You know what really triggers me? When people use the word trigger the way I just did. Perhaps you've been hearing this lately, usually with regard to bad behavior inspired by someone else's bad behavior: "I'm only yelling because your attitude really triggers me." "Maybe I shouldn't have run over him, but I got triggered when he took my parking spot." "Your Honor, my client Dr. Lecter did kill and eat the victim, but let the record show that it was raining on his birthday, which is very triggering for him." Triggered: our culture's get-out-of-jail-free card.

Here's the problem, though: Reflexively insisting "I was triggered!" allows us to believe we're merely victims of circumstance, a passive gun being fired by someone else's hand. Which makes it easy never to take responsibility for anything, ever.

The principle to keep in mind is that triggers explain—they don't excuse. Emotional triggering is, at root, a survival response. Our brains create powerful associations between things that hurt us and whatever happened to be occurring when we got hurt. Once you've been hit by lightning, even though you know that the odds of its happening again are astronomically low, the touch of a single raindrop may send you running for cover.

It's easier to forgive misbehavior in ourselves and others once we understand this powerful connection between environment, emotion, and reaction. But recognizing our triggers doesn't give us carte blanche to do whatever we want, everyone else be damned. On the contrary, it makes us responsible for recognizing triggering situations so we can change our unconscious reactions. Really pondering the concept of triggering can guide us into wiser thoughts and actions.

Identifying your triggers is key.

Take a moment to notice any strong negative emotion you're experiencing. If you're not feeling anything negative now, congratulate yourself, and then think about the last time you were upset. Whether your unpleasant feelings are present or past, don't judge or resist them. Send your memory backward in time to find the moment when you switched from "okay" to "not okay." Did you begin feeling bad at breakfast this morning? While going to bed last night? Earlier yesterday when you were making a soufflé, chewing gum, shaving your cat?

Once you recall the approximate time your mood went sour, notice what felt most upsetting: a comment from your boss, a story on the news, the number on the scale. Be patient with yourself as you search for the precise trigger. It's a delicate skill that takes practice. You might want to enlist the help of a therapist, a coach, or a friend, especially at first. But even on your own, tracing bad moods back in time will eventually help you spot the triggering event.

At the outset, this is an exercise in hindsight. You won't even think to identify your trigger until after it's pulled. But with continued attention, you'll start recognizing triggers sooner, and one day, even as you're firing off shouts or tears, part of you will be saying, "Oops, there I go again." You'll then have a choice: Continue to blast, or put the safety on your psyche.


Next Story