How to Deal with Emotional Triggers

A red-haired woman dressed in a black open jacket leaning her hand against a tree, and looking away and down in disappointment.

How to deal with emotional triggers is a post I will revisit for the rest of my life.

A couple of weeks ago I was emotionally triggered by a friend who brought home an important lesson.

After weeks of consulting our calendars and going back and forth, she and I were finally on the phone. Two minutes into our conversation, she said, “Oh, my son just arrived. I’ll have to call you back.”

The moment we hung up, I felt a surge of emotion in the middle of my chest. A voice piped up inside my head. It’s happening again. You’re not important.

Anger, frustration, and sadness mingled together. Nobody has time for you, the voice nagged. It was a familiar voice, one that had been with me since childhood.

I wrote my friend an email letting her know that this was the second time she’d hung up on me because one of her adult children had showed up. She replied and let me know that her children came first in her world.

You didn’t have that kind of love, the voice taunted. And you never will.

My friend had simply peeled the scab of my old childhood wound.

My alcoholic father’s attention had been on the bottle. My bottle comes first.

My mother’s attention had always been trained on my father and his whereabouts. She constantly worried and prayed that he’d come home without crashing the car. My husband comes first.

So I grew up not feeling seen or heard. I don’t matter was my story.

I married a man who is a wonderful, caring, loving husband, and a great provider. He has, for most of our married life, worked long hours. My work comes first. It took me many years to break free of the belief that I needed to come first in his life.

And when I thought I’d finally healed the wound, here it was, rearing its head again. My friend had triggered the very same wound.

I had chosen each one of them to heal the belief that I needed their attention to be worthy. Interesting.

I recognized the voice, the feeling, and the energy behind what was happening. I closed my eyes and breathed into it. I let the tears that wanted release to flow down my face. I was completely present to what was happening. No judgment. No self-criticism. No self-blame.

When the emotion had passed, I felt lighter and freer. My friend wrote me an email apologizing for having to jump off our call. I’m sorry. It was not my intention to hurt you, she said. You didn’t hurt me, I replied. I did it to myself.

We set up another time to chat. When we got on the phone, one of her sons called and she hung up on me to speak to him. But this time I felt nothing. I smiled and said: “Of course you need to speak to him. Call me when you’re free.”

I was finally free. The trigger was gone.

What was different this time? a) I stayed with the discomfort, instead of focusing all my energy on blaming my friend. b) I allowed myself to move through the anger and sadness with compassion. c) I took ownership for my feelings by writing the words You didn’t hurt me; I did it to myself.

What to do when people and situations trigger you:

  1. Tune into the feelings in your solar plexus.
  2. Say to yourself: I’m not going to move away from this situation just because it’s uncomfortable.
  3. Remain open to the message from the trigger.

Common mistakes we make with triggers:

  1. We avoid people and situations that trigger us.
  2. We dislike that which is different from what we know.
  3. We hang out with like-minded people and engage in the same conversations.

We need to learn how to be with people and situations that are uncomfortable for it is those people and those situations that help us heal by bringing our triggers to the surface.

“The most uncomfortable situations in life hold the greatest potential for growth,” says spiritual teacher Panache Desai. “People spend much of their lives running away from people who trigger them–but I run toward them. I jump into environments where I’m triggered, because it’s the only way to authentically dissipate these energies…I put myself into these uncomfortable situations because I don’t want there to be anywhere in the world where I am not at home.”

How to deal with triggers:

  • When you encounter a person or situation that triggers you, become aware of that recoiling sensation in your body.
  • Ask the question: Why is this getting under my skin?
  • Open to the message of the trigger. It may not be pretty or comfortable, but the trigger is showing you something about yourself.
  • As you move through life, notice when someone gets under your skin. Be open to the deepest feelings that are being dredged up from within you.
  • Be curious and ask: What is this trigger telling me that I need to know?

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