I rode my bike down a freeway on-ramp the other day. I expected a symmetrical interchange with a bridge across the freeway, and was halfway down the ramp before I saw it was freeway-only.
Fortunately, it was a sunny afternoon and traffic was light. I cautiously crossed the on-ramp to the paired off-ramp, waited for the big truck to zoom by, and biked back out of there.
I had noticed the street did not look bike-friendly as I turned onto it, and considered detouring to an easier route, but I thought I could tough it out and it would get easier later.
The incident stayed with me as a metaphor for subtle triggering. Sometimes we believe we are safely out of reach of emergency mode, when we are already heading toward it. Our internal landscape can have surprisingly long on-ramps, with few opportunities to turn aside to an easier route.
One metaphorical on-ramp is the need to appear “normal” in stressful circumstances. “Everyone else” can handle a crowded grocery store, so we pretend everything is fine and keep shopping, which leads to feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, and panicky. An easier road might be to leave and come back later when it is less crowded.
Another metaphorical on-ramp is the need to be perfect. Any small mistake fuels a spiral of shame and despair. An easier road might be compassionate awareness that we all make mistakes, fix them as best we can, and continue on our way.
No easy solution
Sometimes it is not so simple to find an easier road. We may know that everyone makes mistakes, and at the same time a voice out of the past or the present says that mistakes are a threat to survival. In a double bind where any choice leads to punishment (or panic), a demand to find an easier road only leads to more stress. In this case, easier might mean acknowledging a dilemma and easing the pressure to find a solution. “I don’t know what to do about this right now.”
Permission for ease
We might have a voice out of the past or the present that says “easier” is lazy or bad. We hear, “Life is hard for everyone. Relationships are hard. Anything worth having is worth working for.” While everyone encounters difficulties in life, there is a difference between putting in a lot of effort, and enduring excruciating pain.
Survivors of traumatic childhoods often take a high level of pain and effort for granted, and assume that life could be even harder than that. The first step toward an easier road might be permission to make choices that lessen pain.
We may believe that our worth is measured by how much we can achieve, and we need to work as hard as possible all the time, regardless of the cost, to deserve approval. In truth, we all deserve approval, whether we achieve everything or nothing or something in between, whether we are relaxing or struggling. One way to find an easier road might be to examine our standards for self-approval and change them over time.
Between easiest and hardest
What is easier for one person can harder for another. We tend to think that what is hard for us is easy for everyone else, and what is easy for us is also easy for everyone else, even if we worked for years to gain that skill. We can allow ourselves to turn toward what is easy for us, both our talents and our hard-won skills.
As we choose easier roads, we do not want to fall in with our culture’s defaults, to reward and defer to people who are already in power, and ignore or oppress people who are already marginalized. Turning toward an easier road does not mean taking the easiest road. It does not mean ignoring values, ethics, and harm to others or ourselves. We can meander on our way between easiest and hardest, making choices in the moment that balance our inner and outer resources with the results we want to achieve.
On your inner roadmap, are you familiar with some long on-ramps to being triggered? Hours, days, or months after missing a crucial turning point, you might recognize the triggering events. Long on-ramps can be part of frustrating recurring patterns.
Take some time to sit with the possibility of more ease in a troubling situation. How does the contemplation of more ease feel in your body? Do any dissenting voices arise? Say hello to anything and everything you experience.
After a generous amount of time with the possibility of ease, gently sense into what shape easier might take. It might be something you have known all along, or a bit of advice that comes floating back to you, or an entirely new idea. It might be an action, or a non-action, or a shift in how you view the situation or yourself. What if you have nothing to prove? What if you are already doing the right thing? What if, despite any and all evidence to the contrary, you are already okay?
Mark the trail
Sometimes we only find out what is easier after doing something the hard way, and the best we can do is mark the trail for the future. Several friends tell me they have inadvertently taken that same freeway on-ramp, both by bike and by car. I sent an email to the Traffic Safety department suggesting “Freeway Only” signs at that intersection, to make it easier for all of us.
As we map out our changing inner landscapes, we can sometimes choose an easier road based on past experience. Most of the time, we can only choose the road that appears easier to our current perceptions. Above all, we can be gentle with ourselves no matter how our choices turn out.
Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper compassionately describes trauma-aware yoga, including choices to make poses easier and permission to stop doing anything that causes pain.