Emotional triggers are the surprises that we get when someone we love, or a situation, causes us to have a reaction that we haven’t processed yet.
For example, if you were yelled at as a child and you attached being yelled at to fear, you might get triggered as an adult when you are near someone yelling.
Triggers are typically childhood beliefs that aren’t necessarily true anymore and need to be addressed to save your relationships. Once you release your old triggers you can view the world from an entirely different place instead of through the eyes of a fearful child.
Important: If you’ve discovered that your emotional triggers cause you to be emotionally abusive and you’d like to change that about yourself, sign up for the life-changing Healed Being program over at healedbeing.com).
If you are currently in a relationship with someone who becomes triggered and is hurtful to you, listen to my podcast Love and Abuse to help you navigate through the difficulties.
In this article, I’d like to address eliminating emotional triggers in relationships. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll know exactly what triggers are and the steps you can take to decrease or completely dissolve them in your relationships and maybe even your life.
Triggers are powerful and can be quite damaging to relationships. Unfortunately, they’re practically unstoppable when they arrive and they can be quite damaging too. When you’re triggered you make decisions from that triggered state. These decisions are usually different than the ones you make when you are in your normal, non-triggered state. Your behavior changes, your motivation changes, almost everything about you changes.
It’s like you have an entirely different personality.
I want you to be able to experience life with clarity and purpose, not cloudiness from being in an altered emotional state (which is basically what happens when you get triggered).
Think about a trigger as something that upsets you. For example, you might get triggered when you see a sink full of dirty dishes. You might get triggered when someone leaves their toys all over the floor. Or you could get triggered when you see the toilet seat left up.
When triggers happen they change our mood. They change our behavior and our state of mind. Many of us walk around in a continuously triggered state causing us to see the world through clogged filters. And when we can’t see clearly we find it hard to make decisions and do behavior from a place of clarity.
In 2006 I met who I believed to be my soul mate. A woman to whom I was attracted physically, mentally, and emotionally. We hit it off immediately and I fell for her within a few days. In fact, we fell for each other fast.
We both dove into the relationship head-first knowing that we finally found “the one” that we wanted to spend the rest of our lives with. We both knew that this was our last relationship.
However, something happened in that first few weeks that set the tone for the next 8 years… I got triggered. She told me she was addicted to sugar.
At that time, I figured, “Who isn’t addicted to sugar?” Sugar is in a lot of food so I really didn’t take her comment too seriously. That is until I realized she truly had a challenge saying “no” to sweets.
At first, I disregarded her comment as unimportant but I soon started seeing the signs of her addiction: Her mood changes, her desperation for comfort food, and the times she told me she couldn’t remember purchasing sugary treats in the store, then downing them in the ca before she got home.
I got triggered badly. I didn’t take her admission of addiction seriously. Coming from a childhood with an alcohol-addicted parent, I didn’t want an addict in my life. I carried a belief that addicts were unsafe to be around. After spending 20 years in a house with an alcoholic I never wanted to revisit that kind of life again. But there I was back in a relationship with an addict.
I realize that sugar addiction and alcohol addiction are two different beasts, but to someone who’s been through the stress of an addictive household, I feared living in that kind of environment again. Her emotional eating triggered my fear that I was trapped with someone who couldn’t control their behavior. I also believed that when someone is addicted they couldn’t possibly love me. In childhood, I developed a perception that alcohol to my stepfather was more important than me. In the relationship with the sugar addict, I had that same feeling but this time with sugar.
My triggers activated and soon all my behavior was motivated from that triggered state. My attitude and behavior changed when her attitude and behavior changed because of her cravings. When she needed sugar or comfort food she was a different person. From my perception, she was nearly out of control when a craving came on.
In hindsight, had I known what I know now, I probably would have left the situation. Instead, I chose to stay.
I wanted her love, so I stayed.
I wanted the comfort she gave me, so I stayed.
I wanted everything a person could get from a healthy relationship, so I stayed.
The problem was that this was an unhealthy relationship in many ways.
One of those ways was her addiction, but the other was my reaction to her addiction. I could have responded out of compassion, supporting her, asking her what she needed from me, which may have allowed her to feel safe and find solutions on her own. But instead, I reacted out of ego, worrying about my needs not getting met, and upset that she loved sugar which meant that she didn’t love me.
This is the stuff that goes on in our heads sometimes though. We get into a situation, get triggered, then blame the other person for our triggers. In reality, my triggers were mine, and I needed to process and release them before ever having the ability to be there for her with compassion.
If I did get over my triggers, then I would have had a clear head on the best steps to take for me and for us. But I didn’t, not for a long time.
