Recognizing Your Emotional Triggers

“Stop pushing my buttons” is an idiom people use to convey a message.  It may be annoyance, frustration, guilt or a variety of emotions.  You see, everyone has buttons or triggers.  The key is recognizing your emotional triggers. In the first of a two-part series on emotional triggers, I will answer three questions:
  1. What are emotional triggers?
  2. Where do they come from?
  3. How do they affect us?

What are emotional triggers?

Emotional or mental triggers are areas of sensitivity that develop during the course of life.  They are universal in the sense that everyone has them.  Yet, they are also unique to the individual. Generally, they happen early in life.  How does this happen? Everyone has basic human needs: survival, security, food and shelter, belonging, intimacy, and a sense of purpose, to name a few.  When these needs are met life is good.  However, when they are not met in a consistent manner it disrupts life and our development from infants to adults. Our minds have the ability to store information in categories or files based on repeated experiences.  These files are stored in our unconscious mind.  The larger the file, the greater the likelihood it will become a trigger. When a basic human need is not fully met we develop emotional triggers.  Here are some examples of emotional triggers and mental triggers.  Note the sequence of trigger, basic need, triggering thought, followed by possible action.
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Emotional  Trigger Basic Need Triggering Thought Action
 Guilt Freedom I will be blamed or held responsible React in anger or try harder to prove yourself
Shame Love I am humiliated Feeling embarrassed, hide, cover up, or passive-aggressive response
Fear Security I worry about what will happen Try to control situations or choose to avoid them
Pride Recognition I get no recognition for my hard work Work harder or find alternative ways to feel important
Anger Control I will not allow others to control me Aggressive or passive-aggressive reaction to threat of control
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Mental  Trigger Basic Need Triggering Thought Action
Abandonment Belonging I will be alone Cling to others or leave them before they leave you
Failure Succeed I am failing others Try harder, give up, or blame others
Rejection Acceptance I am not good enough Try harder to gain approval or give up
Criticism Encouragement It’s never good enough Try harder, give up, or criticize
Judgment Grace I will be punished Live in fear of judgment from others

Where do they come from?

Most emotional triggers are formed early in our developmental years from childhood through adolescence. When basic needs are not met fully, we form internal messages or mistaken beliefs. Here are a few examples.  “I am never good enough.”  “It’s always my fault.” “I don’t matter.” “Nothing good ever happens.”  “I am unlovable.”  “I cannot depend on others.”  “I have to be perfect.”  “I must have done something wrong.”

Attached to these mistaken beliefs are emotions we feel.  During childhood they are often suppressed.  In adulthood when they are triggered we feel them with greater intensity.  It’s an emotional trigger.  As adults we are more likely to express than suppress our emotions.

Let me share with you an emotional trigger I had to deal with in my life and how it affected an important relationship.

How do they affect us?

Emotional triggers function on a daily basis in varying degrees of intensity from low to extreme. At certain times or situations the triggers are higher, and often result in extreme reactions. Here are ten common ways emotional triggers can have a negative affect:
  1. They become a barrier to personal achievement.
  2. They make us feel insecure or inferior to others.
  3. They can disrupt relationships.
  4. They can cause an over-reaction toward others.
  5. They can interfere in work performance.
  6. They can cause low self-esteem or self-confidence.
  7. They can encourage bad behavior.
  8. They contribute to feelings of depression and/or anxiety.
  9. They distort perception.
  10. They can lead to wrong assumptions about others.

Next Week Part 2

How to Master Emotional Triggers
Next week I will focus on how you can master emotional triggers so they don’t wreak havoc in your personal life and interpersonal relationships.  Getting control over your triggers will have a positive impact in your life.

Now it’s your turn

Were you able to identify your emotional or mental triggers from the list above?  If so, that’s a good start.  Now, it might be good to make the connection between the trigger and it’s origin.  For me, it took a walk.  On other occasions, I journaled my reflections on my emotional triggers. What is your plan?  Leave a comment below and share one idea you have to get started on making the connection.