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Do you know the feeling of when you’re driving in a car, listening to the radio, and suddenly you hear a song that brings up old memories of your summer love when you were a teenager?
With emotional triggers, it works in a similar way. When we experience a current situation that is similar to an original painful event, it can trigger a strong emotional reaction.
When it comes to emotional triggers there is this simple truth.
People don’t make us feel a certain way—they activate what is already in us.
This can be a hard pill to swallow for some people.
But we can either navigate through life trying to control everyone and everything in order to avoid triggers, or, if we get triggered, we can go within to see what insecurity or wound is surfacing that needs our attention.
Doing the latter is much more liberating and empowering. But it requires us to take responsibility.
The process of recognizing our triggers and automatic reactions can help us to change these patterns. When we reduce the emotional charge, we can choose the response that is coming from the present moment rather than from the past programming.
What I mean when I say that triggers activate what’s already in us is that they’re related to some wounds from the past. These wounds are often present in a form of trapped emotions.
The wound is caused by emotional distress that we didn’t have the capacity to cope with at the time it originated.
And so we may have developed different coping mechanisms to reduce the distress.
Many of these coping mechanisms may have been helpful at the time and produced relief but long term, they can become detrimental or at the very least, self-limiting. Coping mechanisms can range anywhere from perfectionism, procrastination, excessive controlling, addictions, people pleasing, amongst others.
Here are some examples of emotional wounds:
An abandonment wound can be caused by multiple factors such as physical abandonment, the feeling of being left behind, or a form of emotional neglect. At the core of emotional neglect is the feeling of being disconnected, not being seen, known, heard, or validated.
Example: your dad is always busy working and never has time to play. A child may create a meaning such as “I’m insignificant“ and later in life, this imprint causes them to attract emotionally unavailable men.
Guilt would is often present within individuals who used to be scapegoats in dysfunctional families. Or within individuals who grew up in families where guilt was used as a form of emotional manipulation.
Guilt-tripping can sound a bit like this: “Your choices are causing your mom heartaches.” You’ll regret it when I’m no longer here.” “Why can’t you be like your cousin Tom?”
When caretakers are inconsistent, children develop a sense of distrust. The world seems like a dangerous, unpredictable place. So, the child must always be on guard and in control. The individual may develop a belief such as: “If I control everything, then no one can catch me off guard and hurt me.” Or: “I don’t need anyone else. I will do it all by myself. It’s better to be alone than to risk feeling disappointment, rejection, or pain.”
How to manage emotional triggers:
I will share with you a little example about one of my emotional wounds. I used to struggle with math at school. I remember one day asking for help from my dad with my math homework assignment. He wasn’t able to help me so he suggested I ask my neighbor instead. She used to attend the same school.
As a shy, introverted girl, I refused to go. I felt like asking my neighbor would mean I was not smart enough to figure it on my own (yes, my pride got in a way). He got annoyed with me and told me that I was stubborn and stupid. Not knowing how to solve certain math problems or saying no would normally not be a big deal. However, the feeling of humiliation and my interpretation of the whole experience left an energetic imprint. From that moment, I decided to never again ask for help. It shaped my relationship with authorities and with how I dealt with criticism and with my boundaries.
We all carry these moments which may seem insignificant. However, if they carry a significant emotional charge, they may remain stuck in our bodies in the form of trapped emotions and self-limiting beliefs.
Every time when someone criticized me, it would awaken that same old wound.
My coping mechanism was getting self-defensive, making them wrong, attacking back in order to make them feel the same pain, going into self-pity, or shutting down.
I wasn’t able to see their criticism objectively. I was perceiving it through the lens of my wound.
Instead of compulsively reacting, I learned to take a deep breath and practiced the pause.
All these feelings needed to be felt and heard.
When you’re in a safe place after the incident, you can recall the situation and tune back into it.
Here are some questions to help you with that process:
Why does this situation make me feel triggered?
Is there any message that my emotions want me to hear?
Am I ready to release these emotions?
If the answer is no, investigate further.
When did I feel this way last time?
When did I feel this way the first time?
What thoughts or beliefs intensify and perpetuate this emotion?
Where is this story coming from?
Can I know without a shadow of a doubt that those thoughts or beliefs are true?
Is this trigger connected to emotional wounds?
What does my inner child need?
How could I react differently when I’m faced with a similar situation next time?
How could I look at the situation differently? (Reframing is helpful but only after we validate the emotion. Otherwise, it can easily turn into bypassing.)
As you witness, release the trapped emotion and let yourself be there for the wounded part of yourself; this is when the natural healing process begins to arise.
Once we take care of our wound from within, the button that used to get activated is no longer there for it to be pushed. We may experience similar situations, but we don’t experience the same emotional charge. We can be more at ease and see things for what they’re. It’s as if we removed the broken glasses that distorted our perception.
Making a conscious choice instead of allowing old subconscious patterns and automatic reactions to run our lives is choosing to evolve and grow. Using our new knowledge and awareness of emotional wounds can help us to pause and think before letting an automatic response get the better of us.
When we’re anchored in the present moment, we can choose as a response to criticism to either remain silent or speak our truth depending on the context. It is the context that will determine the appropriate response.
Healing happens in layers, and in some cases, it can take time to create new patterns, but it gets better and better.