Almost from the very beginning of the relationship, I was triggered. While triggered, I couldn’t feel open and free to love and be happy. Being triggered was like being held back from happiness.
When I was triggered, I wasn’t able to fully express my full passion and love for my partner. I wasn’t there for her, I was only watching out for myself. And for about 7 years, I was continuously triggered. And for about 7 years, she closed off from me bit by bit.
That’s what happens when you’re triggered in any relationship. The person whose behavior you’re triggered by closes off little by little, because they feel less and less safe around you.
We got married in 3 years, then got a divorce 4 years after that. She closed her heart to me because I couldn’t open mine. And a year before she left, I was able to release my major triggers and became more open and free, able to love from a whole new place inside. But by that time, she could not trust me inside her heart again, so I was closed out permanently.
This is what happens when we get triggered, we slowly and surely cause the other person to take one more step back away from us so that they can protect themselves from us, even if their behavior is the cause of our trigger!
In other words, I got triggered by her addictive behavior, causing her to back away from me, closing the door on our relationship forever. I mean, no one can really cause our hearts to close, we actually do that ourselves out of protection. But there is usually a direct cause and effect in play, and it works both ways!
When she would eat emotionally, I would get triggered, and when I got triggered, she would sense it, and then eat emotionally. It was a vicious cycle, and there was no way out until one of us stopped the behavior.
I finally chose to address my triggers, but it was obviously too late to repair the damage that had been done. So we broke up, got a divorce, and went our own way. Lots of pain, lots of lessons. And we both needed a whole lot of growing and healing afterward.
So what does it take to process, and maybe even release a trigger? Let’s go there next.
A trigger is what happens when someone says or does something that causes a negative emotion to suddenly arise in you. It’s the fear and anger you get when getting cut off in traffic. It’s the sadness and maybe even rejection you feel when watching someone you love pick up a drink when they promised you they’d never drink again. It’s what happens inside you when you find out your business associate stole from you.
Triggers are those sudden, negative reactions that rise up within us when, what we hope or expect, is not met. Triggers are stored deep in our subconscious mind, just waiting for a familiar situation to appear so that they can be activated.
Think of triggers as old emotions being re-awakened when your brain senses what it believes to be a threat. A trigger can also be something positive too, like laughter. But in this article, I’m referring to types of triggers that feel bad.
A trigger is usually created once, then repeated over and over again throughout your life, until you release it. A trigger is usually created because of a survival need, and most often when we are children.
For example, one of my triggers was that when I sensed an addictive behavior in someone, I felt fearful and sad. This started as early as I can remember when the alcoholic in the house drank. As soon as I saw what he did when he was drunk, I became fearful and just wanted to survive. So my trigger about addictive behavior got created at that time.
This was extremely beneficial in the sense that it kept me safe from other addicts and their unpredictable behavior. By developing a survival behavior, or a trigger, I stayed safe. I knew what behavior to avoid, and kept that trigger throughout my life.
The drawback of having that trigger was that, in some contexts, it was inappropriate. In the context of living in an alcoholic home as a child, it was appropriate. I knew when to feel fear and when to be hyper-aware of everything going on around me. It was useful.
In the context of a more “normal” relationship, if I detected possible addictive behavior, and I got triggered, it may not have been appropriate to be triggered in that situation. The triggers can lie dormant in us for years until something happens that, well, triggers it.
That’s why it’s called a trigger. They are emotions and feelings that get shot out from our subconscious mind like a mousetrap gets triggered. The mousetrap of our mind is very sensitive and could trigger under the right circumstances. And a mousetrap could sit for years, with nothing to trigger it, until one day, Snap! It goes off and the bad emotions rise to the surface.
These bad emotions are usually from long ago. They were appropriate for a certain time in our life, but may no longer be applicable anymore. They were based on different circumstances and when we were younger and less capable of handling ourselves.
We brought them with us into today, where we are no longer children trying to figure out how to survive, but we’re adults relying on childhood beliefs to get us through some very adult situations.
Imagine that, we rely on childhood beliefs to get us through adult situations! We take how we learned to respond and survive as children into our careers, relationships, and other areas of life, and we wonder what’s wrong with the world because our only filter is what we see when we are triggered.
If you’ve ever been abused in any way, I know you know what I mean. Triggers come out of nowhere, and soon you’re wanting to run away. And the people exhibiting the behavior that is causing your triggers may not even know what’s happening to you. Their behavior could be completely unrelated to your triggers but have similar qualities or components that you find disconcerting or threatening.
And that’s the hardest part about triggers. They are typically old, negative beliefs that probably don’t apply to current situations. This creates havoc in what could otherwise be a healthy, happy relationship.
