Let me ask you something. Have you ever felt like you don't recognize your behavior or you can't believe what you just said? Sound familiar? You start to say something that really isn't the best thing to say at that moment. In fact, it's really going to get you into trouble. It's definitely not going to get you closer to the person you're speaking to. You're about to say something hurtful and unnecessary. You tell yourself to chill but you don't. You say or yell it anyway. That's called being triggered. It's losing the wise adult part of us and moving into behaving and acting from our adaptive child.According to family therapist Terry Real this is the difference between the wise adult part of us and the adaptive child part of us. The wise adult part of us is the part that is reading this article right now. It's present-based, moderate, here and now, thoughtful, able to make choices, stop and breathe, think and do. The wise adult part of us is present with you and present with the person you're talking to in the moment.
What happens as we all know in our intimate relationships is that the wise adult part of us that can be reasonable and hold more than one perspective, can go offline. You have been triggered. And what you're flooded with is a different time and a younger part of yourselves.
The part that becomes flooded and triggered is in the past. Your past has overtaken your present.
"A Kid in Grownups Clothing"
As Pia Mellody so picturesquely describes it, our adaptive child is a child's version of a grown-up. It's what you, as a child cobbled together to create your understanding of an adult. It's immature and young when you stack it against the wise adult. It's the part of you that you just lost in the heat of the moment.
Our adaptive child concerns itself with protection and preservation. Relationships are seen as adversarial. In an argument, the subtext sounds like this. "You are no longer my loving partner; you're my enemy. I fear danger. I have to make sure that I survive. There just aren't enough resources for both of us. One of us must win and the other must lose. "
Sound relational? I don't think so! Sound true in the heat of a fight? Absolutely! Your adaptation was exquisitely intelligent when you were a child and needed to manage whatever was going on in your life. It's maladaptive now and makes a mess of your relationships.
Our wise adult is the part of us that remembers the "us" in the relationship. It sees the whole.
The Heat of the Moment
When your past has overtaken your present, you are no longer fighting with your partner; you're seeing one of your early caretakers. The one who always yelled at you, the one who was always drunk and unavailable, the one you had to take care of, or maybe the one who criticized you incessantly.
Now your adaptive child has triggered your partner's adaptive child. Your wise adult parts have stepped out for a coffee and your little hurt inner children are off to the races in the familiar patterns that simply reinforce unsuccessful communication and eat away and erode all attempts at closeness and intimacy.
Where Does the Adaptive Child Come From?
When you're triggered and you're no longer reacting to what's happening in the moment, you're most likely reacting to trauma. Relational trauma occurs from everyday lack of connection. This can either be abandoning, neglectful, you were left on your own, or it can be intrusive, controlling, telling you what to do or not do.
It may be as subtle as your wanting to show a drawing you made to your Mum and she barely turns her head away from her laptop. She just says "that's beautiful honey." Children are intelligent enough to distinguish that kind of brush-off response as opposed to if they were given an extra moment, Mum takes the drawing in her hand and comments on it.
Parents help regulate their children's nervous systems. Did you get that or were you on your own? Our parents aren't perfect and to varying degrees have not guided us, nurtured us, or limited us in the way that we needed while growing up.
Whichever it was, it was a sense of disconnect for you as a child.
Your Wise Adult Has Inside Information
We now want to move out of that "me" and "you" adaptive child consciousness and get ourselves re-centered in our wise adult. "I'm here with you now."
What does your wise adult know that your adaptive child doesn't know? It understands that you are not above your relationship, controlling it, or escaping from it. You're in this relationship and you depend upon it. It is the context in which you live. Sure, you can choose to pollute it by having a temper tantrum. But you're going to breathe in that pollution with your partner's withdrawal or reactivity. You and your partner are connected. You live together!!
Become more Relational Today
If you take one thing from this article let it be to move beyond the harshness of the adaptive child to the flexibility and nuance of your wise adult. There is nothing that harshness will do that loving firmness won't do better.
Here's a helpful first step in becoming more relational today. Terry Real suggests: Take note of the two states, when you're in each, and what that's like.
Remember: Be compassionate and gentle with yourself in the face of your flaws and beautiful humanness.
I'd love to hear how you go! You can reach out here.