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The Trigger Trail

Remember the time you lashed out at your partner for something they did or didn’t do? How about the frustration you felt toward a friend while listening to them speak of their afflictions – again? Or the severe impatience you experienced over the pace of traffic or the line at the grocery store? Or when you felt judged by a comment someone made to you?

These are your triggers.

Triggers are anything that gets an emotional response from you.  An emotional response can come in the form of anger, frustration, irritation, judgment, or just a strong rush of adrenaline igniting our fight response. Triggers have a direct line to your central nervous system, so we can usually feel them as soon as they occur. If we are not in-tune to our triggers they can cause us to act out. People often feel bad for having a reaction to triggers – or overreaction as we like to call it (Read more on the term, “overreact” here). They can result in embarrassment for losing control. We blame others for making us react in unfavorable ways. Sometimes, we can control our reaction so it is invisible to others, but the internal reaction is still there. No one likes to feel triggers and we certainly don’t like to react to them, but the experience of having them is as valuable as gold.

Triggers are an opportunity to get to know ourselves – to stop fooling ourselves and see the truth of who we are.  We are triggered by things because there is a part of us that identifies with the judgment or trait that triggers us. By seeing the trigger as this – a reflection of our own thoughts and ideas – we can take ownership of them and stop passing them off on others with blame.

By getting to know and then taking ownership of our triggers we are empowered with the ability to choose our response to them. In the case of my experience which I wrote about in my last posting, Humble Pie, by allowing myself to see my response as a reaction to a trigger I was given a choice: 1. to blame it on my friend and be angry with them, which would only make me feel bad and put a wedge in our relationship, or 2. explore what it was about their words that caused such an angry reaction in me.

Luckily, I chose the latter. I took a couple days and explored what it was about their words that caused such a reaction in me. I came to see that the judgment I felt from them was a judgment I had, but didn’t want to identify with. It’s sometimes an ugly truth, but it’s the truth – a truth I would not have known about had I not experienced that trigger.

The next time you find yourself having a strong reaction to something follow the process below to try and find your triggers.

1. Rant. Write down what it was about the incident/person that gave you the reaction it did.  Allow yourself to complain about the person or situation that made you feel so wronged/misunderstood, whatever the feeling, let it out.

e.g. Joe asked Laura to take out the trash and she said she did. When Joe was leaving for work the next morning he noticed the trash was not taken out. He was so enraged, when he got to work he drafted an email to her scolding her for being lazy and asking her why she always lies to him about such inconsequential things.  

2. Find the trait that bugs you most. Read the rant and search for the traits of that behavior/situation that affected you the most. You can do that by noticing what word causes the strongest emotional reaction in you.

e.g. Having recently heard about triggers, Joe re-read the email and tried to identify the trait that upset him the most. He noticed a jolt of anger rush through him as he read it saying to himself: “I hate liars! Why does she lie?” He decided to work with the trait of lying since that is what seemed to bug him the most about it.

3. Ask yourself: “In what ways do I share that trait/judgment/behavior?” Be careful not to fool yourself here, the behavior might look a little different, but the trait will be the same. If you find your first response to be something along the lines of “I would never…”, or “I’m nothing like that.” It usually means you are on the right track.

e.g. When Joe was asked this question he responded, very annoyed, that he would never lie about such a simple inconsequential thing. However, after some digging he recalled the other day when he came home late for dinner and failed to tell Laura that it was not because he was working late, but because he stopped over at a friend’s house to pick up something and ended up staying for a beer. The only reason he didn’t correct her assumption that he was stuck at work is because he knows she hates it when he is late for dinner without calling. Letting her believe it was because he was held back at work seemed easier than dealing with whatever her reaction would be to what he really did.

4. Tell yourself the truth. Notice where you fall back into blaming others, and remind yourself this process is about taking ownership of your life and finding freedom from your triggered reactions.

e.g. At first Joe was unable to see these two events as the same. He felt hers was a bold face lie and his was just omitting the truth. He rationalized it by telling himself it was her fault he didn’t feel comfortable telling her about stopping at his friends because she is such a stickler about being late for dinner that it wasn’t worth having the conversation with her. After a while Joe decided to drop his story, tell himself the truth and admit the two scenarios are, in fact, the same. They are both dishonest and he does not like to think of himself as someone who lies.

5. Be nice to yourself. Owning up to a trait within yourself that you do not care for can be hard to swallow, but remember it passes. Acknowledge your strength for being bold enough to face this.

e.g. Joe decided against sending the email and instead asked Laura that night if there was a reason she felt she couldn’t tell him she didn’t take it out. Laura opened up to Joe admitting that she went to do it but got caught up on a phone call and forgot about it by the time she was off the phone. Joe related the story from his stop over the other night and it opened up a whole conversation that left them feeling more connected to themselves and each other. As you can imagine, this would not have been the case had he sent an angry email that morning accusing her of being a lazy liar.

Allow yourself to see the bread crumbs to your truth. It’s only when we tell the truth that we will find freedom from our triggers.

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