But the good news is, once you figure out that a trigger is based on old beliefs you can take a step or two toward eliminating that trigger if it no longer serves you. We’ll go there shortly.
When you’re triggered, old programming takes over. It’s that part of you that still believes it’s younger, and can’t handle what’s being thrown at you. You believe that what used to be true, still is.
For example, I used to believe that people who drank alcohol were dangerous or scary to be around. I also believed that when they drank, they didn’t like, or even love me. The reason I believed that is because when I was a child, I never got love or attention when my stepfather drank alcohol. I took this belief into my adult life as a trigger. This trigger contained within it all sorts of emotions like sadness, fear, loneliness, and I’m sure a few other things.
When I was around someone, especially a romantic partner, and they drank, I suddenly felt sad, afraid, and lonely. They would rather be with alcohol than with me. Of course, this is a thought from a child’s perspective. And that’s an important point:
Emotional triggers are almost always a child’s creation
Your triggers were most likely created when you were a child. When something happened that caused you to be upset, the more impactful it was, the more likely a trigger was formed. And the more it repeated, the more the trigger was reinforced, causing you to be really sensitive to circumstances similar to what created your trigger in the first place.
On top of that, when we’re children, we don’t realize exactly what caused us to be upset, so we make associations that aren’t always true.
For example, if as a child you dropped a glass in the kitchen that caused it to shatter, and your mom or dad came in and yelled at you for being so clumsy, you might relate fear to being yelled at. If you got yelled at multiple times for doing things like that, you would eventually develop a trigger that correlated fear with being clumsy or careless. This might cause you to become a super perfectionist, or super responsible.
Children are never clumsy, as they’re still learning the basics of coordination, but being a child, you believed it.
But, another trigger that might have been created at that time was that you fear being yelled at. You might cower, or just want to get away. Yelling could mean a number of things, but being triggered and fearful when someone yells is not a fun place to be, especially if you ever want to go anywhere where people are yelling and having a good time!
But childhood triggers like this play out when we’re adults, which can cause problems in our adult relationships. Emotional triggers are almost always created when we were children. But the problem is, they rarely get evaluated in the current circumstances. In this example, someone could be yelling, but it could mean anything. But the trigger still kicks in, causing you to feel a certain way.
It’s this feeling that usually gets us down. It’s this trigger, this thought association between what’s happening now and what happened long ago, that clouds our mind so we can’t think straight. Once we’re triggered, we start to believe things that may not be true. The person yelling may not be mad. Or they may be mad, but not at you. Or they may be mad at you. But the trigger makes you feel a certain way, and you react as if their yelling is always about you. And your fearful reaction is something you felt when you were a child.
One of the first and usually most difficult steps to take when wanting to avoid coming from a triggered place is to recognize when you are being triggered. This step is difficult because a trigger is an unconscious response. Meaning, you are not conscious of it happening and just suddenly feel a negative emotion come on.
In order to recognize when you’re being triggered, first ask yourself if anything in your relationship triggers you. Just think of a bad feeling you get when so and so does something.
For example, “When John smokes, I get triggered.”
Or, “When Mary puts me down in front of other people, I get triggered.”
Think of something that comes up for you.
Do you have something in mind? If not, just think of your intimate relationships. There’s always someone who triggers something in you. I have a relative that obligates me to do things for other people. It’s actually annoying and triggers me. It’s not a strong trigger, but it is there.
So when you have someone in mind, think about the trigger. What emotion comes up? Is it anger? Sadness? Fear? Think of the emotion or emotions (plural) that come up for you. What are they?
Just notice what they are. This is the first step:
Recognize the trigger and identifying the emotion that comes up.
What triggers you, and what emotions come up for you? There may be other thoughts mixed in there too. If so, that’s okay, but figure out what emotions are attached to those thoughts, and just realize what triggers you and what emotions come up because of that trigger.
Now that we have something to work on let’s move onto the next step.
If you’ve identified the trigger and the emotion, the next step is to ask yourself an important question:
“What is the earliest memory I have of feeling this way?”
What is it? What is the earliest memory you have of feeling this way? Think about way back in your past to recall what your earliest memory of this feeling is. Can you come up with anything?
Even if you can’t, sometimes you can come up with an age or a certain time in your life. Getting to the earliest memory can be a crucial part of the process, as that is typically when the trigger was formed.
What’s interesting is that by just recalling the moment you first felt this same feeling and these same emotions, you actually decrease the impact the trigger has on you now. Remember these triggers were created at one point in time, you weren’t born with them. Though, if you think you were, then go back to that moment either when you were born, or even before.
