Emotional triggers impact all of our relationships. What are they?

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“I knew we had to get in to couples counseling. We have a wonderful relationship, but I knew that this was too big for the both of us”

“It was too big for both of us” is what led me to the topic of my blog this week. One of the most complicated challenges of a relationship are ‘emotional triggers’. We need to have awareness of them and then manage them.

I am reminded daily of the necessity to recognize our ‘emotional triggers’. All of us have them. Why? Sadly, all of us have experienced pain in our life.

So, what is an emotional trigger?

Simply explained (I say simply because they are complicated) an emotional trigger is –

“In a current experience we feel a familiar feeling of pain that we experienced in our past”

Let me use an example to explain further –

During a therapy session, a married woman expressed to me that she missed the person that she was in the past. And yet, she shared that it was complicated because she also felt shame about who she was in the past. She expressed that, in the past, she sought the attention of men and enjoyed that attention. Presently, she said she was depressed, feeling lost and unhappy. She didn’t know what to do. As we continued our conversation I asked her – “how is everything going in your relationship with your husband?”

“Fine” she said, “except that he has been in a bit of a mood for over a week due to work challenges. I understand and feel badly for him.”

Intuitively, and based on our past work together, I asked her if she felt somewhat disconnected from him.

She said, “Well, yes (said with surprise awareness), actually, I do.”

“What do you feel and go through when you feel disconnected from your husband?”

She said, “Well, I understand what he is going through, so I just accept it.”

“But,” I asked again, “how does it affect you?”

“Well it’s actually painful, I’m sad and lonely.”

“Are these familiar feelings?”

“Oh my (stunned) yes, I felt these painful feelings when I was young. My father was not a part of my life and it was painful, that is why I sought the attention of men.”

Everything in that moment was crystal clear. She was experiencing an ‘emotional trigger’

She felt disconnected from her husband, which unknowingly triggered a painful experience and feelings from her past. In the past, she coped with her pain by seeking the attention of men. In the present, her husband was not rejecting her in the way that she experienced rejection from her father, which is why she could not identify her trigger. (My mantra for emotional triggers – it feels the same but it’s not the same.)

Her thoughts inevitably led her to think about coping with this pain in the same way as she did in the past. However, she had no intention of seeking the attention of men but she did not know another way to cope with the pain that she was presently feeling. Once she identified this as an emotional trigger – she felt relief. AND, with her new self-awareness she knew that she could turn to her husband and share her awareness without placing any blame on him. In essence, she could turn to her husband to aid in healing her pain. Our triggers don’t go away, but they can be tended to and we can ask others to help us with our painful triggers.

Another example:

During a couples counseling session, a wife cried as she expressed to her husband that she hated when he approached her sexually. He looked horrified, as he can’t imagine why she would feel this way. He is a kind and gentle man. During our session, his wife discovers that she feels the terror that she felt in the past when her abuser was about to sexually abuse her, and her abuser was someone who she loved. You can see why this is a trigger for her.

Another example – an abusive work setting can trigger memories of being bullied as a child. Or an aggressive driver can trigger feelings of being bullied as a child. The list goes on and on.

People say to me “it’s in the past, why can’t I just get over it?” or “why can’t I just let it go?” or “it shouldn’t affect me like this anymore”. We need to put an end to our “get over it culture”.

Here is the truth:

“If we ignore, deny, or disbelieve that the past does not affect the present – it places you in the position of your past actually controlling you. If you have self-awareness of your triggers – you can manage them”

How do you manage them?

First – you must identify them. As you read in my first example, this can be challenging.

Here are some suggestions:

If you find that you are experiencing a ‘strong’ emotional reaction that even to you appears to be ‘too strong’, do not invalidate yourself or disregard your emotion; instead, use it as a tool toward self-awareness. Ask yourself if this is a familiar feeling from your past; not a familiar situation, just a familiar feeling.

Are you having difficulty letting go of an experience, encounter or a feeling? Again, ask yourself – is this a familiar feeling?

Once we recognize our emotional triggers – then what do we do?

The first thing we need to do is honor our pain with self-compassion and self-empathy.

Next – it is important to recognize the differences in your present experience compared to your past experience. This is challenging because it can feel exactly the same as the past therefore, our body and our brain tells us it is exactly the same.

However there are differences, as I shared with you in my first example, my client’s husband simply was experiencing work difficulties – he had no idea or intention that his turmoil would hurt or impact his wife as it did. My second example – in the case of a wife who experienced past sexual abuse – her husband is not going to hurt her or force her to do anything that she does not want to do. Third – in the case of bullying – while someone may be aggressive, there are mostly likely nuances of small differences. For example, not everyone driving aggressively on the road is doing so in an attempt to bully. They may be in a desperate rush to get to the hospital after hearing terrifying news. And while there are times that the experience is closely similar, it is different because you are in a different space and time.

One final thought – we can help those we love or they can help you so that we do not perpetuate pain and triggers from the past. I will always remember when I unknowingly bumped in to one of my husband’s emotional triggers. We had an argument; I left for work without saying good-bye to him. I came home from work and his anger had escalated since I went to work. I was confused, what had happened? Well, he felt terribly rejected. For me, I didn’t think he would want me to say good-bye to him due to the argument we had. However, I bumped in to a wound, a painful one for him. Yes, to a degree, I was rejecting him by not saying good-bye and to someone without a rejection wound, my leaving without saying good-bye would not affect him or her. Remember:

“When we bump into an emotional trigger, it is like dumping salt on an open bloody wound”

Since then, I always say good-bye, even if an argument is left unresolved, because I don’t want to perpetuate that trigger and that pain. It isn’t that I’m responsible for it, but I can respond to his wound with compassion and empathy.

Managing triggers is complicated because it is far easier to see a trigger as exactly the same than it is to identify the differences. However, if you see it as the same, it is traumatizing. If you can find some small nuances of differences, it can make all the difference for you.

Thanks for reading!

 One more thing… I really would love for you to share your thoughts with me. I know it is not easy to do! I understand because it took me a long time to work up the courage to begin blogging! But I want to get to know you. When you feel ready, please feel free to share your thoughts with me in the comment section.

About commenting on my blog – I am reminded of when I taught in the College classroom. I encouraged conversation. HOWEVER, I always let my students know that I wanted them to feel emotionally safe in the classroom. The same is true for the community that I wish to create with my blog. You will be safe. I am passionate about protecting those who are willing to open themselves up and share with all of us. Everyone should feel that they can express their thoughts and opinion without the worry of being criticized, attacked and hurt. Disagreement is fine, of course, as long as it is respectful of the other person. We can all learn from one another with love and respect. I want your comments; I want to learn from you just like I learned from my students. But only when you feel ready to do so. Like I said, it took me a very long time to find the courage to blog. So I don’t want to push you, only reassure you 🙂

Here is my gift to you, my new e-Book! I’ve included the lesson that saved my marriage. I care about the work that I put out to you, and I hope it is helpful. Please let me know! 

And you can keep up with my writing on relationships, random thoughts and more by subscribing hereI’m here to help and to know that you are out there reading means so much to me!

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Details of any stories told in my blogs have been changed to protect the identity of people that I work with in therapy.

Photo Credit: Mitua Ku@flickr.com

Emotional triggers impact all of our relationships. What are they?
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Emotional triggers impact all of our relationships. What are they?
One of the most complicated challenges of a relationship are ‘emotional triggers’. We need to have awareness of them and then manage them.

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