I remember watching the old movie Swiss Family Robinson from the 1960s and loved it. It’s a great family movie, but I haven’t thought of it in years. Today, an odd memory from it came to me. If you don’t know the basic story, the family was migrating to a new world in the 1800s and their ship was wrecked. They were left on board and the crew abandoned both them and the ship. There was a part in it where pirates appeared to be sailing towards the damaged ship on the island, and the family, alone and unprotected, saw them coming and were terrified. As fear mounted, the pirate ship suddenly turned around and left. The father had sent up a flag on the ruined ship’s mast. He explains to the family that the flag meant a terrible disease was on board and it warned everyone to stay away.
Feelings are like that flag. They are signals. They give us signals when things change. They warn us when there is danger, and they lift us with joy. And, like that flag on the broken ship, they sometimes lie to us.
There was no disease, but the pirates believed that there was.
Sometimes we have situations from our past that have planted signals in us. Smells, sounds, word, or even places will remind our brain of something, and it will send up a warning. The bigger the event, the more likely things will trigger the signals. It’s like muscle memory. Trauma is instant muscle memory training.
I know a woman who, as a teen, was in a car accident, and years later, left turns under certain
circumstances can feel as dangerous as that moment the other vehicle hit her. Flag. I know someone who was assaulted when younger and now when a certain word is spoken, it triggers a panic attack. Flag.
Is the girl in the car in danger at every left turn? No. Does that specific word truthfully tell the person that something bad is happening? No. Does that invalidate those feelings? No.
On a more every-day level, sometimes a response or phrase, an action or inaction from someone else can send up wrong signals, and we can take something personally that wasn’t meant to be personal at all. But that flag comes up telling us something is bad, and we react.
Your brain wants to protect you and will signal when something doesn’t seem right. And not all these signals are inaccurate. There are many situations where “trusting your gut” saves us from bad or dangerous situations.
But this does mean that we need to take a moment and evaluate our emotions. If our emotions lie to us, by that I mean are inaccurate to the facts of the situation, and we trust and act on them anyway, we can add to our trauma, add to a conflict. We can also miss the good because fear flies high unnecessarily.
If possible, when a flag goes up, take a sip of water or take a deep breath before you respond. It gives you time to actually respond instead of react. It only takes a couple of seconds for the emotion to move from where it enters your brain to the logic part of your brain. Once a situation is over, it is ok to take a moment and evaluate our response to it. Was it appropriate or proportionate to the situation? If not, what would have been a better response? If you don’t know, seek help. We are meant for community, and there is no shame in improving yourself.
In Aspen’s Angels, we call those flags old tapes. They play over and over, and even though part of us knows they aren’t true, it’s deeply engrained. Sometimes we need help processing the grief so we can stop the tapes, pull down the lying flags. We want you to be living with accurate information, even from yourself. Emotions are part of us, they are tools, signals, and often good ones. We need to learn which ones we can trust and which ones we can’t. Life is much richer when we control our emotions instead of our emotions controlling us.