I know that may sound strange, and I’m not here to debate whether we have memories before a certain age, but I will say that how our subconscious stores these memories is what’s most important. If your subconscious mind thinks that the very first time this feeling or emotion happened was sometime before birth, or even sometime before conception, then that’s what you go with.
Whether the memory is really during or before birth or not doesn’t matter. Again, the subconscious mind organizes memories in the way it wants to organize them. So if there’s a belief in there that the first time you felt this way was a time that you weren’t even born yet, then let it be!
If you listened to the episode on “Repressed Emotions Cause Harm to the Body”, you may remember I said that thoughts need to flow, not be resisted, otherwise you create obstacles in your mind and body. Flowing thoughts keep your internal systems moving. Resisting what you think can’t possibly be true slows your systems down.
Thoughts are creations in the mind to help you process information. They are what happens inside to help you remember things, organize, prioritize, and even learn, grow, and heal. So no matter what form they come in, there’s always a message in every thought.
So just like there is a reason and moment in time when a trigger is formed, there’s also a reason and moment a thought is formed. So if your mind thinks you were 6 when this trigger was created, go with it. If your mind thinks it was created in a past life 20 generations ago, go with it.
It doesn’t matter what’s real, it matters how the brain stored the information. I once had a friend remember meeting me 21 lifetimes ago when she went to visit the moment her asthma started. I didn’t question whether it was true or not, I just had her go with it.
Once she did her asthma, at least in that moment, disappeared.
How did that happen? The answer is going beyond to remember what happened just before the trigger was formed. I’ll get into that next.
Now that we have some sort of age or period of time where we believe the trigger started, the next step is to recall what happened just before everything that led up to that event started. In other words, if you remember what happened that caused the trigger to form, do you remember what happened a day or a week, or even a year before that?
You see, what happens in our mind, and why triggers are so powerful and pervasive, is because we tend to never go beyond and before the trigger in order to get triggered. Wow, that sounded confusing. Let me explain that a little better:
Let’s say the trigger formed at 6 years old. When you are triggered today, the thoughts and emotions that come up are from the time you were 6 years old. If you’re at work and someone looks at you funny or says something that triggers you, the reaction you had at 6 comes out. Isn’t that interesting? We actually regress in age and behavior when we are triggered.
Let me repeat that, we regress in age and behavior when we are triggered. When my ex-wife would reach for sweets, I regressed to about 5 years old to a time when I was scared, felt alone, and felt unloved, because my stepfather reached for alcohol instead of reaching to give me a hug.
When I got triggered by my ex-wife just a few years ago, I felt like I was 5 years old again, as if it were the same situation. This is the old belief I carried with me well into my 30s.
Triggers cause you to repeat the emotions and behavior that you had when you were younger. They are time machines for your mind!
My point is that because we regress to a time younger than who we are now, we get stuck at the point that the trigger was created. In other words, I never regressed to 4, or 3, or even younger, because my brain knew that the way to respond was created at 5. My brain knew that when I come upon a similar situation that I had in the past, to refer to how I responded at age 5.
It’s almost a straight-forward stimulus-response behavior. Like when you’re driving along, see a police car, and immediately check your speedometer. Unless you’ve never had the experience of getting pulled over for speeding, you are likely to check your speedometer every time you see a police car on the road. Or at least get your foot ready to press the brakes.
That’s also a trigger. You see a police car on the road, you get triggered. A reaction occurs, and you press the brake or check your speedometer, or if you’re really scared, turn around and hope he never saw you!
So what we need to do is tell the brain to refer to a time in the past that is before your trigger was formed. We need to say to our brain, “Okay brain, the next time I am triggered, go before 6 years old (or whatever time period it is for you), and look for your response there.”
So when you get triggered today the brain has the ability to travel to a time before the trigger was ever formed and figure out another way to respond.
This exercise is to help you remember the time period that you believe that trigger was formed, and recall what happened before that event. Or at least go back in your mind way before that event got created, before your trigger ever happened. For me, I’ll do my best to remember what is was like before the age of 5; before anything even remotely close to that event happened.
What this does is force your brain to create a new pattern. Our brain is so used to returning to that same event, but never before the event, before all the bad stuff might have happened. The brain stops at that place, and recreates the scenario today, producing the emotions today as if they were one in the same event.
I know this sounds really abstract, and I apologize. But even as you read these words, new patterns are forming in your brain. Even if you can’t understand or follow everything you are reading, your confusion actually creates new patterns.
Sometimes healing needs to take place at a deeper level of thought, where your conscious mind gets out of the way so that you can have a happier, more productive, and fulfilling life.
