Once upon a time, I was driving down the street with a friend of mine. When we passed a popular chain restaurant, one of those family places with huge servings that can be found all over the United States and beyond, she extended her index and pinky fingers in a “devil” sign and directed cat hissing noises at the building. When I asked her, slightly bemused as you may be able to imagine, WTF that was all about, she explained that she had once worked for that restaurant chain and had been treated so badly that she was now and forever more unable to so much as set foot in one of their establishments. She couldn’t even drive by one without feeling the indignation and rage she’d been harboring since the day she’d quit, years before. That’s right, thousands of restaurants across the country had become off limits to her FOREVER, because she’d had a douchebag manager. Mind you, she wasn’t boycotting the company because she didn’t want to support their business practices. She was simply unable (read: unwilling) to disassociate the entire company from her past experiences. In fact, it was so bad that she would vehemently argue with an entire group of people to get them to change the venue, even if they’d already booked a birthday party there, and, if unsuccessful in that endeavor, would either miss out on the celebration or go, but be absolutely (and loudly) miserable the whole time, making sure to ruin everyone else’s experience in the process.
Now, before you’re too harsh on my friend, keep in mind that just about everyone has associations like this. We have a bad experience at some point, and then associate the people, places, or circumstances that were present for that experience with the horrible feelings they generated. Once that association is established, it serves as an automatic blockage – we will often go to great length to avoid those people, places or circumstances, because somewhere in our brains, we decided that THEY must have generated those bad feelings.
It reminds me…
If you’ve ever heard yourself say something like “I can’t go there because it reminds me of…”, or “I can’t use that/eat that/like that because it reminds me of…”, you have a negative association. And who could blame you? If your butthead ex-boyfriend used to bring you roses each time he’d done something wrong, causing you to associate the lovely flowers with feelings of anger, frustration and the icky feeling you get when you’ve continuously ignored your intuition telling you to get the hell away from someone because you deserve way better than a butthead, it’s only natural that you’d now avoid roses. Each time you see them, you feel the same emotions. Pavlov would be so proud of you.
But, just because it’s a natural response (we automatically create associations), doesn’t make it constructive, useful or true. You see, when your brain creates an association, it literally believes that the thing that was present when the emotions were triggered, brings the emotions about. Pavlov rang a bell each time he fed his dogs. After a short amount of time, the dogs believed that the bell meant they were getting fed and would salivate, even if no food had yet appeared. In their minds, the two were inextricably linked. A ringing bell meant mealtime, just as surely as actually seeing or smelling the food. Only, here’s the thing: it didn’t.
A ringing bell is just a ringing bell. Even though it was used to signal being fed in this context, if you place it in another context, it will mean something else. The bell, in and of itself, doesn’t mean anything until you give it an association.
Everything is meaningless
You see, everything in our lives is essentially meaningless. I’m not trying to depress you, and I don’t mean it in a “life has no purpose sort of way”. Life has a crap load of purpose and it’s a really good one. What I mean is this: Nothing in our lives has the power to evoke specific reactions or emotions from you – nothing is intrinsically good, bad, exciting, fun, positive, negative, depressing or uplifting. Nothing has any meaning at all, until we give it one. It’s only through our perception that we ever give anything any meaning at all. We decide, consciously or subconsciously (usually subconsciously) how to perceive everything in our world. We decide if it’s good or bad, wanted or unwanted, scary or fun, annoying or funny, life affirming or soul shattering.
Now, granted, most of these decisions are not made consciously. In fact, quite a few of our associations aren’t even made by us. Our parents and teachers and elders hand their associations down to us. They teach us how to perceive the world. All they’re really doing is telling us what they decided, or what someone in the past decided and then convincing us to just accept that decision without ever examining the evidence for ourselves. They think they’re doing us a favor – they’re keeping us safe from danger and helping us to not make the same mistakes that they did, but this is not a natural state. If you tell a toddler not to touch the stove because it’s hot, and that child doesn’t yet have a concept of what hot is, he will do all he can to try and touch that stove. The child has to have the experience; he wants to make the decision on his own. What is this “hot”? Is it wanted or unwanted? You can tell him all day long that he won’t like it, but he’s not going to be inclined to just take your word for it. Sooner or later that kid is going to touch something hot and figure it out for himself.
