Sonika and I went to a show for Sonika’s birthday a few weeks ago. We saw The Empire Strips back at the Great Star Theater in San Francisco (they were serious about the “strips” part, oh my:)
It was the first time since Covid we’d gone to a live, in-person performance. The theater was full, the crowd was cheering, it was like the “normal” days before Covid.
What triggers you?
How do you get triggered in your relationships? Is it when your partner or someone …
- Interrupts you?
- Raises their voice with you?
- Accuses you of something?
- Doesn’t listen to you?
- Says they’ll do something but then doesn’t?
- Rolls their eyes or raises an eyebrow?
- Questions your good intentions?
- Something else?
In any relationship, there are a myriad ways to get triggered, i.e. to have an elevated emotional response like anger, sadness, or hurt to something or someone.
No one likes being triggered. No one enjoys the sudden rise of frustration, anger, sadness, or anxiety. It doesn’t feel good, it wrecks your peace of mind, and it fosters distrust between you and your partner (or friend, family member, etc.).
I used to get easily triggered when my partner(s) accused me of not caring or being selfish or arrogant (never mind they were right most of the time). I remember one time I didn’t want to join my girlfriend to go visit her family. She got triggered and said I was always thinking about myself and that I didn’t care about what was important to her. Then I got triggered. I instantly felt angry and defensive, and I launched into an explanation of why that was an unreasonable accusation. Basically, I told her exactly how and why she was wrong. Guess what happened next? She got even more triggered by my defensive explanations and angry energy. At this point, we were both triggered and the conversation went downhill from there. Like it had many times before.
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You said X, so I feel Y
The list above is a small excerpt of what couples and individuals have told us over years of coaching. How do we know what they get triggered by? Because they tell us. Not necessarily directly, but we hear it in what people complain about. In their complaints, they put words to the trigger, typically in the form of a You-statement:
- “You always interrupt me!”
- “Every time I try to tell you how I feel, you check out and stop listening”.
- “You get angry when I try to tell you how I feel”.
- You never do what you say you’ll do; I can’t count on you”.
It seems obvious what happened. She called me selfish, so I got angry. I called her unreasonable, so she felt hurt. It’s like a simple formula: Person B said X, so Person B felt Y.
Going by that logic, it’s easy to see what needs to happen: The other person needs to quit doing X. That is, my partner needs to stop calling me selfish. Or, from her point of view, I need to stop explaining my innocence and calling her unreasonable. I should also stop declining her requests to join her for family visits, and generally say yes more often.
Telling your partner never works
The next logical step is to tell my partner. So I say, “Stop calling me selfish, that’s not true; I do a lot of stuff for you!” That should fix it, right? Except, it never does, because from her viewpoint, my conclusion is bollocks. So she says, “I need you to think about me for a change, not just yourself. You’re not the only person with needs around here!”
Does this ever work? Does your partner ever say, “Oh, you’re right, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that; I’ll change that behavior going forward”? If yes, you got yourself a keeper:-)
Here’s the kicker:
Your partner doesn’t trigger you.
They merely reveal a trigger you already have.
You can see this in the official dictionary definition of getting triggered, which says “experiencing a strong emotional reaction of fear, shock, anger, or worry, especially because you are made to remember something bad that has happened in the past”.
Human triggers and traumas make for complex psychological study. But for our purpose it can be made really simple:
At some point in your life, you had an emotional experience, ranging from mildly unpleasant to violently traumatic. It could be a one-off incidence like being the victim of an abusive person. It could be a long-lasting sense of feeling like an outsider in school. Either way, it made an impression on you. Now, as an adult, something your partner said or did activated that memory, and you got triggered. But (most often) it wasn’t your partner that put the trigger in your mind. It was already there from another time in your life. Your partner’s actions simply made it “light up” again.
It’s like you have a sore button on your chest, and it’s just a matter of time before someone getting close to you will push the button. Sure, they might be careless, or even mean, but the button is yours.
Watch the Shorts version of this post:
This is actually great news, for two reasons. First, if you’re someone who likes learning about yourself and getting more insight into your own patterns of behavior, your triggers offer you a doorway into your own psyche, an avenue to explore yourself deeper. Eventually, you can learn to be at peace with your “sore buttons”, perhaps not get triggered at all.
Secondly, it makes for much more efficient communication in your relationships. Instead of reflexively putting all your attention on your partner’s bad behavior (“You never think about me!”), you can express yourself in a way that is true to your experience but doesn’t add an accusation to your partner (“When I heard you say that just now, I felt really hurt”). The former statement almost certainly invites defensiveness and ire. The latter statement can open up a conversation where you might learn something important about yourself and each other.
Please note, none of this is to condone bad behavior. Of course you would rather be talked to nicely than be yelled at. We all would. It’s entirely appropriate to prefer kindness to anger. All the same, it never works throwing your triggers back at your partner, or anyone (“Quit interrupting me; it’s driving me crazy”).
The invitation here is to get curious about your own triggers, to use them for your own personal growth, and ultimately to stay calm and centered even when others don’t.
Sonika & I can genuinely claim to almost never getting triggered by each other or other people. Almost. It does happen, but at a completely manageable frequency and intensity. Now, when she says, “Why didn’t you pick up milk at the store, it was on the list?” I DON’T get triggered and say, “Goddamn it, you’re always criticizing me. It’s just milk, okay!” Instead, if I do notice an elevated emotional reaction, I go, “Huh, fascinating. I just got irritated by that question … I wonder what that’s about?”
To make this real, try an experiment. Over the next few days, when you notice yourself getting triggered by your partner, a friend, a coworker, or something you see on the internet, put your attention on your reaction, not on the “offending” party. Tell yourself, “Huh, that’s fascinating. I just got triggered by that … I wonder what that’s about?”
If you’re interested in learning how to apply this to create happier relationships and better communication, join us for an immersive one-day workshop, Give Yourself To Love. Among several practical relationship tools, you’ll learn a step-by-step process to identify your triggers and change how you feel and respond to them. This process is alone has been a game-changer for many of our participants.
It’s happening soon. Find out more here…