Anytime someone triggers you today you respond from yesterday, so to speak. That’s because the brain loves to remember patterns. Once the brain stores a pattern, it refers to it every time so it doesn’t have to spend the energy creating a new pattern. But, what’s interesting is that the brain also loves to create new patterns!
The brain follows existing patterns of behavior. You know, the kind you created when you were young, so it always responds the same way. But it also likes to learn new patterns, which is exactly what we’re here to do today.
So let’s get back to the original event that caused the trigger. How old were you? Was it even during this lifetime? Remember, the brain doesn’t care if that’s a silly question or not, just ask and see what comes up for you.
Once you have the time period, as I said before, go back a day, a week, or a year before the original event ever happened and realize that the thoughts and emotions aren’t there. Does that make sense?
The thoughts and emotions you felt from the original event, the ones that caused the trigger in the first place, aren’t further back in the past, way before the original event.
Where are they? Have they disappeared completely from your mind?
If you still feel anything when you go way back before that original event, go back even further. In fact, go back to a point where you are nowhere near those thoughts or bad feelings.
This is just in your mind remember. It’s actually a journey you take through your subconscious mind to return to a time before the sequence of events took place, to realize that the emotions weren’t there at a certain point in time. The trigger was formed at a moment, but way before that moment is when there wasn’t that trigger and you can’t seem to find where those bad feelings went because you are way before any of that ever started?
If you’re a little lost by all this, don’t worry, you’re in the right place! Your brain is creating a new pattern.
The pattern is the connection between getting triggered now, and what it refers to in the past. And if something triggers you today, imagine if you didn’t regress to that period in your life when the trigger was formed. Imagine if your brain referred to the time before that trigger was formed where the bad feelings and emotions didn’t even exist?
That would be nice, wouldn’t it?
If you think of a trigger as a belief attached to a set of emotions, and when you get triggered today, you are just accessing an old belief, what will happen if your brain tries to access a new belief with new, good feelings and emotions? Will you feel good instead?
The brain loves patterns, so we’re doing what we can to break patterns that are no longer useful. Once we break the association between getting triggered today and what you feel because of the trigger, you can make decisions from a place of clarity. When you are clear, you can respond to situations without the cloudiness of bad feelings and old triggers.
That means that if there is a situation where someone used to trigger you, you can still determine if you want that situation in your life anymore. An example of that is, let’s say you don’t want your partner or someone close to you to do drugs. Then you find them with drugs in their pocket or catch them doing them, or whatever. You might normally get triggered, then respond from that triggered place. You might feel sad and hurt, but because you may still love them, you make decisions from a sad and hurt place instead of a place of clarity.
You don’t like to feel sad or hurt, so you stay in the relationship hoping you’ll soon feel happy again when this particular event passes. This scenario could replay over and over again, as it often does in toxic relationships.
However, if you don’t get triggered, at least with the same intensity as you normally would, you could respond from a place of clarity. If you weren’t emotionally triggered, do you think you would be more confident in what you want for yourself? Do you think you could stand up and tell the other person what you want in your life and in your relationship?
When you aren’t in trigger mode, you have a clearer perspective of what you want in your life. You’re not coming from a place of hope and desperation, you’re coming from a place of conviction and certainty. You lay your cards on the table and wait for a response. In other words, not being triggered when you catch them doing drugs, you could say, “Hey, if you want to do drugs, you can be alone until you’re ready to grow up. When you get to that point, let me know.”
I’m just using drug use as an example. For me, I stayed in trigger mode almost my entire marriage. This affected my compassion for my wife. It also affected my sex drive, my mood, my support for her, almost everything. I was triggered whenever she reached for sweets. So that meant I had my radar on all the time. I used to be very judgmental about it. But once I dropped those judgments by doing exercises like this, I came to a new place inside myself and accepted that as her issue, not mine. I became compassionate towards her and stopped judging her.
This helped me stop being so self-centered, and more open about her process. I spent so many years being clouded by my own bad feelings and judgments that I never saw beyond my fears. Once my triggers were gone, and I didn’t have any fears to draw from, I was able to move forward in the relationship.
She recognized this. And I remember the first time she really recognized this because she wasn’t sure what she should do now. She was so used to me being triggered, that she developed responsive behavior to my triggers. Now that I was no longer triggered, she didn’t know how to respond. I felt bad for having put her through so much of my own crap, but it was kind of funny watching her figure out what to do now that I wasn’t being triggered, because much of her behavior was dependent on my triggers.
This is why it’s important to recognize that when one person changes or evolves in the relationship, the other person has to change or evolve too, because their behavior is always dependent on the other’s behavior. One person no longer gets triggered, the other person has to learn new behavior.