What you think is true, isn’t
Of course, we can train our children into taking our word for it. After a few “I told you so” moments, they may well start to believe and trust us (actually, that trust is much easier to establish using positive reinforcement, but that’s another blog post altogether). And that’s not a bad thing – you don’t want your child to have to get hit by a car in order for them to understand that playing in traffic isn’t a good thing. The problem isn’t that kids might listen to what we tell them, the problem lies in what we pass on to them, and what was passed on to us. Almost all of it is utter and total bullshit. So many of our beliefs, how we think the world works, is based on either old evidence that no longer applies, or superstition, meaning, there was never any evidence to support the decision in the first place. In many ways, we all still think the world is flat, not because we have any proof that it is, but because someone told us that it was.
So much of what we believe is TRUE in our lives just isn’t. It’s merely an association that was created at one time, and passed down to us. The rest of our associations were made by us, but usually based on false perception, just as Pavlov’s dogs thought the bell meant dinner, even though a bell is just a bell until the ringing of it is given meaning in a specific context.
Now, while this is true for ALL beliefs, I’m going to dissect a specific type of association here today – those made by you, due to some experience you actually had, which are limiting your experience right NOW. The cologne you can no longer smell because an ex wore it, the food you can’t eat anymore because it was that bitch’s favorite, the movie you can never watch again because it reminds you of that fight you had, etc.
Some associations aren’t all that counterproductive. For example, who cares if you can’t stand a certain cologne, as long as you never have to? But what if one of your co-worker suddenly develops a love for that scent? What if that song you hate because it reminds you of a painful breakup keeps getting played on the radio? What if your boss asks you to go to lunch to discuss your promotion and wants to take you to that restaurant you can no longer step foot in? What if the associations you’ve made are limiting how you can and want to live your life right now? What if you’re living in a prison made up of avoiding anything that could trigger a painful memory?
Choosing your associations
The good news is that while most of our associations aren’t made consciously, they can be. None of this is set in stone; we get to assign new and better meanings to anything we like at any time. Remember – nothing has any meaning until we assign it one. And those meanings can be changed. All we have to do is to make a new decision. Yes, it’s that simple (this work is always simple, it’s just not always easy). When someone tells me that they can’t do something they want to do, because it triggers a bad memory, what I hear is: “I’m stubbornly choosing to focus on this thing in a way that makes me feel bad, and I don’t believe that I have the ability to focus differently. Hence, I’m stuck. This is just the way it is.”
Yeah… no. You’re not stuck and you can change the way you focus on anything. You can assign a different meaning, one that you’ve deliberately chosen (instead of it happening by default), and one that feels better. This does, by the way, work on the positive end of the spectrum too. You can create positive associations by choice, something that NLP practitioners discovered long ago. And it’s a lot easier than you think. All you have to do is use your brain’s natural ability to associate things it repeatedly experiences together (or even once if the emotional reaction is strong enough). Your brain doesn’t need a logical reason to create an association; the song didn’t cause your breakup, but you react as though it did. It will accept a new association just as readily. The key is your emotional state (if you’re at all surprised by this, you need to do a whole lot more reading on this blog).
There’s a reason you’re getting triggered
Before we go further, it has to be said that if a trigger keeps coming up in your life, there’s a reason for it. So, if you keep hearing that song that reminds you of your painful breakup, then the song’s not really the problem. In fact, it’s doing you a favor by showing you that you have unfinished business. Whatever belief you’re still holding on to about yourself (which the relationship and breakup mirrored back to you) is manifesting. Perhaps you decided at some point that you weren’t good enough to be loved. You attracted a man who was willing to treat you like crap and show you how little you respected yourself. You decided that the break up was further proof that no man could ever love you, instead of realizing that you had attracted a man who wasn’t worthy of YOUR love.
When a trigger keeps showing up in your life, when there’s a pattern, pay attention to it and resolve what’s coming up. If you’re not sure how to do this, please dig around in my blog archives. I’ve written countless posts detailing how to release different beliefs.
