Midweek Share: Emotional Triggers


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.normalreacting 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! 🙂

Spotting Emotional Unavailability

A friend of mine texted me yesterday…”New blog topic: how to identify when someone is emotionally unavailable.” How the hell would I know? That’s the type I fall in love with over and over again. I texted back, “Haha…I would have to figure it out before I wrote it. Well, maybe I see if they are attracted to me. If they are, they are.” I’m not a psychologist, but I love talking about this stuff, and I write a blog, so I guess I’m the one who needs to do the research.

Like all good researchers, I first googled “What is emotionally unavailable?” I don’t know why. I know as much about it as anyone on the internet does. And, by the way, I think I’ve googled this topic about 1000 times, so I already know what’s out there. There’s a picture of my second husband…that’s emotionally unavailable. (I know…that was a cheap shot.)

In my mind, emotionally unavailable is someone who is unable or unwilling to invest the time and energy into building a relationship. Sometimes people are emotionally unavailable as a character trait. These are the ones that have no idea that they are emotionally unavailable or even that there’s a term for it. I went out with a guy from Match one evening. I asked him what his three…yes, three…ex-wives said about him. He said they told him he was emotionally unavailable. I said, “Well, are you?” He said, “Probably.” That was one of the easier ones to figure out. Duh. I wish they were all that easy to spot.

I know I’m attracted to emotionally unavailable men. I married two of them. At the time, I didn’t know that was the case. They were workaholics and chronically depressed. Now, I was depressed, too, and I would assume that meant I was emotionally unavailable as well. How can I invest time and energy in a relationship when I am struggling with depression that won’t go away? And, with depression, my filters wouldn’t allow me to have a good view of reality, so I couldn’t really be present and engaged. So, we were perfect matches. In reality, I think a lot of people, both men and women, are emotionally unavailable.

What are some signs? Like I said, I’m not a professional, but this is what I look for:

  • Addictions like chemical dependency,  workaholism, gambling addiction, sex addiction, pornography addictions, untreated codependency
  • Eating Disorders
  • Untreated depression or chronic illness that occupies a large chunk of time and energy
  • Married, in a relationship or just out of a significant committed relationship
  • Overwhelming life responsibilities

That being said, some people are emotionally unavailable right now. I knew that I was emotionally unavailable for two years after I divorced because I was consumed with grief and was dealing with some significant personal growth work. I needed to make myself emotionally unavailable in order to heal. I totally walled myself off from potential relationships except with women who were also in a healing process. It was an incubator of sorts, I guess. I slowly let myself become more emotionally available in the third year, and it probably took me another year to test relationships enough to feel safe in being vulnerable and to invest myself. This is another reason that 12 Step Programs tell people not to make major changes or get into a relationship during the first year of sobriety. A person just can’t emotionally invest in a relationship and do really tough things like kick an addiction. The energy and focus has to go somewhere, and usually its going to go to the “easier” thing.

The problem is that most people are not aware enough of their feelings and their limitations to realize that sometimes they just need to take a break. Or, they are so unaware of their feelings and limitations that they don’t realize they are not capable of a relationship. Others are chronically emotionally unavailable. They don’t know they have feelings because all they do is use relationships to distract them from looking inside themselves. A person is just a substance to use to make them feel better. Still others have numbed out so much that they are just drifting through life, and relationships make them feel alive. There are so many reasons, but they all lead to emotional unavailability.

For a long time, I said it was hard to spot. It’s actually not that hard to spot. It’s hard to say “off limits,” especially if you like the guy. They are going to say they are available, they want to stop working so much, they just need to find the right person, etc…. So, I will start making excuses for him, and listening to what he says instead of watching what he does. My second husband was still married when I met him. Yes, he had been separated for over a year, but he was not divorced. He told me that he was “spiritually and emotionally” divorced. He was just waiting on the legal piece. I already really liked him, so I let it slide. If I met him now, we wouldn’t make it past the first date. First of all, he had no long term friends. Anybody that is healthy emotionally has some friends. Relationships are important to them, and they know how to work to keep them. This is now a deal-breaker for me.

It’s not hard to spot a person whose work is out of control, who is using alcohol or drugs excessively, or is not consistent in their behaviors if I am looking. When I was younger, I wasn’t looking. I didn’t know I needed to look. Now that I’ve felt some pain because of this, I pay more attention. I ask more questions, and I don’t give my heart away so quickly. I know some people can schmooze you and lie and con you. That does happen. But, for most people, they are so unaware that there is anything wrong with their lifestyle, they will tell you. I’ve heard all of these in the last two years:

“I’m a workaholic.”

“My ex-wife told me I couldn’t have porn in the house, so I subscribed to Playboy to spite her.”

“I’m a prick.”

“I’m not looking for anything serious.”

“My wife died last month. My friends told me I need to get out here.”

All of these are code for, “I’m not available for a healthy, committed relationship.” Now, they may be available for sex or dating or friendship, and that may be just fine. I have to be honest with myself, though. That’s as far as it will go. When people show me or tell me who they are, I listen. I honor them and myself enough to accept reality as it is. If I don’t, both of us may get hurt or angry or both. So, the question I have to ask myself is whether or not I am emotionally available and want a relationship. Because, if I am and I do, I wouldn’t want this. If I’m not and I don’t, it might be a perfect fit.  I have to live in reality.