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Do You Get Triggered and Do Things You Later Regret?

Here are tips on how to avoid ruining relationships because you took offense.

Key points

  • When people are emotionally triggered, they lose sight of how their response might affect their relationship.
  • They say and do things they later regret because they misperceive the situation as a dangerous emergency.
  • With effort and guidance, people can learn to change their response to being emotionally triggered.
  • Learning to pause and think through possible responses before acting is the single most important thing to do.
Source: Vitaly Griev/pexels

Many of my clients have had traumatic childhood experiences that left them with extremely sensitive, invisible emotional wounds. When someone accidently touches one of those wounds, they find it exquisitely painful. Their pain is proportional to all the past traumatic experiences that created the wound, not just the current incident, and so is their response. For short, psychotherapists call this whole experience getting “triggered.”

This is very common with people who have borderline or narcissistic personality disorders, but you do not have to qualify for a personality disorder diagnosis to get triggered. Most of us have our own unhealed wounds from our past and occasionally overreact when other people accidentally activate them.

I am focusing here on intimate relationships, but the same principles apply in other situations.

What happens when someone gets triggered?

My clients who get triggered describe a remarkably similar chain of events:

  1. The partner says or does something that my client finds offensive.
  2. My client gets triggered and reacts by saying or doing something nasty designed to hurt the partner and get revenge.
  3. The partner either withdraws or fights back.
  4. Sometimes my client later realizes that he or she overreacted and tries to make amends.
  5. The pattern keeps repeating until the relationship ends.

How do people who get triggered describe their experience?

Here is a typical description from one of my clients:

Everything happens very fast. Too fast! One minute we are happy, and everything is fine, and the next minute I feel as if I am under attack. It feels like an emergency.

It does not occur to me to stop to think things through. I feel in danger, and I want to hurt my partner to punish them for causing me pain. If they try to defend themself, I get furious, and the situation escalates. I get even meaner. I am prepared to fight for hours even days. I need to win.

Later, after I cool down and have time to think about it, I am a bit embarrassed by my behavior. I often say incredibly hurtful things that I don’t really mean. Afterwards, I just want to forget the whole thing and move on as if nothing happened.

The Anatomy of a Trigger

I have used my clients stories to create what I think of as the “anatomy of a trigger.” Here is the basic pattern:

  1. Your view radically narrows so that only the current moment and your response to it seem relevant—like looking through a microscope instead of a wide-angle camera.
  2. You feel a sense of extreme urgency and believe that you have to act immediately or else something terrible will happen to you.
  3. You lose sight of the big picture and do not see or understand the downside of your behavior.
  4. Your basic goals are to take control of the situation, take revenge, punish your partner, and prevent something bad that you think this person might do to you in the future.
  5. You may end up regretting how far you took things, if it negatively impacts your other goals—such as having a partner who loves you.

As a psychotherapist who specializes in the treatment of personality disorders, I have developed some methods to help my clients understand their reactions and get better control over what they do when they feel triggered.

Steps for Working with Your Triggers

When I work with my clients on their triggers, I explore the issues I have described above. Below are the type of questions and homework suggestions I use. You can adapt my therapy method to suit your own needs. I recommend that you start a therapy journal where you jot down your answers to these questions, your homework results, and any other related thoughts and insights that occur to you.

Step 1—Identify Your Triggers

  1. What exactly are you reacting to?
  2. What specifically has the other person done or said that triggered you?
  3. Have you gotten triggered by similar things with other people?
  4. How often do you get triggered by these things?

Homework: Write down everything you can think of that has the potential to trigger you. You can start with times you were triggered in the past. Then, going forward, keep track of when you get triggered and what caused it.

Goal: Encourage self-reflection and increase your awareness of what triggers you.

Step 2—Why Are You Triggered?

  1. Why does what the other person did or said feel so important?
  2. Are these triggers related to painful incidents in your past?
  3. Think about the details of these past incidents, including how old you were, the circumstances, who was there, and what made these incidents so painful.
  4. Can you see how your current sensitivities may have originated in these past traumatic incidents?

Homework: Write down the answers to the above questions and any insights that you have as you do this exercise. Going forward, when you feel triggered note exactly what the person is doing or saying and try and relate your response back to earlier painful incidents in your life that may have sensitized you to those issues.

Goal: Increase your awareness of the origins of your triggers.

Step 3—What Do You Feel When You Are Triggered?

  1. What emotions are you feeling?
  2. Why does it seem so urgent that you need to respond immediately?
  3. What are you concerned might happen if you do not act?

Homework: Answer the above question based on your memories. Then pay close attention to how you feel going forward when you are triggered. Use your journal to keep track of your feelings after every incident.

Goal: Understand the feelings you are experiencing that lead you to act in ways that you later regret.

Step 4—What Story Are You Telling Yourself?

  1. Think about this: The strength of your negative reaction when you are triggered depends on the story you tell yourself about how much danger you are in.
  2. Try and get in touch with the stories you tell yourself when you are triggered, and the assumptions embedded in those stories.

Homework: Try and discover the story you tell yourself about your partner's behavior that increases your sense of danger or betrayal and leads to you behaving so badly. Write an alternative story that also could be true which feels more calming.

Goal: Understand that your reaction is based on your assumptions, not objective truth.

Step 5--Do You Notice Your Impact on Your Relationship?

  1. Are you able to pause to think things through when you are triggered?
  2. Do you stop to weigh the possible long-term consequences of your response?
  3. Are you able to consider the impact of your response on your partner and the future of your relationship?

Homework: Practice pausing when you are triggered. During the pause, think about the likely long-term effects of whatever you plan to say or do next.

Goal: Learn to pause to evaluate the long-term pros and cons of your possible responses.


Everyone gets emotionally triggered occasionally. However, if you frequently get triggered and often regret it later, you may be motivated to do something about this situation. The good news is that with hard work and a bit of guidance, you can update your responses to be less destructive to your relationships.

More from Elinor Greenberg Ph.D.
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