The vast majority of us humans (if not all of us) get triggered. We get triggered whether we notice and distinguish it or not. A trigger is an automatic emotional response. They feel like instincts, like involuntary reflexes that are outside of our control. The most problematic ones tend to be negative emotions, that is, emotions that we probably wouldn’t consciously choose to experience. Because of this and because they seem to happen to us rather than by us, we don’t tend to take ownership of them. We say things like, “she made me angry” or “he made me feel guilty.” Sometimes our triggered responses make sense to us as outside forces beyond our control and we incorporate them into the stories we tell ourselves.
Why do some people or situations trigger us, while others don’t? Some statements that are false about us or that we disagree with trigger us while some don’t. Why? If someone were to say something to me like “Your blue hair is ugly,” I would not get triggered. I know that I don’t have blue hair. Someone’s saying this to me may pique my curiosity; but it wouldn’t threaten my beliefs about my worth. On the other hand, if someone were to say something like “the outfit you’re wearing looks stupid,” I may get triggered rather than simply acknowledging the fact that people vary in their tastes in clothing. So why does this trigger me? This is where some judgment-free self-examination and curiosity is useful. Perhaps there is a part of me that agrees with them. Maybe I shouldn’t trust my judgment. What does this really mean about me and my worth? It makes sense that a perceived threat would trigger a response. The subtext may be something like I can’t even pick out the right clothes; what other “stupid” choices do I make? And that narrative propagates and continues to threaten. Alternatively, that triggered response could have a different source. The unkind thing said to me could remind me of an unkind or judgmental remark I made in the past that I hadn’t apologized and/or forgiven myself for. There are a number of possibilities; the point is that there is an opportunity for me to have a look, learn something, and choose to grow – choose to true up and align myself with my commitment to integrity.
It’s not always what someone says that triggers us. It could be something they do or their way of being. I remember recently being triggered by someone’s intensity and rigor, by what it seemed to me to be an arrogant, know-it-all attitude. When I had a look at the facts of the situation– extricating them from my interpretation (my story), I realized that the person was only speaking powerfully and passionately about something they believed in. I then asked myself if there was something in me that they were reminding me of that I hadn’t accepted or embraced. I saw that this was the case. Their behavior triggered my fear of being too much, of coming on too strong. Because I had not fully embraced my own power, intensity, and passion, displays of those qualities by others triggered me. Recognizing this gave me an opportunity to embrace my own power, intensity, and passion, which came with another gift: that individual no longer triggers me. So triggers can be gifts if we practice noticing them and having an earnest, curious look.
We can learn to distinguish triggers by practicing mindful self-awareness, by intentionally inserting a space between stimulus and response. Committed to my own freedom, to choosing rather than reacting, and to my own actualization, I try to practice this. I see triggers as gifts. Because of this, I suppose you could call me trigger happy.