It was freeing to lose those triggers, but at the same time, there was an adjustment period we had to go through. If you know my story, you’ll remember that after I learned to let all my triggers go, she had already decided she wasn’t returning to the relationship, so it was too late for us at that point.
That can happen. Your triggers can push someone away to the point of no return. Being triggered all the time doesn’t have to be a way of life. Your triggers can stop and you can have a more rewarding life with the ones you love.
So when you think about what it was like way before the first event that caused the trigger in the first place, and can’t find those bad feelings way back when you create a new pattern in your brain.
But how do we know this? We have to test it. We have to “try on” the trigger and see and feel if we have the same response. So let’s start our journey back to the present, through all the years, back into where we are today.
We thought about our triggers, or at least one of them, and took a trip back in time to the point it was created. We may or may not have remembered exactly what created the trigger but that’s okay. Then we went back further in time to make sure that there were no other times before that where that trigger could have formed. And once we figured out when that first time was, whether it was during the entire time you’ve been alive here, or before that, we went back even further to experience what it was like to not have those bad thoughts and feelings. Now we’re coming back to today.
Right now I want you to think about that trigger again, and what causes it nowadays. Really imagine yourself in a scenario with someone where you would normally get that old trigger. Go right into that moment with that person in your mind, and make it real. See what you’d see, hear what you’d hear, and really make the experience real.
Are you there?
Now put yourself in the old trigger moment… does it have the same effect? Is it more powerful, or less, or not there at all? Has it disappeared, or is it completely gone?
We’re not one on one so I can’t tell what you’re experiencing, but you may experience less of a trigger now, or even nothing at all. Regardless of what you experience, this exercise is also helping you create a new pattern in your brain as well.
After all, thinking about real scenarios that bother you in any way, then going through the process in your mind step by step, is how to follow the pattern your brain knows. Then to change that pattern, we do the exercises we just did. And we can even visualize a different response to something that triggers us, over and over again in an attempt to write new patterns as well.
Visualizations can work when repeated time and time again, but in my experience, they usually don’t overwrite an old trigger. They can, but you must practice them a lot in order for old triggers to disappear. And even then, the emotions are hard to overwrite.
If you noticed little or no change when replaying the trigger in your mind, go through this process again but go back even further in time, way before anything began that had any relevance to the time when the trigger was created. I’ll walk through the process quickly during the summary.
If this made sense then you’re probably used to doing this kind of mind-work. If you had trouble following along, that’s actually even better, because it helps you form new patterns in your brain, making new habits and processes stick better.
Either way, there’s a new horizon for you along your journey to a stress-free life.
Here’s a summary that you can use as a quick reference:
- Triggers are like old cassette tapes that play old programs. You get triggered by someone or something that happens, and that old cassette plays once again.
- When you’re triggered, you are regressing to a younger version of yourself that learned how to react or respond to your environment.
If you had something happen to you when you were younger that caused a significant impact to your nervous system, where you felt high emotional stress, then that’s most likely when a trigger was formed.
- We take these triggers that formed years ago into our adult relationships.
This causes problems because most of what happens today is not the same context of when the trigger was created so long ago. If you formed triggers when you were a child living with your parents or other guardians, then that situation is different than your current situation, most likely. Though, you do have to be aware that some situations are similar.
If you had an abusive mom or dad, then you married an abusive person, you created the same context in which your old triggers will stay active. This is why it’s so important to break the pattern of old triggers so you can think from a place of clarity.
- Thinking from clarity gives you more options, and allows you to see what you can’t see when you are triggered.
When you can disengage trigger moments from the bad thoughts and feelings, you are empowered to engage your assertiveness, confidence, and conviction to state what you want and don’t want in your life.
Living without the cloudiness of triggers is living with passion and purpose. It is a healthy, selfish state, instead of an unhealthy, self-centered, fearful state.
There is a difference, as selfishness can contain compassion for others, while self-centeredness is more about your own ego – your own wants, needs, fears, and desires.
Remove the cloudiness, become healthy, and make decisions that positively affect you and your well-being.
- The steps to this entire process are as follows:
a. Think of something that triggers you now.
b. Identify the emotions that you get from being triggered.
c. Go way back in your mind and think about the very first time you felt this way. If you can’t figure out what caused the trigger in the first place, just think of an age or a time period when it might have happened.
d. Once you think of a time when it might have been created, think about a time long before that, when you didn’t have those negative feelings.
