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Emotional Triggers

"So, what are we having for dinner?"

"When you're done studying, what will you, like, be?"

"Have you heard the latest news from the US?"

"Sorry but I won't make it, I'm just too busy at the moment, but have fun without me!"

"That's a good start, let me make some suggestions for improvements"

If you winced while reading these sentences, trust me, I had my jaw clenched while writing them. These are just some examples of what people consider to be emotional triggers which cause an intense negative reaction that is disproportionate to the stimulus. · You can think of a trigger as the finger that knocks over the first in a line of dominos, setting in motion a chain reaction of emotional implosions that you can't seem to be able to control. · Triggers might include reminders of unwanted memories, uncomfortable topics, another person’s words or actions, even your own behaviors. Personally, I find that these triggers have gained explosiveness in lockdown.

What makes these triggers so disruptive is actually not the trigger itself, but your autopilot reaction to it. Without even thinking about it, you might react with sarcasm, or retaliate with a hurtful comment, or shut down internally, go into brooding or sulking mode, or have a screaming fit (internally or actually screaming). Your jaw becomes clenched, your palms sweaty, you might feel dizzy or shaky, and often you might decide to avoid that person, or situation, that is the alleged trigger, in future. That doesn't really work though - if you've been on this earth for a bit you'll know that you can't avoid all the unpleasentness. Having to constantly navigate an emotional minefield also drains the energy you need to do the things you actually enjoy.

Interestingly, in theatre, finding out their character's emotional triggers is extremely useful information for an actor. By looking at what knocks over the emotional dominos for their character, the actor gets to know their role and perhaps finds parallels to their own experiences. What if we adopted the same approach to our own, personal triggers? I want to suggest that, like an actor getting to know their role, we see our triggers as opportunities for character development, rather than as signals to shut down. But before we do that, we need to treat the problem at its root.


The Deep Fear

One of my major triggers is having my work criticised - no matter whether my critic has a point or not. Showing my work to someone in the first place makes me feel vulnerable, as if I'm stepping into the ring to fight against a guy twice my size and weight. Can you see how I'm already setting up the conversation as a conflict before it's even begun? That's because I am (and maybe are too) deeply afraid of being rejected, judged inadequate, or ridiculed. I have literally programmed my brain to go into that conversation actively looking for signs that the other person is rejecting, judging, or ridiculing me.

Science backs up my impression that our triggers are all rooted in some kind of fear - the fear of loneliness, of vulnerability, of being seen for who you truly are, of failure, of the past, or of the future.


The Opportunity

This means that our triggers are great sources of information, because they point us towards the areas of our life's house need repair: the walls, the foundation, or perhaps the windows. If we take the time to make these repairs, we'll feel safer, more stable, and the view will improve!

Healthy Boundaries - Your Walls

Oftentimes, people or events can only trigger us because we don't have clear and firm boundaries in place. Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting you move into an emotional bunker and cut off everyone who has ever triggered you. What I do suggest is that you take very good care of the limited supply of energy you have each day and decide mindfully where to invest it. I suggest you create boundaries around those areas of your life most important to you, and commuicate these boundaries to those affected in a kind and compassionate way. Setting boundaries in this way creates more space and ease of mind for everyone involved.

Values - Your Foundation

What are your priorities in life? And whose opinion is really relevant to you? In particular those people prone to perfectionism and people-pleasing (I've got my hand raised here) tend to take everyone's opinions to heart. Truth is, and I'm sure you know this if you've ever experienced a big family christmas party, you can't please everyone. Perhaps you have adopted values that other people have chosen for you, like good grades, going to university, looking a certain way, raising a family, which you don't actually subscribe to. Or you are in denial about what Brené Brown calls "the gap between your aspirational values and your practiced values" - for example disrespectfulness, teasing, and lack of gratitude don't match the aspirational values of respect and gratitude. I have found two great rules to go by when it comes to values:

  1. How to find yours: It's about qualitiy, not quantity of action. Look at those situations where you continuously give your very best, no matte the headwind. What were you doing? Who were you with? How were you feeling? These situations are likely to reveal your values.

  2. How to practice them: Give what you want to get. Respect other people's boundaries, and you'll find they will respect yours.

Attitude - Your Windows

The third powerful tool to defuse triggers is cultivating a beginner's mind. As I explained in a recent Instagram post, the beginner's mindset means that instead of allowing your autopilot to sort new impressions and experiences into boxes laden with prejudice, you approach life with openness and curiosity. My advice here is to put yourself into situations where you are the least knowledgeable person in the (zoom-)room, and ask any questions you can think of. Learn, and don't ever assume you are done. Bring that same attention that you have when you learn something for the first time to your habitual and familiar practices. As Ryan Holiday puts it: "Assuming you could do something so well that you can only give it 50% of your attention is pure arrogance."


On The Frontline

The adjustments and repairs suggested above will take time and dedication to implement, but there are techniques you can use immediately and on site to defuse your triggers.

  1. Notice and Witness. Noticing your trigger as such is already a big step! Ideally, watch yourself for about a week and write down all the triggers and your reactions from that week. There's no need to be judgmental or self-critical here - we all have triggers and like all habits, they don't go easy.

  2. Change the Story. Here's a little exercise for you:


Imagine you are an actor preparing for a role.

Your looking at the trigger situation as a scene in the play, and you (the actor) are watching yourself (the character).


Try to summarize the action of the scene in one short sentence such as “my character felt betrayed and hurt because someone they respect criticized their work,” or “Someone tried to talk to my character about his/her future so my character left the room immediately.” Then, take it even further and shorten your summary to a dramatic title: “Escaping the future” or “Betrayal.”


Give the scene a realistic happy ending: One where you can control the fear spurred by the trigger so that noone's feelings get hurt. How could your character behave differently in order to give the scene a positive trajectory ? Stick to changing only your character’s behavior because you can’t and shouldn’t expect other people to know about your trigger and change their behaviour.


Next time you find yourself in that same situation, try to reenact the positive ending you came up with.

One last note here before I leave you to work on your triggers: · It may seem like you get triggered by certain people on repeat, but it is crucial that you do not fall into the trap of blaming others for your triggers. As Training Camp for the Soul put it in a recent post: People don’t trigger you, they trigger your trigger. Don’t shoot the messenger bringing youn the information. · At the same time, it’s vital that you don’t assume your trigger to be your whole personality – you are not your trigger, but you are moved by your trigger.

As always, thank you for reading and allowing me to be of service,

Elisabeth xx

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