Have you ever encountered someone that just irked you? Everything they were saying or doing really just rubbed you the wrong way. You couldn’t stand anything about them. Or what about a time when a spouse or a friend did something so minor and yet it still just created an eruption of emotional response within you. Can you think of an instance?
Just yesterday, I walked into the kitchen to make breakfast for my kids only to find the big, ceramic crock-pot bowl in the sink from the night before. My husband had left it there to soak. Immediately, I was triggered by the sight and negative thoughts began racing through my head such as, “how nice of him to leave a mess for me to take care of. I made dinner. The least he could have done is finished cleaning up instead of leaving it for me to take care of. I wouldn’t have left it for him to finish. I hate feeling like I’m being taken for granted.”
The thoughts, when not in the heat of the moment, sound very irrational, don’t they? At the time, they can feel just and appropriate. The initial impulses in these types of situations are quick and often difficult to stop because something familiar within you was triggered. A pattern was recognized. A neuropathway in your brain is lit up with electrical impulses sending a wave of chemicals and emotions through you at the speed of light – like it has been trained to do, over and over, and over again.
But, in this particular instance, I didn’t act on the impulses. Instead, I was able to recognize them and quickly redirect my thoughts and emotions. I even giggled about it because I knew where it had come from. Today, I’d like to share with you how exactly I do that and how you can too.
Where Do These Triggers Come From?
As Carl Young once put it:
“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.
We can only see things within others that we see within ourselves. Not judging others based on what we see could be one of the most challenging, spiritual and personal growth lessons we are here to learn.
No matter where you are in the world or where you grow up or what language you learn, we all have beliefs and an understanding of ourselves based on our relationships and experiences with other people. If we were alone, there would be no one to judge. There would be no one to compare ourselves to. Judgment doesn’t exist without experiences with others. But you can learn to recognize that you can only be triggered by things that are familiar to you or that you have experienced yourself at some point in your life.
Does that make sense? It’s like the proverbial tree in the woods. If there is no one there to hear it when it falls, does it make any noise at all? If you haven’t experienced something before, if it is unfamiliar to you, you can’t be triggered by it. Triggers are the sub-conscious recognition of a pattern. If you haven’t experienced it, there is no pattern. No pattern? No trigger.
Mirror Mirror on the Wall…
The traits that we don’t like about others, tend to be the traits we don’t like about ourselves. It’s no surprise then, that we tend to judge and criticize these characteristics in others when we see them.
But we aren’t really just criticizing others when this happens. It’s hard to feel it in the moment, but what we’re really doing, is judging ourselves. So while your thoughts may be aimed toward someone else, it’s because what you don’t like or what you see in them is something you can’t stand in yourself. The trait goes against your own personal rulebook, so to speak.
What we don’t want to see in ourselves, we judge harshly in others which most often results in a sense of heightened emotional charge within us, or triggers. We are creatures of habit, built to recognize patterns. But this is also an avoidance mechanism. We judge others so that we don’t have to look at ourselves. It’s much easier to judge someone else than to judge ourselves. We feel a sense of superiority when we judge others.
The Lesson In the Trigger
Whenever you feel triggered, it’s important to listen to both voices in your head. Hear and recognize the voice that’s spouting off all the unpleasant thoughts to fuel your emotions. But also listen to the other voice (and I promise you there is one) that is saying, “Wait! What??!? Don’t you think you’re overreacting??” The second voice might be smaller and harder to hear, but it’s there, trying to reel you back in. It’s there as a reminder that you have a choice.
Try to think of it this way, every situation you experience contains a lesson of some kind. Every person you meet or situation you encounter is showing up at the perfect time to reflect something back to you that you need to learn or witness within yourself so that you can grow from it, or heal it from within yourself.
The obstacles that you face in life, the emotional ups and downs, aren’t really there to hold you back. They’re there as an opportunity for growth so that you can continue to keep moving forward. But like the old Chinese proverb says, “The teacher can open the door for you, but you, yourself, must enter.”
In other words, the opportunity for growth and learning is there in the experience, but you have to be the one to take it. You have to be the one to walk through the doorway that has been opened for you.
The moment that you hear the smaller voice, questioning your thoughts, attempt to listen to it and change your focus. Step out of the pattern of fueling the negative thoughts, feelings, and judgments and take a look at the situation from a new perspective. You don’t have to continue down the path of negative feelings.
Ask yourself, why am I being triggered right now? What is the REAL reason that this situation or this person bothers me? Where does that come from? What have I experienced in life before that has lead me to feel this way?
Interruption Is the Key
When you interrupt the negative feelings, thoughts, and emotions, you quickly redirect the energy from the trigger and slow it down. This gives you the opportunity you need to think about it from a more rational perspective rather than simply acting on impulse.
So the next time you find yourself being triggered by a person or a situation, try the following:
- Recognize that what you’re reacting to is a trigger – a pattern based on something you’ve experienced in the past.
- Listen for the second, smaller voice in your mind that is questioning your reaction and try to focus on what it’s saying long enough to cause an interrupt.
- Within your thoughts, take a step back from the situation and ask yourself why you feel the way you do. Keep asking WHY until you get to the bottom of it.
- Then ask yourself how you’d like to feel or how you’d like to respond.
That morning when I saw the dish in the sink, I could have continued to fuel the negative feelings, but I didn’t. I heard the second voice and I asked myself why I was being triggered. I got to the bottom of it. As a child, I was taught that when you see something that needs to be done, you just do it. You don’t wait to be asked and you don’t leave it for someone else. You just do it. I learned that lesson as a young child by being scolded by my grandfather who never raised his voice. It left a really strong impression on me. To this day I still remember the conversation and the look on his face as he calmly but sternly taught me the lesson through his words.
Deep down inside, though it was hard to feel it in the moment, I knew that my husband hadn’t left it there for me. My thoughts were irrational and because I took a moment to interrupt the pattern of behavior that had been triggered, I was able to wash the crock-pot without feeling angry or bitter about it at all. It just was. I had accepted that it was there in the sink and I was content at finishing the task. I understood that the feelings were evoked due to a mirror within me. I was responding to the mirror and not the actions of my husband. I didn’t have the full story of why it was still there and I was able to let it go.
While I was drying off the crock-pot, my husband walked into the kitchen. He saw what I was doing and said, “Oh, I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean for you to have to do that! I totally meant to take care of that last night and I forgot about it. I’m sorry. Thank you for taking care of it.” As he was talking, he came up behind me, wrapped his arms around me and kissed me on the head.
This is the man I love and that I would marry over and over and over again. The version of him that I was fuming about briefly before – he doesn’t even exist.
My choice that morning, to interrupt the thoughts and recognize the source from within, made both of our lives better that day.