We all have emotional triggers. As my friend, David Kessler once told me, when it comes to emotional triggers…
“It’s not what pushes your buttons, it’s what programmed you.”
What is an emotional trigger?
When we feel like someone has taken something from us that we’re dependent on for emotional survival OR, if we feel like we are in any way at risk for that loss, our emotions get triggered.
Obviously, we want to get out of this activated state right away. It feels impossible to stay afloat, so we go into fight or flight mode and react because what other option do we have? We have to. We’re triggered.
Once we get triggered, fear and anger spread through every vein of our emotional bodies. And because we are so charged from this particular trigger being activated, we are able to rationalize our own reactivity.
If your emotions are triggered and your self-esteem is low, the only life raft you’ll ever be able to see at that moment is reactivity.
Feeling all different kinds of emotions is normal. I think it’s the most painfully beautiful, joyous, freeing, heartbreaking, evolutionary, and incredible privilege that we have. For years, I tried to control my emotions (in the sense that I tried to control which emotions I felt). I thought that if I could control my emotions, all of my emotional triggers would be deactivated. It was impossible. No matter what, I could never get control over my emotions – emotions that were completely normal to feel. Because of this, I sabotaged myself and became a sitting duck for my own emotional unavailability, as well as toxic relationships and friendships that ended up taking control of every emotion I had.
My life changed the moment I stopped trying to control the weather. I surrendered to the fact that the weather is always ebbing, flowing, and naturally occurring.
If I didn’t like the weather, I didn’t have to stay. I could change locations.
I realized that to “control” the weather in the way that I had always hoped for, I had to first take control over what I had total control of.
All I had complete control over was how I reacted to the weather. My perception SHAPED the weather.
I could either go outside and cry and scream and argue with the thunderstorm or I could get myself indoors and into a place of power to figure out my next move.
My emotions were the weather and my reactivity toward the emotional rainstorms, thunderclouds, and even the rainbows were my emotional triggers.
Emotional triggers can be anything. They can be a person, a place, a smell, a song, a gesture, a joke, a comment, a compliment or a criticism.
For me personally, whether it was a lover, a friend, a family member, or someone I barely knew…
All it would take was someone making one passive-aggressive comment, a mean-spirited joke, or even complimenting me on something that I was so insecure about, I’d take it as a jab and become triggered (even though it was a genuine compliment). In relationships, if I didn’t hear back from whoever was unlucky enough to date me, I would immediately think he was either cheating on me (my trust issues) or had died (my abandonment issues). So, I would text way too many times and react in other ways that were exclusively birthed from my emotional triggers.
It was especially hard because whenever I would try and express my feelings to others, I was always told that I “couldn’t take a joke,” was “too sensitive,” and needed to “get a life.”
The truth is, I was triggered.
So, why do we have emotional triggers?
What are emotional triggers in relationships?
Where do they come from and how can we dismantle them before they dismantle our mental health?
We all have emotional triggers because we have all been children and have all experienced childhood. None of us are alone in this. Emotional triggers are NORMAL. What dictates our emotional health is how we not only choose to react to those triggers, but the extent to which we allow those triggers to absorb and paralyze us.
Growing up, we all experienced pain, shame, trauma, abuse, heartbreak, and feeling left out. These traumas were too much for us to process and let go of at the time because we were just kids and still developing.
Our only choice was to absorb, internalize, and create a story that still, to this day, we choose to not only subscribe to but end up subconsciously attracting relationships and experiences that validate this story.
This story is the foundation of what sets off our emotional triggers.
Triggers come from undealt with trauma, usually in our childhood. As a kid, my trigger was anyone’s disapproval or resentment. I never felt like I could ever fully please anyone and was always paranoid that everyone hated me.
As an adult, whenever I was rejected or someone didn’t like me, I did anything I could to avoid the feelings of abandonment, loneliness, and heartbreak associated with their behavior. This required me getting off my white horse at the expense of my dignity, reputation, and destiny.
The only thing that helped was identifying my emotional triggers, feeling my way through them (instead of just feeling them in the moment), and being the person I needed when I was younger and didn’t have.
I had to calm down that anxious, abandoned, emotionally orphaned, “scared-of-never-being-enough” little girl within me whose emotional development was arrested when she experienced pain that had never been properly digested and let go of.
No matter how old you are, if you have undealt-with childhood trauma, you will always regress back to the emotional paralysis of the age that trama took place.
Every one of these situations used to massively trigger me.
Identifying what specifically triggered me was the first step in unplugging my emotional triggers from their power source.
- Being abandoned.
- Being rejected.
- Someone threatening to leave me.
- Someone acting like they knew something about me that I didn’t yet know.
- Being ignored.
- Being cheated on.
- Not being prioritized by people who I did nothing but prioritize.
- Being gossiped about.
- People talking about money, politics, or religion.
- Someone lying to me and when I called them out on the lie, making me feel like the crazy one (gaslighting).
- Being criticized or judged.
- Not being chosen over someone else.
- Being made to feel dumb, ugly, and incompetent.
The list goes on but I’ll stop here. Once I identified my triggers, I was able to get to the root of them.
Through this, I realized that I was the only person on the planet who could disallow my emotional triggers from getting the best of me. No one else. I WAS the only person who knew all of my secrets and who had been with me through it all.
Contrary to what my insecurities wanted me to believe, I was the only person who hadn’t yet let me down. I was still here. And even if it was just barely, I was still standing. I had survived.
Once I identified my specific emotional triggers, I was able to zero in on how I was reacting.
I would either…
- Become a “please-validate-me-please-don’t-abandon-me” doormat.
- Put my own emotional needs in the hands of everyone else but my own.
- Embarrass myself further by reacting.
- Avoid, shut down, and withdraw.
- React in an obnoxious and dramatic way as a means of attention/sympathy mongering.
- Revert back to my reverse narcissistic addiction of feeling like everything was about me.
- Be the victim and act like a spoiled brat.
The best way to deal with emotional triggers is to stop avoiding, start identifying, and feel your way through them. Once you feel it, you can heal it because you’ll no longer be feeling it “for the first time,” every time you’re triggered.
Flush what you need to and understand that being an adult is not about carrying the unprocessed pain of the past and using toxic relationships to revisit the scene of the emotional crime.
Being an adult is about committing to your emotionally orphaned younger self and debunking the harmful beliefs you adopted as a child through concerted ACTION (as opposed to disordered reaction).
I never felt like I had control in my life up until a few years ago. Because of my disease to please growing up as a kid, I became an adult who was always either reacting to her parents or trying to please them.
Although it was rooted in my parental relationships, “Mom” and “Dad” from my childhood became friends and lovers.
Be very mindful of this pattern and very aware of what you were the most hungry for when it came to the relationship you had/didn’t have with your parents as a child.
Once your emotional triggers are mastered, your emotions won’t be anything that ever needs to be tamed because you will be acting from a place of power instead of a place of dependency. An emotionally impulsive reaction birthed from being triggered is the single greatest hindrance to having the kind of power you’ve always wanted.
My reactions to my emotional triggers cost me. They cost me a lot more than the temporary satisfaction I gained from grabbing that life raft.
Choosing that life raft meant that I was choosing to ignore the fact that I knew how to swim all along.
You were born with the ability to swim. Let’s ditch the life raft today, choose to give our pain and purpose, and reclaim power NOW.
+ If you need further and more personalized help with your relationship, please look into working with me here.