A 5-Step Process For Working Through Your Triggers In Real-Time
Most people don't like to admit it when they get triggered. This normal, and quite understandable, aversion to emotional discomfort is the primary impediment to healing childhood wounds and showing up more present in daily life.
To begin to overcome your triggers, here are the five steps of what I call Trigger Work:
Admitting and accepting your insecurities.
Acceptance is achieved when you are able to notice and accept that you sometimes get triggered, that other people also get triggered, and that sometimes others get triggered by things that you do or say. You accept that a certain amount of emotional discomfort comes with the territory of relating with others. Acceptance also means you do not judge yourself as bad or wrong for getting triggered or for triggering someone else. You know it is normal. You may not like that you get triggered, but you know that it happens to almost everyone.
Learning your unique trigger signature.
Your handwriting has a characteristic look and feel. It may be small and constricted, big and bold, or somewhere in between. Similarly, most of your trigger reactions will look somewhat similar to one another and will arise from the same core fear (like fear of rejection, abandonment, not being good enough, not being heard, and so on).
Our trigger signature is an expression of our attachment style. If we have a preoccupied/anxious attachment style, we are more likely to pursue, prod, question, argue, challenge, or attack when we get triggered. If we have a more avoidant attachment style, we tend to shut down, withdraw, defend, explain, judge silently, or try to fix things when we are triggered. Knowing your unique trigger signature helps you quickly recognize the fact that you are getting triggered. This is a big step toward trigger mastery.
By the time you begin to recognize what your trigger reactions look like and feel like, you already have some ability to notice and take ownership of the fact that you sometimes get triggered. That's part of the admitting and accepting step. But noticing a trigger reaction while in the midst of being reactive is not easy! When you are triggered, your ability to notice tends to go offline. That's why you need to practice pausing. This is the next step.
Pausing to regulate yourself.
Pausing requires that you notice yourself doing some aspect of your trigger signature (like arguing or defending yourself), and you stop doing that. You can say "pause" to yourself or out loud. Some partners make a pause agreement, so that when either person says "pause," both will stop talking and silently take 10 slow, conscious breaths through the nose.
Self-regulation involves turning your attention inward and calming your nervous system, perhaps doing slow, deep breathing or some other body-awareness practice. This step is your first aid for reactivity. It is one of life's basic stress-management tools. I wish more grade schools would teach this, but it's never too late to learn.
The challenge, of course, is learning to do this under one of life's most stressful conditions—being triggered by someone who is important to us.
Being with sensations and emotions.
Once you have learned to consciously attend to your breath and body, you will find it easier to notice your sensations and emotions—the tension in your throat, the pain in your heart, any sadness, fear, or helplessness.
This step involves taking the position of the "witness" or "noticer"—noticing the breath going in and out; noticing feelings, sensations, images, memories, and mind chatter; watching these internal impressions enter and exit your awareness field; watching for changes in their quality or intensity; watching them move around to different locations in your body.
As the noticer, your attention is on the sensations being witnessed—so you are both the one having sensations or feelings and the one witnessing yourself having sensations or feelings. It's as if your awareness has two perspectives simultaneously. This enables you to hold space for yourself, to comfort yourself. This dual awareness is also the foundation for a more intimate or friendly relationship with yourself.
Repairing and clearing the air.
If a trigger reaction (even a subtle reaction like withdrawing or freezing) occurs during an interaction with another person, it can be helpful to approach this person later to reconnect, repair the damages, apologize, or have a do-over. This step is not appropriate for some situations because it generally requires the other person's agreement or consent. So sometimes you will not use this step.
If the triggered behavior occurs with a partner or spouse, a close friend, or a child, then a repair will be necessary. In other situations, what is done for repair depends on the relationship—how close or interdependent people are, and how important the relationship is.
Typically, this step involves setting aside an agreed-upon time for repair, and then, once that time arrives, you will:
- Acknowledge you were triggered.
- Apologize, if appropriate.
- Reveal the emotional roots of the reaction.
- Ask for connection or reassurance.
Repair looks something like this: "When I walked out, I was triggered. I'm sorry I did that. It was probably my fear coming up that my needs don't matter. If I could do it over, if I could tell you what was really in my heart, I wish I could have asked for reassurance that we're OK and that my needs do matter."
These five steps, while they each involve their own specific practices, are also interdependent—so a gain in one of the five areas will result in a gain in all areas.
For example, the better you get at offering compassion to yourself, the easier it will be to accept that you get triggered. Or the sooner you are able to execute a pause, the easier the repair step will go since you stop yourself from saying hurtful things and will have less "damage" to repair. Even though these five steps are presented sequentially, they are actually mutually reinforcing.
Adapted from an excerpt from the book From Triggered to Tranquil. Copyright © 2021 by Susan Campbell. Reprinted with permission from New World Library. www.NewWorldLibrary.com.
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Susan Campbell, Ph.D., is a relationship coach and the author of eleven books on relationships and conflict resolution. After earning her Ph.D. in Clinical/Counseling Psychology from the University of Massachusetts in 1967, she went on to become a member of that school's Graduate Faculty until 1977, when she left there to join the graduate faculty of Saybrook University in San Francisco.
She leads seminars internationally and has appeared on CNN’s NewsNight and Good Morning America. Dr. Campbell has also directed a think tank, run nonprofit organizations, consulted to Fortune 500 companies, and guest lectured at the Harvard, Stanford, and UCLA business schools. She works with private clients through her relationship coaching practice and lives in Sonoma County, California.
More information at www.SusanCampbell.com.