In speaking with someone, have you ever shouted out an impassioned and cutting retort or belted at them a churlish and icy command? Perhaps you can call to mind an intense experience with your child, neighbour, employee, or spouse. What was it that had you do that? Was it something they had said or didn’t say? Or, perhaps, your reaction was the result of something they had done or failed to do. No matter the cause, I’m going to bank on the fact that you weren’t feeling so great in the moment of your reaction. And once you calmed down and reflected on the situation, you may have noticed that your reaction didn’t land all that well with the other person or people involved. Whether your goal is to repair internal damage, heal damaged relationships, reinforce your resilience, or learn how to better lead and support others, this article offers you a framework that will inform and encourage you at a time when patience seems to be at an all time low and reactions so very automatic.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE TRIGGERED?
In short, a trigger is an intense emotional or physical reaction. This reaction is the result of information received (or perceived) by any of the five senses. The outcome is an initiation of a complex ‘call and response’ system involving the brain and body. The stress hormones released can cause your eyes to widen, your sweat to pour, and your heart to race as the body is swiftly ushered into a mode of self-preservation. Therefore, feeling triggered is a matter of engaging a hardwired fight-or-flight response that is ultimately intended to keep us alive. The tricky part is that the vast majority of us no longer come face to face with ferocious animals in the wild and rarely are we forced to make split-second decisions that directly implicate our survival. So what, then, becomes of this stress response? How does this enduring and fundamental part of our design manifest most commonly?
Allow me to set a scene for you:
The sun was shining, the birds were singing and Carolyn couldn’t help but smile because today was her big day. She was going to command the attention at her staff meeting. She was going to turn up the volume on her usually muted voice. She was going to share a well prepared contribution that was sure to bolster her chances of getting that long overdue promotion. There was no doubt in her mind, she was going to shine! She sipped her water, she cleared her throat, and she began to speak with cool, calm, confidence. Everything was going well until, suddenly, she heard her voice being trampled by a deeper, more assertive one. Damien was stealing her thunder, again! And as he spoke, she could do nothing but helplessly listen as he rephrased her words and passed them off as his own. She sank down into her chair and painfully withstood the lively round of applause that was stolen from her. Seated across the table, is her colleague, Jim. He hadn’t clapped as enthusiastically as the rest. Weighing heavily on his mind, since morning, is the disgruntled driver who had aggressively overtaken his vehicle and viciously hurled a racial slur at him. The powerlessness he felt at the time of the incident is something he’s been carrying around all day. The nasty and violent word that assaulted him replays over and over again in his mind and he is unable to shake a horrible feeling of worthlessness. He fears he may never recover from the trauma that was inflicted upon him.
Whew! Did you feel that? Those were some intense situations, weren’t they? Granted, the above two scenarios are different. So seemingly different, in fact, that some might even say they don’t belong in the same paragraph, let alone article! Actually, if that intro was a song, the second scenario, featuring Jim, would be the part where the DJ abruptly scratches the record and forces the party-goers to stew in a crippling silence, before dropping the next beat. If it is your belief that the two scenarios are nothing alike, think for a second about all of the individuals who sit around your boardroom (or dinner) table. Imagine the experiences that each of them have gone through in their decades of living; all such experiences adding up to this very moment. So assuming that we’re on a dance floor right now and the DJ just scratched the record, I ask that we use this eerie moment of silence to our advantage by exploring what the two scenarios have in common.
WHAT DOES "TRIGGERED" LOOK AND FEEL LIKE?
Let’s look to our examples of Carolyn and Jim for further insight. In both cases, palms, undoubtedly, pooled with sweat, chests squeezed tight, and guts suffered powerful blows. It is in our nature to be led by feeling. Typically, the heart will lead and, then, the ever prudent mind will follow. Carolyn and Jim may not have had words for how they were feeling, we don’t often stop to name our feelings—we react! Regardless of precise descriptions of emotions, both individuals had been TRIGGERED! That means that their brains received information that they perceived as threatening, conjuring a cocktail of stress hormones, and their bodies reacted accordingly. Even so, these are two very different experiences; should they be analyzed in the same way? Well, because we are unique, our triggers are relative to the scope of our minds and the lenses through which we view the world. No two experiences will be exactly the same. It is nurture (by way of one’s environment, upbringing, experiences and education) that dictates what will constitute as a trigger. It’s for that reason the experiences of Carolyn and Jim can be assessed in the same way. And if they can be assessed in the same way, it means that the approach toward understanding, healing and resolving will also be the same. This is where you and your triggers come in. First, let’s begin to unpack a few common and problematic responses to feeling triggered.
