Is there a relationship that frequently triggers you? That feels like it jerks and yanks you around? A relationship with someone who really pushes your buttons? Throws you? Gets under your skin, waking you up in the middle of the night even though that other person might not even be there—they’re just living rent free in your head? According to a Tibetan expression, that person has you by your nose ring. As if you are an oxen and they can pull you around by the ring in your nose. And furthermore, as the Tibetan expression “don’t hand just anyone your nose ring” indicates, you’re the one who gave it to them. You’re the one who handed over this control.
The way you know someone has your nose ring is that you are still obsessing on a comment they made many hours (or even days) ago. Or you’ve read and re-read a text they sent you, wondering if that hidden jab is really embedded in their words or if you’re making up a negative meaning. Whenever you get together with this person, more often than not, you tend to leave agitated, preoccupied. You might even feel the need to contact other people afterwards to go over the exchange because it has left you so unsettled. That person has your nose ring. They have your nose ring because what they say and do, or don’t say and don’t do, determines your state of being. Your wellbeing rests in their unwitting hands.
The bad news: we don’t tend to hand over our nose rings to people who guide us around with gentle care. The ones to whom we give over our nose rings tend to be the yankers. The erratic jerkers. The power trippers.`
The good news: we handed it over, so we can take it back.
There are plenty of people in our midst who don’t possess our nose ring—and for that fact we have to say some version of: Hallelujah! Plenty of people in our lives might say or do the very kinds of things our nose ring holder might say or do, but we don’t get tweaked. We can say, oh well, that was kind of obnoxious (rude, insensitive, haughty, cold ________), but we don’t lose any precious sleep or life force over it because with that person, we are free.
Something fascinating and instructive can happen if by chance that very person who doesn’t trigger you does happen to trigger someone else you know. You get to witness what it looks like from the outside for someone to have handed over one’s nose-ring to another. You get to watch someone get dramatically reactive to comments or actions that don’t happen to trigger you one single bit. This can be extremely helpful: you can use this witnessing, these observations, to realize not only how badly you don’t want to be like that, but how badly you do want to retain possession of your own nose ring. You can realize the reactivity is elective. They’re reacting, you’re not—so there must be some degree of subjectivity, therefore choice.
Why do we hand over our nose rings to other people, especially people who jerk us around? The answer is long and complicated, but the short reductive version is: something about them reminds us unconsciously of an authority figure from our youth, and we regress back to child-mind, when we didn’t have the agency we now possess as adults, when we felt our very survival depended on getting a certain authority figure’s approval or avoiding that authority figure’s unfair behavior. And our child-mind (now, in our adulthood) locks into tracking this person, parsing their comments, trying to figure out if we are safe. We want this other person to change, feel our very survival depends on their noticing us in a positive way, giving us approval, treating us kindly. Getting hooked in like this, with its red hot survival energy, takes a lot of energy, and is exhausting. It is much, much less taxing to take our nose ring back and take responsibility for our own wellbeing and let that person be who and how they are.
To get there requires getting out of the threat response, and realizing your wellbeing does not in fact have anything to do with their behavior. To get there requires a form of intentional growing up, accelerating ourselves out of child-mind and back into our adult resources. For some people, imagining an actual nose ring and taking back control of it helps. Visualizing having full access to your own life force and cultivating the feeling in your body of psychological and emotional freedom from the dynamic is another thing you can do. And, as always, practicing compassion for the other person, and for yourself, works wonders—infusing your heart with much needed fresh air. If possible, you might need to take some space from the other person, so you can re-group, limiting your interactions in order to lower your exposure to the triggering behavior. But if that’s not possible (because maybe you are married to them, or they are one of your children, or you work side by side every day), you get to take on the work in an intensive full-immersion context. And when you finally reach internal freedom, you can give yourself an imaginary black belt for evolving as a human.
The freedom lies in letting that person be who and how they are, and realizing that your wellbeing does not depend on how they behave. And when you get there, you will feel in your very own hands the empowering possession of something you once gave away: your nose ring.