Somebody must need to hear about emotional triggers this morning, and it might be me. This blog woke me up at 3:30 AM dying to be written. So, I’m going to listen. I was triggered in a big way a couple of weeks ago. I love the description of being triggered. The trigger on a gun is pulled, and the bullet and gun have no choice but to do what they are programmed to do. It doesn’t matter who or what is in the way, what caused it or how inappropriate of a reaction it is. If a gun is triggered, it’s going to shoot.
I am constantly amazed at how God designed us. And, I am particularly amazed at how He designed emotions. I’m a little irritated with the fact that women tend to be driven a lot more by emotions than men, but it really doesn’t matter how I feel about the fairness of it all. I have to deal with the hand I was dealt, and I am a woman….an emotional being. When we are children, we can’t help but be other-focused. We depend on others to feed us, clothe us, protect us and teach us. If we are left for any reason, we get very fearful. Children don’t understand the rationale behind outside responsibilities, addictions, adult’s shortcomings and crisis. All they know is that the person that needs to take care of all their needs is gone, indisposed or unavailable. And, to a child, that usually means death. I’m going to die if they leave me.
My biggest emotional trigger is abandonment. It’s a reason that I tend to be a perfectionist. If I do things wrong, people will not love me. If they don’t love me, they will leave me. As an adult, I can cope with being left. But, as a child, to be left is to DIE. And, that’s what happens to me when I get triggered. I get catapulted back into being a little girl, and all of those little girl emotions and fears come rushing to the surface just like that bullet shoots out of the gun. It is quick….powerful….unstoppable. I can deal with a triggered emotion by talking about it with someone and processing the emotion. But, I can’t stop the emotion. I can try, but it will come out all kinds of ways. It truly is unstoppable. And, the emotion is, quite simply – terror.
I naively thought recovery would eliminate triggered emotions. I thought some day I would walk through the world unaffected by other people’s actions. I would have this healed self that would not get triggered and could think rationally and act rationally at all times. That’s not the way God intended it to happen. I believe that God wants us here to connect to others, and one of the best ways for me to truly connect to others is to lean on them when I am triggered and let them lean on me when they are triggered. There may be some people out there who have no triggers, but, if there are, I don’t know them.
If it’s hysterical, it’s historical. This is how I know when I’m triggered. Work is a place I get triggered a lot. There are authority figures, demands, standards and criticisms all the time. There are also people that I have to work with who may not be people I’d consider “safe people.” I finally realized that when I get criticized for something, and it’s not tangible, I get triggered. I’ve learned to react to criticism by asking for the behavior or attitude that I need to change. That opens the door to a conversation where we can talk about what and why I need to change it. Often, they are being triggered, and it has nothing to do with me. Other times, there is something I need to change. But, it took practice to get there. And, it took successes with a particular boss to help me feel comfortable doing that.
Relationships are minefields. I know I’m going to get triggered. The other person is not living their life for me. They are going to be unavailable, pre-occupied, angry at me, and distancing at times. What I have learned is there is a difference in being triggered by an event and living in a triggered state. In my second marriage, I lived in a triggered state because he was emotionally unavailable. I have tools to deal with being triggered by an event and can get through those. But, when I’m in a state of being triggered, the amount of work, energy, emotion and fear that I have to work through is too much for me. It’s why I set standards for myself that I don’t date a person who is addicted, unavailable or unwilling to work on themselves. It’s why I don’t get too close or dependent on friends who are not supportive. I know I eliminate a lot of people because of those standards, but I’m no longer able or willing to work that hard to be in a relationship. It made me physically sick in the past. A friend of mine recently had a heart attack due to the unceasing stress of living with addicted people. I just won’t live in that kind of heightened state of emotional arousal anymore. It makes me tired just thinking about it.
When I do get triggered, I call a friend. I have a list of people who know how to handle it. They know my triggers. They know my baggage. They don’t say, “You’re overreacting.” They don’t say, “You’re being irrational.” Both of those things are probably true, but what they say is, “It sounds like you’re really scared. Is this a familiar feeling?” That leads me into pinpointing the historical event that I’m really processing. Those old feelings just got triggered again. Some tips on handling triggered people that I’ve found helpful are:
Acknowledge the emotion.
- You sound really scared.
- What is the overriding feeling you have right now?
- Is this a familiar feeling?
Don’t judge the reaction. Judging is an abandoning act. It’ll just escalate the reaction. Avoid things like:
- You are overreacting.
- That’s irrational.
- You are….crazy…too upset…needy….anything else that is a judgment.
Support them in taking care of themselves. But, don’t tell them what to do. Let them come up with it.
- Ask them what they could do to be good to themselves. Often, being good to ourselves proves to our emotions that being abandoned by somebody else doesn’t matter. We can take care of ourselves.
- Ask them how you can best support them. Most of the time it’s just listening. That helps soothe the fear because you are offering to be there for them.
Reassure them that they are lovable….okay just as they are.…normal…reacting normally given the trigger they just experienced.
The gift from God in all this is that He wants us to heal from our wounds. That’s why He puts other people in our lives to re-open those wounds. With healthy people around, I can heal and learn to deal with my triggers. With unhealthy people around, the wounds will just continue to fester, and the triggers get worse. It’s all about choosing to heal or stay in the problem. I choose to heal.
Okay…I did need to hear that. Thank you for listening!