Think about a day or a week, or even years, or maybe even lifetimes before that first event ever happened. This is just your brain’s way of storing information. Just allow it to go where ever it needs to go to find a place when all of those emotions are completely gone now.
e. When you are way before any of those old feelings, come back to now, and imagine a time when you might get triggered in the future. Does it have the same impact? Are the emotions completely gone?
I didn’t say this before, but if they have disappeared completely just lock that feeling into place, sort of like a safe with a combination lock. This safe is your safe and whenever you have an experience where that old trigger used to happen, your safe has locked into place what you’ll be feeling instead of those old feelings.
This doesn’t have to make sense. You can just let old feelings go and allow yourself to feel safe. That’s something you want for yourself, right?
- Finally, remember that triggers are almost always the creation and belief system of a child.
When you were young, you learned how to respond to the world. Imagine if you kept all your childhood beliefs? Having a childlike playfulness can make life enjoyable sometimes, but having a childlike fear can be intrusive in normal life. It can wear you down and make you see the world through filters that aren’t necessarily telling you the whole truth.
Triggers are normal responses from our brain, but they don’t have to stay in our lives if they are causing problems. Learn to recognize your triggers, and start looking inward for the solution, not outward at the world.
The first step towards the solution is realizing that you are the first step in the process. Learning that my triggers were the actual cause of the problems in my relationships, and not my partner’s behavior was what changed everything for me. And once I was able to address them within myself, my relationship changed. It had to! I was a different person from that point on.
If I wasn’t behaving the way I used to behave, they had to respond differently as well. Every relationship is a dynamic machine that works off of each component. Change one component, and the whole machine changes.
When my stepfather moved out of the state, that one change made the entire family more relaxed and at peace. One component of the system changed, and everyone in the family changed along with it. Once you recognize and process your own triggers, the other person changes, or the relationship doesn’t evolve.
What would it have taken to save my marriage? What if I started looking at my triggers a few years before it ended, would that have helped?
I think if I caught them early on, maybe about 3 or so years before it ended, the marriage probably would have slowly worked its way back into a healthy place. My wife would have started trusting me more and more, seeing that I was no longer reacting to her behavior. When that happened, she would have felt safe around me and started exploring options to help herself out of the situation she was in with her eating issues.
Or she may have still had the issues for years or forever, but the most important part was that I reached a place where her issues were not my issues. Once I made that realization, I could make a choice about the relationship that I was comfortable with. After I dealt with my triggers, I was able to comfortably decide that her challenges with comfort food were not my challenges in loving the person I was with. This changed everything.
But because she was already worn down, she chose to leave.
I share this story with you because you have a chance, right now, to think about the triggers that cause problems in your relationships. Whether they’re romantic or with friends, or relatives, or whomever.
The triggers you have can destroy relationships because they are yours. The other person may not even know why you’re getting upset because your childhood belief system is kicking in and it’s probably not even related to what’s happening right here and now.
When you can release those triggers, or at least diminish them so they don’t consume you when they happen, you will see positive changes in your relationship, feel better because you aren’t consumed by other’s behaviors, and you’ll open your heart to compassion and maybe even a little bit of unconditional love.
Triggers sneak up on us, they arrive like an old relative we didn’t expect, and stay longer than we want, and really start to stink up the place when they’re around. Just recognizing you have a trigger is the beginning, but remembering what it was like before you ever had those emotions is the first connection to make to a part of you that was once not triggered.
When you can connect with that part of you, where you felt good and maybe even happy (and it may have been a long time ago I realize), then you are making a new association. You are associating the trigger of today with the good feelings you had so long ago.
I hope this has been helpful.
Hi there. I just wanted to stop by and express my gratitude for writing so candidly from your own experience and in such a detailed way too. I was just googling about how to encourage emotional intimacy in my relationship when I stumbled on this. It’s very insightful and written in such a down -to-earth manner that I can relate. I have heard the word ‘ triggers’ being thrown about before but had never really thought that I could actually be responding to negative emotional triggers from my past.
This has really stood out for me – “Learning that my triggers were the actual cause of the problems in my relationships, and not my partner’s behavior, was what changed everything for me.”
THAT is a huge revelation to me. Why? Because I have many times felt helpless when confronted with another person’s real or perceived behavior because I cant control them. BUT I can control my own behavior, and that empowers me and gives me hope that my relationships in the present and future can unfold in a way that is different from the negative, painful patterns of my past.
Thank you. Greetings and blessings from Nairobi, Kenya.
Hi Muthoni from Kenya! Thanks so much for your comment. I am honored that you shared this and am so glad you found value in the article. I appreciate you!
