When my inner child, Penelope, gets triggered, my body, mind, and emotions automatically catapult into fight or flight mode. Her number one impulse is to protect herself. She is reacting to perceived harm. These knee-jerk reactions are sometimes beyond my control. They happen so quickly that I, the adult Barbara, don’t have time to reassure Penelope that she is safe and that she needs to trust me to handle the situation.
When Penelope feels threatened, her defensive reactions can sometimes take me down a path that is not in my best interest.
If, say, someone is treating me unfairly, Penelope might react by lashing out in anger. This scenario has led to my being fired on more than one occasion. If someone angrily reprimands me for a mistake I make, this could cause Penelope to react in fear, perhaps bursting into tears and completely losing all composure. Penelope is terrified of people’s anger. This has also led to my being fired. My employer cited emotional instability as the reason for my dismissal.
Once Penelope has been triggered, I need to bring her out of fight or flight mode. When my inner child becomes overwhelmed by fear, anger, or anxiety my breathing can become shallow and my heart can pound in my chest. It is difficult for me to think rationally. It is crucial that I find a way to calm down.
The best coping technique I have learned for when Penelope gets triggered is grounding. A therapist taught me that there are three primary ways of grounding – physical, mental, and self-soothing. When I utilize my ability to ground, I release my past’s hold on me and place myself one hundred percent in the present moment.
The easiest way for me to ground physically is to focus on my breath. Breathing deeply helps me tune into how my body is feeling. It helps me calm my racing mind and my rapidly beating heart. It is often the quickest way to bring myself back to the present moment.
Sometimes, simply breathing deeply doesn’t work. I might also physically touch things in my environment to help ground me in the here and now. Sometimes I will do stretching exercises to ground myself physically in my body. Other times I might contract and release my muscles. Perhaps I’ll focus on the chair in which I am sitting or the feeling of the floor beneath my feet. I might go outside and feel the warmth of the sun and the breeze upon my skin. I might eat an apple and focus on the crunch as I bite into it, and whether it tastes sweet or sour.
When I ground mentally, I usually focus my attention on my senses. I look around my environment. I name objects. I name colors. I tune in to the sounds around me. Perhaps I’ll pick a leaf off my sage plant, rub it between my palms, and inhale its aroma. Sometimes, I might list things beginning with “A” and ending with “Z”. Other times, simply counting to ten can be enough to bring me back to the present moment.
When I ground using self-soothing techniques, I might envision myself walking down a wooded path, or walking along a deserted beach. I might envision myself surrounded by friends and family. I will speak gently to myself, reaffirming my inner strength and self-worth. I might recite a personal mantra, a favorite quote or poem until I feel calm. If I am home, I might light candles and incense, play soothing music, pet my cat Zeke, or take a warm shower.
When I need to ground, I might use only one of these techniques, or several, depending on what works for me at the time. Sometimes, because Penelope’s knee-jerk reactions catch me off-guard and happen so quickly, I’m not always able to call upon my grounding tools.
But when I, as the adult, can take charge, I am able to use these grounding techniques until Penelope feels calm and safe. Once I am in a good place mentally and emotionally, I am then able to address the situation at hand from a place of personal power.