How can you tame your triggers?
Helen* is a senior executive at a Fortune 100 company. Following a recent re-org, she is now reporting to a member of the executive leadership team named Jennifer*. Helen experiences Jennifer as a micromanager, who weighs in on the smallest details of her work, from the wording on a white paper to the formatting of a slide deck. This tendency is coupled with a failure to acknowledge Helen’s larger contributions and successes – a combination that evoked a powerful storm of negative emotions. Helen’s peers are similarly annoyed by Jennifer’s behavior but are more able to shrug it off. “That’s just how she is.” Helen’s feelings go beyond annoyance to the degree that she becomes consumed and wonders how much longer she can tolerate the working environment. She finds herself in a downward spiral as her triggered reaction to Jennifer leads to frustration with herself for becoming so upset.
Have you ever had the experience of becoming frustrated by a person or situation, when others seem to respond with greater equanimity? What is it that takes you beyond the more common reaction of annoyance to a triggered state? Is there something else going on for you that leads to you feeling unmoored in these moments?
What Helen recognized is that the high level of distress she was feeling was a signal for her that something deeper was going on. The shorthand description of an emotional trigger is something that evokes an intense emotional reaction – usually in a personal way based on past experiences. It often sends the body into a fight or flight response, making it difficult to respond in a measured, rational way. Coping with emotional triggers is a vast and complicated topic, and to be sure, my perspective here just scratches the surface.
But hopefully there is value in exploring how Helen worked to surface her deeper emotions so that she could manage through her triggers from a place of wisdom. Perhaps you will be inspired to embark on a similar process, something I have done with clients in our coaching relationship.
1. Name it to tame it We all have triggers. As noted above, they are often deeply rooted in past experiences and can show up unexpectedly and with great intensity. It took time for Helen to untangle her emotional response, which for her, at root, was about not feeling seen or appreciated. Her boss’ micro-management also suggested a lack of trust in the quality of Helen’s work. Finally, Helen felt confined, held back from growth due to such strict limits on her autonomy. By naming the feelings with precision, she could create a clearer roadmap to navigate the experience. By noticing when it occurred, she was able to separate herself from the emotion, so she was no longer consumed by it but instead observing it.
2. Identify past patterns Helen recognized a pattern that first played out in her family of origin. Her mother was, in a sense, a micro-manager of her life, setting expectations about career and life choices. Growing up, she often felt neither seen nor valued for her own choices. While she coped by striking out on her own and building a separate life, often in contrast to her mother’s wishes, she still felt the persistent pain of disapproval. Therapy helped her understand and come to accept these lingering feelings – and equipped her to recognize that they were now being triggered again by her boss. Feeling unseen and unappreciated at work triggered that same old wound from her childhood.
3. Befriend it Many of us were raised to feel that having difficult or unhappy emotions was a bad thing. “Go to your room until you can behave!” we may have been told if we were upset as children. We got the message that our more "negative" feelings – such as being angry or distraught - were not ok. We may have become defensive and pushed the emotion away to protect ourselves. “That person is mean. They hate me. I hate them.” Now, as an adult, Helen recognized that once she was able to sit with the emotion instead of rejecting it, she could honor the pain and practice self-compassion. While the feelings were still difficult, she “befriended” them, which paradoxically, enabled her to eventually move through them with greater ease.
4. Re-connect with your values An emotion is a signal, pointing us towards a value, a fundamental belief, that we hold dear. Helen’s pain at feeling unacknowledged was holding up the flag for her value of human connection, of seeing other people and being seen herself. By shifting her awareness from Jennifer’s behavior back to her value system, she anchored herself back in her internal landscape of meaning, motivation, and her “why”. From here, she could better understand why she felt triggered.
5. Respond from a place of wisdom Previously, consumed by the raw emotion, she withdrew and judged Jennifer. Anchored back in her value system, Helen had access to her deeper wisdom and could reframe the situation. She recognized that managing her boss was part of her job and that her boss’ behavior was not a reflection of her worthiness, or the quality of her work; it was her boss’ issue. She had greater empathy for herself in these difficult moments. And she was even able to see her boss in a fuller way, recognizing for example the ways that she could be supportive. Over time, she has learned to dial down her response to the trigger to mild irritation.
To be triggered is to be human. We all have triggers and for many of us, they never completely go away. What we can do is gain perspective and learn to better manage how we respond. Helen could have come to the equally valid conclusion that this was not a healthy environment for her and made the decision to leave. She could have discovered that the amount of energy required to manage her boss was simply too high. Most important is that we don’t make a big decision in a triggered state but instead first connect with our wisest self. As she did this, Helen worked to validate herself – a process that is ongoing – and to accept that some aspects of her work environment, while not ideal, could become more tolerable. She still puts her boss’ micro-management in the negative column, but she can better see it in a bigger context, balanced by positives as well.
* Names and identifying details have been changed to protect anonymity