is affected by prior and present experience.

This interpretation that someone is critical of our work might inspire us to work harder for their approval. We might own up that we’ve been slacking off and need to focus more. The same circumstances might trigger anger. We know we’ve been working hard and feel unappreciated. The past can come into play. Perhaps we had a parent who was always critical and pushing us. When we came home with 96% on a math test they asked about the other 4%. That could make us more vulnerable to (perceived) criticism or being judged as not perfect. Our past experiences trigger associations. We don’t come in to any situation neutral if we have relevant past experience.

Knowing our brains use association with past experiences helps us to understand our reactions and how we are vulnerable to  other people. Like any system, it is advantageous when it works well. What happens when it doesn’t? When we’re over-involved with wanting to please other people? When we can’t stand the tension in our body so we say something we regret or shut down emotionally.

Try these inquiries to explore your own system and associations.

This one is 5 minutes and works directly with our perception and associations.


This inquiry practice is 25 minutes. I recorded it during a Kiloby Center Family Services group meeting. We were exploring having someone we love in recovery (or relapse) from addiction and how our patterns play into enabling and supporting recovery.

Triggered by People
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