I don’t like the word ‘triggered’ but I had such a crystal clear example of this happening to me this week, so I'm taking a minute to unpick what's going on and offer myself some compassion and breathing space. This is not ‘here and now’ stuff, it’s a reminder of old wounds. I shared this on Instagram and it really resonated with people so I've gone into more detail here, in case it helps anyone else notice when triggers come up for them. Bringing awareness to what's going on is a hugely helpful first step:
I’ve had a week of not feeling seen or heard - of feeling unimportant. Someone prioritised a lot of other things above my feelings, and were well within their rights to do so. But it still really hurts.
I can't change how they behave, or even how they think and feel about the situation. All I can do is take some space and sit with how I’m feeling, trying really hard not to react.
*React = an impulsive, often destructive or escalating behaviour.
*Respond = a considered behaviour which usually creates a more helpful outcome.
What are 'triggers'?
The term is used to describe what happens when present stimuli reminds you of past events. Triggers usually lead to reactions where our emotions take over and we act from a place of dysregulation. We can feel hijacked by old programming and often this doesn't 'make sense' to the people around us - or even ourselves. The reaction often seems disproportionate to the stimuli - instead it's probably in proportion to the past event it's reminding your brain of.
We each have our unique set of triggers, based on previous experiences and to what extent we have processed them. This week gave me an opportunity to shine a light on something that really pushes my buttons. Once I'd identified this it really helped me step out of 'emotional hijack' mode and respond more calmly.
Knowing Your Personal Triggers
Coincidentally, I was listening to Gabor Mate on The Diary of A CEO podcast yesterday and they captured perfectly the way that different things will trigger different people.
Steven Bartlett described his friend being triggered whenever he was told he's wrong about something. This made his friend so angry, because there was a belief or deep fear that he was ‘stupid’ (perhaps from being told that as a child). It makes perfect sense.
For me, being told I’m wrong doesn’t matter, because I trust in my overall intelligence and was never told that I’m ‘stupid’. I might feel upset or slightly embarrassed that I'd made a mistake, but I wouldn't be triggered into a seemingly disproportionate reaction.
My personal trigger this week was being told in a friendship context that ‘you’re not the priority here.’ This massively upset me and I felt trampled, discarded, and about two inches tall. For other people it might not bother them. They know they are prioritised and valued somewhere else and probably wouldn't react.
In my case, I really struggled with close friendships as a child and was always on the periphery of groups - possibly because we moved around a lot (I went to three different primary schools) and I never learnt how to integrate into a 'secure' place in friendship groups. This has echoed throughout my adult life, where I am super sociable and great at acquaintances, but find really close friendships harder to cultivate. When I do have them, I prioritise them so highly and am devastated if they break down.
So what happened this week was a reminder and realisation: 'you're not that important, you're just an acquaintance.' Ooft I found that so hard to digest! In my head, I really connected with this person and so was really upset to see the friendship diminished in value. I'm not sure they see it that way, but this was my emotional reaction: 'how embarrassing that you thought they valued you, and they didn't.' A big flick of shame at myself. Of course this triggered a whole spiral of self-worth-doubting and feeling sorry for myself.
Old Triggers, Old Stories:
In this situation, my reactive brain went into overdrive:
'You're so bad at friendships, of course they wouldn't prioritise you over dating.'
'You're only superficially important to people, you don't have anyone who is really there for you.'
'This has happened before, it must be your fault.'
'You're not good enough to deserve close friendships.'
My internal narrative can be absolutely brutal when it gets hijacked. It's also super creative and very convincing. Spelling it out like this helps me see it so clearly from the outside and realise what's going on.
The antidote? Listen and question. Regulate. Step away. Get help with perspective. Change the story. Offer self-compassion.
Writing now, from a place of regulation and calm, I know that none of those above statements are true. But, it makes sense why my anxious brain might think those things. I can have a kind of conversation with myself: you don't need those nasty stories any more.
Counter them with things that I do know to be true:
'I am lucky to have a mixture of people in my life, but I can't be as important to everyone as I might like to be.'
'People are going to disappoint you, just as you will disappoint others sometimes. This is part of life and it is a practice to be able to be let down without it shaking your whole sense of self-worth.'
'Close friendships and relationships are a sensitive area for me, because I would like more close connections that I currently have. This is something to tread carefully around and work towards healing and supporting.'
'There are a handful of people who you mean a lot to and are very loved by. Remember that they are there.'
By reaching out and spending time with people who I feel important to, I've got my perspective back. I've also done extensive journaling, some breathwork, some exercise, and all my other tools which help me reground and move through hijack and overwhelm.
Next time a wobble happens with a friendship, hopefully I will be able to remember this, intervene, and regulate myself more quickly. A trigger is there, but I begin to have some choice over whether I react to it.
Being Sensitive to Triggers
You know how the people who know us best can have the most brutal comebacks in an argument, because they know how to push our most sensitive buttons?
Being aware of triggers is really similar ( if not the same thing) as this. By knowing what our most sensitive buttons/triggers are, we can share them and strengthen our relationships.
Thinking back to the example in the podcast, Steven's friend could explain to his loved ones that being told 'you're wrong' is a trigger for him, and it would help everyone understand what was going on for him. They might still have to tell him sometimes, and shouldn't have to tread on eggshells around him, but at least they would get it if he had a big reaction.
Similarly, if people know our triggers and seem to press them on purpose, maybe that needs some serious questioning about whether we want to be around them anymore.
Sometimes the 'triggering' might not be done on purpose, but it still happens repeatedly. For example, I have a few friends who I get on well with in person but they almost never reply to my messages. This makes me feel unimportant and like I didn't matter, so I have let those connections go. It's sad to lose them, but helps me stay regulated and calm when I focus my energy on people who do respond and reciprocate.
Self-Compassion for Triggering Moments
Most importantly, I'm trying to be gentle with myself when all of this happens. Being harsh and critical really doesn't help. Nor does telling myself that I 'shouldn't be feeling like this' or 'stop being so sensitive.'
I might need to be firm, but I can do this really kindly to myself:
'This makes sense that this is really hard for you.'
'I know you want to be seen and heard, but in the past, reacting has caused you more hurt.'
'Be gentle and do something calming and nourishing for yourself.'
As you can see, this looks a lot like re-parenting an inner child. What does that past, triggered part of me need to hear? How do they need to be held?
I honestly believe that if we were all able to do this for ourselves, there would be so much less friction in the world. It's such an essential skill and by breaking down a 'case study' version for myself it has brought so much clarity. I hope that it helps me be better resourced next time something triggering comes up - as it inevitable will.
If you have any tips or tales of dealing with triggers, I'd love to hear about them in this linked Instagram post. Sending love to everyone, because there is a LOT to deal with at this time of year!
Take a breath.
Speak kindly to yourself.
💛 💛 💛