Maladaptive Defense Mechanisms:
- Blaming others
To offer blame is to avoid accountability for one’s emotions and reactions.
The aim may be to restore justice but inflicting harm upon others will not accomplish that goal nor will it fulfill your true needs (more on true needs below). And what might the other person do next?
- Oversharing your misery
Oversharing can enhance and spread damage and create harm for others. Carefully gauge your audience before sharing and be sure to use the appropriate fact-based language when retelling your experience (more on this below).
- Shutting out or engaging in ‘cancel culture’
This tactic may seem to work well when the individual whose behaviour was triggering, is far removed (a celebrity for example) but how does this approach work when the individual is close to you? Say, for instance, a relative or a colleague?
Let’s take a quick moment here to check back in with our friends, Carolyn and Jim, for a deeper understanding of these maladaptive defense mechanisms. You may be asking, who else could possibly hold blame but the colleague who spoke over Carolyn and the driver who shouted a racial slur at Jim? In turn, I ask you, what does passing blame or casting judgment accomplish? My aim is to help you to understand that because we cannot control the actions of others the best thing we can do is learn how to control our reactions to their behaviour, regain our own internal peace and create the clarity needed to do something productive. The following portion of this blog will offer you simple practices on how to dissolve triggers and repair the internal damage after having experience a trigger.
6 STEPS TO DISSOLVING TRIGGERS AND ACHIEVING PEACE
1) Describe What Happened:
- Allow yourself the opportunity to review what happened by describing your experience in three sentences or less. What emotions are coming to you?
2) Reframe Your Thinking:
- Review it again, only this time make the conscious decision to present only the facts and not your interpretation of what happened. Your lens and language must be adjusted. In regards to what triggered you, ask yourself, “What did I see and hear exactly?” (Practice: Revisit the opening scene featuring Carolyn and Jim and take note of the emotionally charged language that is based on interpretations rather than facts).
- Refuse to see your fellow human as an enemy. Remember that it is impossible to know the intentions of others and we are all products of our conditioning.
3) Analyze Your Emotions:
- Emotions are Energy in Motion. What emotions are stirring in you right now?
- Take time to define true feelings from faux feelings (I.e. “I feel like you’re trying to hurt me,” is NOT a feeling, it’s a thought).
- An emotion is usually described with a single word: happy, sad, hurt, frustrated, excited, etc. (think emojis :)
4) Identify What’s At The Root Of Your Reaction:
- Clarify WHY this trigger exists. Each trigger is related to an important need or value (Ex. acceptance, love, respect, safety, trust, support, community, etc.). Ask yourself, then, “What important value is at the root of these emotions?” OR “If that had not happened, or happened differently, what need would have been met for me?”
5) Turn the Trigger into Positive Movement:
- You are not powerless. Ask yourself, “What am I willing to do to meet my need(s) I listed above?”
- If you’ve been offended by someone’s speech, you may find that the root of the trigger is lack of inclusion. Therefore, turn the trigger into positive movement by seeking the comfort, belonging and affirmation you need from someone you care about and trust.
- Turn complaints into a request that will meet your needs. If it is possible, can you ask the person whom you feel wronged by to help you in meeting your needs? Is there a way for you to come into better connection with that person? It is important that you no longer see them as an enemy because the very act of being open with this person can fulfill important needs like understanding, communication, compassion, growth and connection.
How do you feel after processing this blog on how to better understand and dissolve triggers? You may recognize there is work to be done. This is a daily ritual, not a one-time thing. De-conditioning is a challenge for all of us, and this deep work is where we, The Leadership Group, love to play! Allow us to do what we do best by helping you to achieve a happier, more peaceful and productive life. This brings us to our final step:
6) Reach out to us for support and more information regarding our upcoming Conscious Leadership Experience
To the journey!