The point is that deactivating a certain trigger, re-associating that song so that it doesn’t feel bad anymore, will not get rid of the underlying issue. It will not fix your beliefs of unworthiness. You still have to do that work if you want to attract a different kind of relationship. But, once you’re aware of the fact that you have those underlying issues, you don’t really need the trigger anymore. You don’t have to suffer through the horror of that song every time it comes on the radio. What I’m saying here is, don’t just get rid of the trigger. Pay attention to what it’s telling you, and while you’re working to resolve whatever that is, you can also get rid of the trigger so your life becomes easier.
Re-associating a trigger
Ok, so let’s say that you’re now aware that you still have unfinished business from your past, and you’re doing something about that, but you’re no longer willing to live in a prison built on avoidance of possible bad feeling associations. You want to eat wherever and whatever the hell you choose to, listen to the radio without fear of some horrible feeling song coming on, shop where you want to, and be able to judge anyone’s cologne on the merits of how it smells on them, and no one else. Here’s what you do:
Step 1 – Get some perspective. Stop being a dog and use your brain. Unlike Pavlov’s dogs, you can actually use your conscious reasoning to figure out that the bell isn’t making the food appear. It just happens to ring just before the food comes. So, look back at whatever created the association and ask yourself this: “Did the song cause the breakup? Was the restaurant (the building, the décor, the menu, the smell) responsible for the douchebag manager? Are the roses to blame for your ex being such a butthole? The answer will invariably be “no”. Realizing that the thing you associated so strongly with your bad feelings was not the cause of those feelings, but just coincidentally present while you also had those emotions, will already make this trigger lose a lot of its power.
Step 2 – What’s it costing you to have this association? Are you really willing to deprive yourself the beauty and luxury of roses for the rest of your life because of one douchebag? Are you really willing to live in fear of hearing a song on the radio? Are you willing to punish yourself and imprison yourself because of some events that happened in the past? These real events, the ones that actually felt bad, happened long ago. But you keep reliving them through your associations. You’re ruining how you feel NOW because you’re not willing to let go of the decision your brain made that a song caused you to feel bad, even though it didn’t (unless the song was written and performed by your ex as a way to make you feel bad. Then, maybe, you’ve got a case). How long are you willing to live this way? How much is it costing you, in terms of missed experiences and fun, to keep holding on to these beliefs? For example, my friend had tons of arguments about where to go, was known as the “difficult one” when it came to restaurant choices and sometimes even missed really fun gatherings because she was so unwilling to let go of this association. In her mind, she was punishing the restaurant, but really she was only hurting herself. Her old boss didn’t even work for the company anymore. Everyone had moved on but her. What are you missing out on?
Step 3 – Choose a different perspective. And finally, create a different association, one that feels better. This can sometimes be as simple as working your way into a positive state of mind (you feel good), and then exposing yourself to the trigger while you’re happy. For example, you may be at a party and be having the time of your life. If your emotional state was high enough and the song you hate was played in the background while you were having such a great time, it could fully erase the negative association and create a positive one in one instant. Can you orchestrate this? Of course! Is there an activity that you love to do, one that automatically puts you in a good mood? Bring an element of your trigger into this activity (listen to the song on your iPod while walking in a beautiful place), deliberately choose to feel better (remind yourself to make a better feeling decision, look for what feels good), and your trigger will be re-associated in no time.
Sometimes, you may need to get a bit more creative. For example, you could re-write the lyrics to your hated song and make them funny. By singing along to the song with lyrics that make you laugh (or just feel good), you’ll be creating a new association. You can create a funny little theme song for the hated restaurant, and deliberately look for what you can truly appreciate about it (you have to actually get into the feeling of appreciation. Don’t fake this.) If it’s an activity you hate to do, listen to music you LOVE while you do it. Again, deliberately choose to have a good time, to feel good, and you will.
Don’t think for one second that your associations are set in stone. Nothing you believe is. Your past experiences don’t have to define you, and arbitrary situations, activities and objects don’t have to determine how you live your life today. Your natural state is freedom, which means that you are free to feel good no matter what. You don’t have to let anyone or anything restrict how good you can feel in any given situation. Just because you felt bad once in the past, doesn’t mean you have to use meaningless stimuli as an excuse to continue to feel bad NOW. Choose to feel better. Choose to make different decisions. Choose to assign a different meaning. Choose your associations. Choose to have a good time right now. Otherwise, you let the douchebags win, and who really wants that? 😉