I am a crown prince of tiggering. Or I would be, if they gave out crowns and royal designations for getting triggered and acting a fool.
But, alas, they do not. Still, I have a colourful history of getting triggered and enacting outdated, inappropriate and toxic patterns - not an incredibly unique trait, I know. But one of the greatest journeys of my life so far has been studying the process of emotional triggering - as it unfolds within myself. Slowing it down while I am in it, learning the signature thoughts and feelings of various unconscious patterns that have traditionally subsumed me, and developing the awareness and emotional resilience to withstand this type of inner coup.
You know what it feels like to be triggered, right? All of a sudden, because of some external event, an explosion of emotion happens inside of you and you seem to slip out of full control of yourself. You impulsively, almost automatically regress into a default pattern of behavior.
Instead of consciously acting from a fully resourced place, you react from a habituated, unconscious program borne from previous experience - a program that may be completely mismatched with the present circumstances. It may have been appropriate when you were five or fifteen years old, but as an adult in the present moment, this emotion and energy might be totally misplaced.
Let me give you a personal example:
I’m talking to a friend on the phone and can hear them clicking on their laptop. They’re browsing mindlessly while we speak (about their stuff).
Which is to say that I have a lightning quick, impulsive emotional response to this. Which in this case is to get frustrated, close my heart, but outwardly try to pretend that it’s all good. Even to myself.
The net result?
My friend picks up on my frustration, and becomes self conscious about what’s happening. They’re on edge, but don’t bring it up for fear of further provocation.
We continue talking as though none of this invisible interplay is happening under the surface, and they continue clicking while browsing online.
By the end of our conversation one of two things have happened: 1. My frustration has spilled out in a messy, awkward and possibly confrontational way (on an energetic level this is actually happening the whole time) - or 2. I’ve managed to bury it sufficiently that it has simply permeated my being, and I’ll leave our conversation toxified on my own repressed emotion - and my friend will have been affected by it also.
Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?
And here’s the thing: If I had not allowed my old, outdated program of silence and withholding to take over, none of that would have happened. In a fully resourced state, I would have noticed my friend was distant and distracted, and simply said: I feel like your attention is elsewhere, would it be possible for you to be more present right now, or is there a better time for us to talk?
That’s it. So easy, so obvious, so clean.
But a long time ago, a young version of myself learned that when he expressed his subtle feelings and needs like this, he would be rejected or even punished for it - hence the stifled, maladaptive response.
Within this dynamic is an extraordinary opportunity: To catch the pattern before it fully engages, and choose a new, healthy, evolutionary response.
The example I gave above is a pretty tame, plain one, but I’m guessing if you put yourself under the microscope you’ll find many such instances of “automated” responses throughout your days. Your most common default patterns may be different: You might shrink into the background when you’re triggered, or you might overcompensate through extroversion or competitiveness. You might distract, project or go numb.
Whatever the case is, although your personal style might be unique, the dynamic overall is not.
The real adventure is in these moments - this is where our emotional and spiritual muscle gets to develop and flourish. What follows are some simple steps that I’ve found profoundly helpful in transforming my own “trigger response”.
They are probably going to sound deceptively simple and obvious; that’s because they are. Don’t be fooled by this, however. While mastering one’s inner world in this realm appears to be very simple on a technical level, when you throw in the disorienting cocktail of heightened emotion, shit gets real.
This is the first and most fundamental, most basic and probably also the most difficult step. You need to notice that you are triggered. This means having a strong relationship to your calm, grounded, centred conscious awareness, so that when you’re knocked out of it you can quickly recognize: Hey, I’m filled with fear right now! Or, hey, this is the voice of toxic shame suddenly screaming inside my head.
The amazing thing about being emotionally triggered is that there are signature feelings (or physiological responses) and thoughts (or cognitive responses) that accompany it.
When you become familiar with these signature responses, you can detect them - and your emotional triggering - right away.
Some examples of such signature feelings might be: A clenched jaw (in the case of frustration), shallow breathing, blushing, hunched shoulders, a feeling of darkness, a closed heart, a feeling of inner heat or pressure throughout the body, a spontaneous impulse toward competitiveness or indignation, or a generalized feeling of sickness or toxicity. This list could obviously go on and on, but you get the idea.
Some signature thoughts might carry themes of extreme self deprecation (or narcissism, conversely), negativity and defeat, shame, hostility, hatred and hopelessness.
