How to Spot Your Emotional Triggers
Learning your emotional red flags is a way to boost your emotional intelligence.
Posted October 31, 2018 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Have you noticed how certain topics evoke in you a variety of emotions? Mainly unpleasant ones. Some might make you angry or envious. Guilty or sad. Or, unlike your friends or close ones, it truly bothers you when people ask you about certain personal issues. For some, it's questions or conversations about money; for others, it's romantic relationships; for others, reading or receiving engagement news; and so on.
In Brené Brown's latest book, Dare to Lead, she mentions, "wherever perfectionism is driving us, shame is riding shotgun." And many of these emotional triggers stem from perfectionism. We feel ashamed to admit that we're angry because we see a co-worker get a promotion. Or when we see that our best friend is on her second pregnancy, and we might still be struggling with fertility.
Whatever the "theme" or "topic" that fosters these unpleasant feelings in you, it's important to put shame aside. As Brené Brown motivates us to do, embrace vulnerability and truly ask ourselves: "What is it about this person's experiences or opportunities that makes me so angry?" If we allow ourselves to ask this question, we can begin to spot our emotional triggers.
What is an emotional trigger?
An emotional trigger is any topic that makes us feel uncomfortable. These emotional triggers are telling us which aspects in our life we might feel frustrated or unsatisfied with. As mentioned above, it can vary in each person because we are all struggling with something different.
When we can identify what bothers us, we can take action to protect our mental health. Even though we can't avoid all of the situations that may emotionally trigger us, we can take actionable steps to take care of ourselves and develop a strong inner voice to help navigate us through these uncomfortable situations.
When we know our emotional triggers, we can choose to not expose ourselves to situations that harm our mental health, or to digital content that can generate unpleasant emotions. The idea is not to run away from these situations and create a bubble that separates you from the outer world, however. Being aware simply helps us know our limitations and avoid — as much as possible – exposing ourselves to those situations that hurt us and negatively affect our mental health and self-esteem.
How do I know what my emotional triggers are?
It may look different for each person, but here are a series of questions that can help you discover what your emotional triggers are:
- A close friend or relative shares some exciting news about themselves. You're happy for them but can't help feeling envious.
What's the news about? Is it a job promotion? A new car? Is she getting married? Does he have a new relationship? Are they expecting a child?
- Have you noticed there's someone you follow on social media to whom you constantly compare yourself?
What's the thing that bothers you the most about their posts? How do you handle it?
- Have you noticed there is a topic of conversation that triggers you when hanging out with friends and/or family?
"Yes, when they talk about _________."
Answering these questions can bring you closer to spotting your emotional triggers.
What can you do?
First of all, we need to be clear that there are some situations/people/conversations that we can consciously limit our exposure to, while others are completely out of our control.
The important thing about spotting and identifying your emotional triggers is that it can alert us about our own mental health and help us become more aware. When we are more aware, we can begin to take responsibility for the way we manage our emotions, as opposed to letting them control us. When we can't manage or process our emotions appropriately, we end up simply reacting to others.
It's extremely difficult when someone opens a conversation that's linked to an emotional trigger. It's difficult for us to distance ourselves from our emotions and think clearly. But we must keep two things in mind:
- The other person's intention. The friend or relative who is hitting that emotional scar might be blissfully unaware of the pain you're experiencing. And while you might not feel comfortable enough to talk about this with them (yet), it's important to keep a fresh perspective about the other person's intention. When it's someone who truly loves us and cares about us, their comments are rarely ill-intentioned. So, it's important to be patient with them as well, and slowly yet assertively communicate our boundaries with them.
- Our own pain. It's important to understand that whatever we are feeling, wherever we are hurting is caused by a reality in our lives. We mustn't run away from these feelings, but steer away from the shame and completely own them. You are allowed to feel all the feels and take as much time as you need, but you are also responsible for learning new ways to manage these emotions. (Psychotherapy is a wonderful space to learn how to do this.)
Just like we don't know what type of troubles or issues other people may be going through, others might be completely unaware of our own struggles. So, let's have patience with these people who we know care about us and are generally our support system — they are doing the best job they can do. And if you feel they could be doing a better job, tell them in a loving and vulnerable way.
Let's take advantage of our support system, learn to trust and rely on them. Let's share the load of our emotional triggers.