What triggers you and why?
We all have those moments when all of a sudden one statement directed toward us sends us into an emotional tailspin. It may be a single word our partner uses to describe us that makes our blood boil. It may be an offhand, teasing remark from a friend that ignites a deep feeling of hurt. It may be a comment from our boss that floods us with embarrassment and self-doubt. Have you ever wondered why certain interactions or exchanges impact us more than others?
The key to understanding our triggers is to look deeper than the words or circumstances themselves and ask, “What do these things make me feel?” In her book Hold Me Tight, emotionally focused therapist Dr. Sue Johnson poses a list of descriptive words that describe the deeper emotions being stirred in us when we feel triggered. People who complete this exercise find certain feeling words resonate with them far more than others. This helps them identify the deep, often primal feelings that are underlying their oversized reactions.
For instance, one person who did this exercise found himself identifying with the words “unwanted-dismissed.” He noticed whenever his spouse disagreed with his opinion without considering it, even about small things, he felt instantly that he wasn’t being heard or valued. This often sparked a big reaction in him, where he felt deep hurt and anger. His emotions would quickly escalate with him raising his voice and repeating himself. He felt a desperate need to be accepted and understood. His spouse had trouble making sense of his reaction, and this usually led to conflict between them. She felt attacked for no reason and would lash back.
Another person picked out the word “overwhelmed.” Any time her kids would come to her feeling upset, she would instantly feel overpowered and have a hard time calming down and responding. Instead, she’d often shoo them away or ask her partner to step in. In moments of stress, she found it very hard for her to regulate her own emotional response enough to address her kids’ emotional needs.
Many people have trouble making sense of their reactions, and therefore, feel like a slave to them. As soon as they feel thrown into an old, familiar emotional response, their defense systems activate. They no longer respond to what’s happening but to a whole set of old feelings being stirred up inside them. For example, one person I spoke to described feeling distraught any time his partner suggested a different street to take when driving somewhere. He knew intellectually that her suggestions didn’t mean she thought he was incompetent. Yet, that specific action would set off a slew of attacks in his head. “She thinks you’re an idiot. Why doesn’t she trust you?” These thoughts were usually accompanied by a feeling of humiliation and inadequacy. No matter how logical he tried to be about the situation, the emotional reaction inside him was powerful.
Where do our triggers come from?
Our intense emotional responses are heavily shaped by our past. The feelings or words that trigger us have direct connections to the ways we were seen and treated as well as attitudes to which we were exposed. Triggering events tap into early, often implicit, memories of painful experiences. For the man mentioned above, he grew up feeling constantly corrected and criticized by his parents. This gave him a deep feeling of shame and inadequacy. Thus, harmless suggestions or advice, be it from his partner, a friend, or a co-worker frequently fueled an exaggerated feeling of shame and embarrassment in him.
How can we deal with our emotional triggers?
We all have our own set of triggering feelings or words and stories that accompany them. To learn a new way of relating and reacting, it’s helpful to explore what our words are and where they may come from. Naming our emotions helps tame them, and understanding where they come from helps us feel self-compassion. By noticing the triggered emotion we experience in a given moment, we can then dig deeper to reveal a primal emotion from our past.
How can we learn to identify our triggers and calm ourselves before we overreact? We can start with the help of these three exercises.
1. Name it to tame it
In those moments when we feel overwhelmed with emotion, simply naming what we’re feeling can be helpful. Dr. Daniel Siegel recommends the exercise “name it to tame it” as a means to make sense of our feelings and find balance. The process is exactly what it sounds like: when emotions arise, we try to describe our internal state without having to explain or rationalize whatever we’re feeling. This process promotes integration by strengthening our brain’s language capabilities and connecting them to the spontaneous and raw emotions in other parts of the brain. This neurological process helps us calm down and feel more balanced.
When describing our internal state, it’s helpful to remember an acronym developed by Siegel known as “SIFT.” SIFTing the mind involves taking time to sit with the emotion and try to identify any sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts we’re experiencing. In those intense instances when we’re triggered, we can pause to ask ourselves one by one what sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts are arising. This straightforward exercise can offer a surprising amount of insight into any underlying stressors. For example, there may be an image from our childhood, a phrase, a sensation, or a feeling that arises that helps us connect our current day reactions to difficult experiences from our past. This process helps us understand ourselves and develop insight.
Psychologist Jack Kornfield has recommended an ancient Buddhist practice, The RAIN Approach, as an empowering tool to help us feel centered and resolve any unresolved traumas or triggers with which we’re struggling. The steps of RAIN are:
Recognize the trauma or loss.
Acknowledge/Allow/Accept that it occurred and may not be resolved.
Investigate the nature of the experience in your past and present life.
Non-identification – Resist over-identifying with what happened or allowing it to define you.
These mindful practices all work together to help us make sense of what’s going on inside us. They may bring up insights into impactful events from our past. Yet, they also work to orient us in the present by helping us calm down and meet our current emotional state with curiosity and compassion. This awareness makes it easier for us to separate our triggered reactions from whatever is going on in the moment. We then have the space to make choices about how we want to act as opposed to falling victim to our immediate emotions. In this way, becoming aware of our triggers is an empowering effort, one that benefits us as well as our relationships with others.