When you know these feelings and voices you can recognize them as they arise, before they fully bloom and you get totally drunk and stoned on your emotional triggering, to the point where you actually believe what you're thinking.
Step one (notice) is nothing unless it gets followed up with a healthy pause.
Once you’ve noticed the pattern, you can choose to interrupt it. This is as simple as it sounds, but again, in the moment, seized by emotion, it can actually be very difficult.
It requires that, once we are aware of what is happening in us, we have the discipline to take a time out. To step back from our emotion, even when a significant part of ourselves might want to just lash out, collapse, or otherwise give in to the pattern.
It’s at this moment that we may need to just breathe. And then breathe. And then breathe. To center ourselves, regain composure, come back to a place of strength and power (true power - which is of course power over our selves).
It may turn out that we need to assert ourselves in some way, or remove ourselves from the situation that triggered us entirely, but when one is committed to breaking out of their outdated, unconscious patterns, taking any action in a highly emotionally triggered state is not usually wise.
We want to pause long enough to see what’s happening in ourselves, and maybe even to process some of our internal needs. There may be a wound that has been touched off in us, which we now have an opportunity to nurture in the moment, if there is space for it (or the people we are around are safe to do this with). If not, maybe we need to excuse ourselves and make that space.
At this moment I’m not going to completely jump down the rabbit hole of emotional processing - but it must be noted that owning and addressing the underlying hurt at the core of our trigger-responses is fundental.
In some cases it might actually be appropriate to ream someone out for crossing your boundaries in some way. But it is simply good practice to, first and foremost, pause - by doing this we disengage old patterns and give ourselves the ability to act consciously.
FROM PAUSE TO DISCHARGE
Once you have noticed and paused (or disengaged), an additional step is to discharge.
In the simplest of terms, this means releasing the emotional and energetic charge that has been activated, so that you can return fully to grounded, empowered consciousness and choose how to respond consciously.
Simply breathing deeply into the abdomen or heart might do this for some individuals some times. In other cases, it might be important to verbalize some of what you are feeling in a safe way (in other words, make sure that if you are with someone else, that they know you are consciously processing emotion, not dumping your triggered feelings on them, and that they are okay with this). It can be as simple as saying “I’m afraid” or “I’m sad” or verbalizing whatever the feeling is you are experiencing. Bringing our feelings into the open has a magical way of discharging them.
Other helpful techniques for de-potentiating highly charged emotion include things like basic EFT. For the purpose of this post, I'll just touch the surface here, but the list of tools and modalities that are helpful in releasing highly charged emotion is lengthy.
And, of course, it’s amazing how much simply pausing and breathing deeply into the heart, or giving our feelings a voice in a safe and appropriate context, can help.
Once we have discharged the intensity, we might be able to see more clearly what is going on for us, and take care of ourselves in a mature way.
In the case of my conversation with a distracted friend above, I could have paused the conversation as soon as I noticed my frustration. Because my friend is a on a conscious path, they would be very open to me stopping to process what was going on with me emotionally. I could then begin giving a voice to my feelings: I feel frustration.... I feel like you're distracted....
BOOM - the cause and solution become clear just like that. The cause being my unmet need for presence in the conversation, and the solution being saying that's what I need (duh).
It may sound mundane, and it's true that I didn't choose a very salacious example, but for each and every one of us, when we are able to slow down our automatic responses and instead make an evolutionary response, it's incredibly significant.
Done enough, it will completely transform your world.
THE EMOTIONAL WARRIOR'S PATH
I read an interview with the great Erykah Badu recently in which she recounts a scene from one of the contemporary Star Wars films: In this scene Qui-Non Jinn (a Jedi) and Darth Maul (a dude who went to the dark side) are standing on opposite sides of a door, ready for it to open at any moment, at which time they will immediately enter combat with one another.
This door they are both perched against can open at any second, and yet as they wait, Qui-Non Jinn kneels down on the floor and closes his eyes for a few seconds.
Then he gets back up, and the scene unfolds.
Again, that door could have opened at any minute, but the need for him to get centred was so fundamental, it did't matter.
This is exactly what I'm talking about here: When fully realized, navigating a trigger can be as graceful as a few seconds of breathing in the heat of the moment. But to have that fortitude, that ability to know when you are out of your power and be able to come back to your centre of gravity, that’s some real Jedi stuff there.
And if you’ve read this far, something tells me you’re on that kind of path.