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If you often find yourself reacting to a word, situation, person, or action, you’re not alone.
Even if it’s a silly event or an insignificant word, sometimes our reactions last longer than we would like them to. Our partner slams the door and we feel our heart pounding. A coworker thinks we could have done better and we immediately feel shaky. A family member calls us names and we feel enraged.
It’s normal. In fact, our day is full of emotional triggers that we don’t even pay attention to. While our reaction could be alarming to the person on the receiving end, for us, it’s completely normal and we might not even recognize a pattern.
So what’s an emotional trigger? Any emotional reaction that sparks from within us due to an external event or situation is called a trigger. We might feel anger, disgust, shame, rage, sadness, disappointment…we could feel a whole range of emotions—only because this or that happened.
I always found it hard to control my emotional reactions in my past relationships. One wrong word or unanticipated event could make me break to pieces. It was almost impossible to stop myself from feeling pain or hurt.
And, for me, it was always the right thing to do. Through my own emotional reactions, I thought I could punish the other person, bring myself justice, or feel safe. I was nothing without my triggers.
It’s highly probable that you might feel the same. You might feel worthy or validated only when you exhibit an emotional reaction. After all, how could we ever hope for someone else to understand us if we don’t show them our deepest emotions?
Well, after years of hurting myself with my own reactions, I’ve realized that I can never avoid what life throws at me. I can’t just “get rid” of those who trigger me or disappear off the face of the earth only so I wouldn’t have to deal with other people’s hurtful words or actions.
Instead of running away from negative people or people who trigger me, I needed to learn how to deal with the triggers. When I found a way around my emotions, people stopped being an issue. My triggers are my responsibility, and so I shall welcome whatever comes my way with ease and calmness.
The truth is, while it might feel as if someone else is trying to hurt us with their words or actions, the trigger is an opportunity for us to heal. It’s like a lighthouse that sheds light on the right path; we just need to see it.
It took me so many years to acknowledge that emotional triggers are hidden or silent wounds. They’re past hurts that happened when we were children and stayed with us throughout our adulthood. Unfortunately, we can only spot them through other people or events. That said, when someone triggers us, we are (unconsciously) reminded of the past hurt and overreact as a way to feel secure, or loved, or validated.
So how do we become less reactive? When someone pushes our buttons and we feel like nobody, how can we take our power back?
Here are 10 practical steps that have personally helped me:
1. Pause. When another person says or does something hurtful, stop. Don’t do anything, don’t say anything, don’t even think about anything. Just pause.
2. Pay attention to the physical symptoms in your body. You are in this body and you’re aware of what’s happening: your heart might be pounding, your palms might be sweating, your stomach might feel tight. Pause and watch what’s happening below your skin.
3. Own your emotions. What are you feeling? Anger, anxiety, fear, loss, instability…whatever you are feeling right now, own it. Don’t fight it, don’t push it away, don’t name it. Feel it.
4. Identify the other person’s words/behaviors. What just happened? Identify the action that nudged you. It could be a door slam, a hurtful word, rejection, abandonment. Name it and be aware of it.
5. Identify the trigger. Now that we have identified the action that made us feel this way, it’s time to identify our own emotional trigger. What are we displaying? How do we feel? Is there a name we could give to this emotion? Do we feel hurt? Abandoned? Rejected?
6. Breathe. This is the most important step of all. Throughout these 10 steps, remember to breathe. Pause, breathe. Pause, breathe. You will feel more grounded and less lost in your thoughts.
7. Be curious. Imagine you’re in an escape room, and you can’t leave until you find the clue. Why are you feeling this way? Use a time travel machine in your head and travel as far as possible to find the roots/source of your emotional trigger. When you were a child, which situations or people caused a similar reaction?
8. Don’t take things personally. It’s true that the hurt came from someone, but we need to remember that they, too, are dealing with their own traumas and issues. Their actions or words are not a reflection of us.
9. Choose to not react. We can’t choose how we feel, but we can choose how to react. This is your big moment. Choose in that moment to heal, understand, and process your triggers instead of randomly reacting. Ask yourself, “What’s more beneficial? My reactions or my actions?”
10. Be on the lookout for future triggers. This is how we heal. When a trigger happens, we are prepared and ready to put into action what we have understood about our triggers so far.