We’ve all been triggered.
In a fight with your partner, dinner with the family, someone says something about politics, you read a tweet, a post on Facebook, and suddenly you’re flooded with outrage and a overwhelming compulsion to let the other person know just how wrong they are.
When that happens to me, the question I ask myself is: “Why do I care and why am I taking it so personally?”
Think about the time and energy we waste in stupid arguments that are never really about what they’re about. Or being angry at what people say on Facebook. (Have you ever “won” an argument on Facebook, or felt better about it afterward?)
And yet we still get hooked. We compulsively engage. It’s an addiction.
So what’s going on here and how to we stop it?
The first step is to understand that no one triggered you — you got triggered.
This is an important distinction. "You triggered me” implies the condition of your emotional state is dependent on what other people say or do, which is completely disempowering. Saying “I got triggered” asserts self-responsibility. You’re owning your reaction; and by owning it, you have the power to change it.
When you feel triggered, you’re “in your history.” By that I mean an unresolved emotional experience from your past is being provoked and projected on to what is happening in the present.
In that moment you are not “in reality”. You are interpreting what is happening through the lens of a traumatic experience from your past.
Let me give you an example.
When I was younger, I used to freak-out if my girlfriends were always late. It wasn’t just standard annoyance, it was an intense feeling of rage and betrayal. And I felt totally justified. I couldn’t see that my reaction was completely out of proportion to the situation.
Then one day in therapy, I remembered my mother was always late picking me up. As a young boy this would terrify me. My parents had just split-up, my Dad was not around. Life felt unstable and uncertain. And so I would panic. Was she okay? Did something happen? Did she forget about me? When she did finally show up, I would pout and let her know I was angry. But she was young single mother, overwhelmed with her own fear and anxiety, and so unable to deal with mine. So I shut down my feelings and buried them inside me, where they remained for years… until my girlfriends left me waiting.
Once I made the connection between past and present experience I understood my girlfriends being late wasn’t about me. They weren’t doing anything to me. And so I could say, “Hey, I don’t like that you're always late," without making them the enemy or attaching my emotional baggage to it, which made it easier to talk about it without it turning into a big blow-up.
"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” -Victor Frankel
So now when I'm triggered, I identify it and own it as quickly as I can. I say out loud, “I’m triggered”, and make a commitment to not attack or blame (or write a response on Facebook) until I’m clear about what I’m feeling and what it’s actually about. This takes discipline and practice — and a commitment to being vulnerable. Because more often then not in these situations, what’s underneath the trigger — what I’m actually feeling — is hurt and fear; which is not an easy thing to admit when you’re in the middle of a conflict.