For Andy, it’s about his partner wagging her finger in his face. For Sara, it’s about the way Matt chews his food. For Jake, it’s about Mindy’s “whatever” attitude when he brings up something that is bothering him. For Kara, it’s those towels left on the bathroom floor. For Jacquin, it’s his daughter rolling her eyes.
The list can go on and on.
Emotional triggers, those behaviors, tone of voice, subtle or explicit things the other guy does that pushes your buttons, that makes you go 0-60 in nanoseconds, that causes you to explode or shut down. We all have them, that something that drives us crazy. While we can usually tone down our reactions at work, with someone we aren’t close to, with friends and especially partners, it's another story. We have a harder time reining ourselves in, and nine times out of 10, the setting off of our triggers invariably sets off the other guy's, quickly creating an ugly downward spiral.
Anatomy of Emotional Triggers
The fact that we are so sensitive to these button-pushers, and consistently so, is a good clue that the source isn't about right now but about back then—old emotional wounds from the past. The wagging finger reminds Andy of his mother’s scolding; the loud chewing reminds Sara of her father who she always felt embarrassed about; the whatever-attitude that bothers Jake mimics the default mode of his ex. Old wounds get reinjured, causing the flare-up.
That's Part 1. But while it’s the behaviors or the tone that trigger those triggers, what adds the emotional fuel is Part 2—what that behavior means. Andy feels like a child, Sara feels disrespected, Jake feels ignored, Kara feels unappreciated, Jacquin feels dismissed. Behaviors are seen through the negative lens of the past wound that is hot-wired in your brain and creates that automatic reaction.
The problem: These triggers intensify any normal conversation—it goes off course, the emotions all too easily ignite a big fight especially when it sets off the other person. The argument quickly no longer becomes about the original topic but about who just did what to whom.
Breaking the Cycle
Time to rein in those triggers. How to do it:
Talk about each other’s triggers and the underlying reactions. Maybe this isn’t Date 1 or 5 material, but you want to make this a front-end rather than the never-end conversation of any developing relationship. Talk about them as part of your “pet peeve” conversation. You want to know what each is particularly sensitive to and why. The intention isn’t one of giving each other “fair warning” about what not to do or else, but more about being open and honest with each other about your vulnerabilities.
And once you move on to living together or get married, you'll undoubtedly discover new ones: that those towels on the floor really turn out to be a big deal; ditto for chewing or eye-rolling. That said, as these emerge, as you realize that they are not one or two time events but some habits that can drive you crazy, step up and let the other guy know what really bothers you. If you bite your tongue and try to sweep it under the rug, it will only back up on you.
Cut a deal. So once you both get these triggers out in the open, you want to cut a deal: I got it—I’ll try not to push your buttons, you try not to push mine. It's important that this conversation is balanced with both sides having a voice. The negotiating serves two purposes: The first is obvious—let’s do our best to avoid triggering each other and constantly setting off WWIII.
But the second reason is actually more important: Rather than constantly re-wounding each other, agreeing instead to help each other heal those old wounds. The opportunity to heal here comes from you both doing now what you weren't able to do as a child—letting someone important to you understand how you feel, saying what bothers you, and having the experience of their listening and responding in a positive way. This becomes that "corrective-emotional experience" that helps you step out of the child's mindset and is empowering. And by continuing to this, by not re-wounding each other, over time those old wounds, like physical wounds, have a chance to heal and fade—you become less sensitive to them. Your past is healed because it is replaced by a new present.
Heal thyself. But it's not about the other guy doing the heavy lifting. You also want to step up and actively work to heal these old wounds on your own. There are two ways to do this: The first is about getting closure. Here you write a letter, that you're not going to mail, to that parent or ex-partner—whoever you see as the source. You write this in old-school longhand on paper to avoid the performance pressure of the blank computer screen. You do free-association: Say what you would say if you had a half-hour to meet with this person one time again. The important part is to get things off your chest about how you felt, what bothered you most.
Next, write back to yourself what ideally you would want to hear the other say if they got your letter: that they are sorry, that they didn’t realize how you felt, that they take responsibility for not being more sensitive. Write it down, see what comes out. This is about helping you separate the past from the present.
Next, you want to work on the present, this is about rewiring your brain. Here you need to learn to catch yourself when you get triggered. Rather than going 0-60 when you see those towels on the floor or the chewing or eye-roll, you work hard to stop that auto-response, work on calming yourself by taking a few deep breaths ... and more breaths. Next talk yourself off the ledge by doing that voice-over in your head: This is about the past, this is not about now; this is not a big deal; he/she is not my parents; they're not out to get me.
Say to yourself whatever you need to say to get out of your emotional brain and back into your reality-based, rational brain. Will you automatically feel serene and chilled? Not the first 200 times you do it, but eventually, you will. You will replace those old brain circuits with new ones. It will get easier.
Triggers: We've all got them, and they can be a bear to shake, but you can heal those wounds, put the past to rest, and rewire that brain.
Ready to start?