The founder of analytical psychology Carl Jung wrote, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” This is DEEP – and relates to the nature of emotional triggers.
Emotional triggers are events or people that consistently set off intense, emotional reactions within us. If not managed appropriately, triggers can cause acute stress, interpersonal conflict and professional derailment. When triggered, we may experience frustration, anger, sadness, insecurity and defensiveness. Then, we develop coping habits like lashing out, being passive-aggressive and shutting down that influence how we are perceived by others – and how we feel about ourselves.
Triggers are about us
Consciously or not, triggers reflect a threat to our identity and sense of security. Triggers have less to do with how we feel about someone else and more to do with our own values, judgments and interpretations. Often, our wounded ego is at play.
Emotional triggers can serve as mirrors for our own intentions and provide us with opportunities to ‘see’ ourselves in new and challenging ways. Understanding and managing emotional triggers are critical components of many personal and executive coaching programs. Once clients ‘crack the code’ of their triggers, they see immediate and lasting improvements in their quality of life, work, and relationships. Common emotional triggers explored in coaching programs are aggressiveness, condescension, disloyalty, the victim-syndrome and avoidant or inconsistent behavior.
Taming triggers: A case study
My client Elizabeth was a high-spirited, successful PhD in a new professional position. Elizabeth was experiencing interpersonal conflict with a boss by whom she felt demeaned and insulted. She was triggered by his aggressive behavior. When Elizabeth defended herself, she was reprimanded for being overly sensitive and emotional.
During our three-month coaching partnership, Elizabeth practiced emotional detachment and realized that her trigger had less to do with her boss and more to do with her sense of self-worth and indecision about whether this new job was the right fit. Elizabeth redirected her energy toward making conscious shifts in her thoughts, emotions, and behavior. She learned how to use silence as a self-management tool and began to respond more and react less. Weekly coaching assignments included reflections in an emotional trigger journal, value assessments, and vocal tone and body language adjustments.
Elizabeth chose to see her trigger as an opportunity to get to know herself better. She actively developed the habits of healthy self-acceptance and self-care. Elizabeth now expresses herself in the workplace with more control, clarity, and confidence. She realizes that she cannot change her boss’s behavior – yet she can control how she shows up within their dynamic by embracing her strength and sensitivity to maintain healthy relationship boundaries. Elizabeth’s story reminds us that the habits we choose create the essence of who we are.
Triggers are tricky. Try thinking of your triggers as intuitive messages alerting you to certain aspects of yourself that are asking to be explored.