I want to Thankyou sincerely for literally everything feel saving my sanity. I’ve been so aware of when my triggers come up as I almost feel like I’m turning into a wear wolf 🐺 and cannot control my thoughts or emotions or anything . This practice has gaven me hope that perhaps I can have my relashionship restored or at least be a better partner for a new person in my future. Thankyou so much xoxoxo
This is a wonderful comment. Thank you so much for sharing this Mel. I appreciate you!
Save the werewolf for the right moments 😉 Thank you again.
OMG… you are amazing bro Thank you thank you thank you. my goodness all these bad emotions.. i had a life threat(someone robbed me using a gun) 12 years ago and till today i never felt good or safe, but you want me to go back before that when life was amazing, i could chill with people laugh, happy, so much energy and love. I will think about b4 the event.. “The good days” lol
What a great comment Ali, thank you so much for sharing!
“Once you think of a time when it might have been created, think about a time long before that, when you didn’t have those negative feelings”
In some cases (like mine), abuse started before a child could walk and talk… so this advice is dumb.
Thanks for your feedback Elocin. Some people have told me that the only time they can think of they didn’t experience the negative feelings was before they could walk or talk, or even in the womb. Or perhaps before they were born.
It doesn’t make sense, I totally get it. But if you really allow yourself to enter a state of discovery, and let your mind take you where it wants to go (before walking or talking for example), you may be able to connect with a part of you that knows something other than pain or hurt.
This isn’t meant to be challenged by knowledge of what’s real or not, it’s a visualization to help you connect with something other than the negativity that may have plagued you most or all of your life.
It does take some suspension of disbelief and it may not be for you, but often the mind doesn’t want to go where it doesn’t believe exists. If you get stopped by belief, ask yourself the question, “If it was true, what would it be like then?”
In other words, “If I could remember what it felt like before the negative feelings started, what would that feel like?”
Visualizations or meditations like this aren’t meant to be filtered through reality goggles, they are meant to help you expand your consciousness into states of being that help you connect with something outside your current reality.
Again, it may not be for you. But I am of the belief that it helps to try anything and everything until you find something that works. I do hope you find something that helps you. Thank you again.
I have had several triggers over my lifetime but (obviously) only recognized them after the fact. Today I am trying to be happy on my own. I have my children (dog and cat) and am looking for a fulfilling job which is hard because other than remote work I am looking at minimum wage jobs like McDonald’s, Walmart, etc.
I’m fine with being alone, but having been a software engineer, I feel like I am wasting my talents doing the only work available locally.
Wow! I just practiced this now and it WORKED!! It provided almost immediate relief for me. I think I might cry. I’m putting this in my tool box and will continue to practice!
Thank you so so so much for sharing! I needed this!
Thank you so much for your comment, I am very happy to read this! 🙂 Yes, it is practice and it is a great tool. I appreciate you. Thank you again.
Hi Paul, thank you for this great post! Your previous experience highly resonates with my current situation and I am hoping to address my triggers in a timely and conscious manner. I am in a deep, loving relationship that has been the biggest surprise of my life which is almost at 1 year. She is a very self aware person who highly values openness and is a great communicator. This I feel is a wonderful trait, however it includes a lot of details of previous relationships, which she maintains friendships with most of them. I am 47 and she is 46 and I am her first long term relationship and I have only been in long term relationships. I would say we both have co-dependent traits, and my previous marriage was to a BPD. I understand that we have different attachment styles, mine is more of an anxious attachment, and hers is an avoidance one. Both come from very dysfunctional families. One of her more recent previous relationships was an open relationship, and this is the one that triggers me. I didn’t understand why my reaction to things she told me about it is were so intense. I have communicated to her several times that I do not wish to know details, but she is a bit of an open book and words continue to fly off her pages. I have identified why this has been so challenging for me, and it’s based on my childhood environment in which my father had a terrible temper, abused my mom in every way imaginable, and they had an open type of relationship that included swinging and the like. I believe I associate her experience in that type of relationship with the fear I had growing up, along with other insecurities. I do not wish to control her in anyway, but when she does bring him up it’s like being hit in the stomach followed by sometimes weeks of anxiety and I want to project and/or leave. I have talked to her about it a couple of times, which she has been very receptive, but it is her nature of being open and I don’t want to make her feel like she needs to modify herself to accommodate anything for me. Although I do feel like I set a boundary that is not being respected, which any boundary for a co-dependent type is difficult, I would rather address the root cause of my emotional and physical reaction and feel this is an opportunity for growth. I will be using your process to create new reactions and I appreciate you sharing you experience and knowledge. Any additional advice is highly appreciated Thank you!!!
Thank you so much for sharing this. I completely understand where you are coming from. I have been in a relationship with someone who had a very promiscuous past with both men and women. To her, sex was fun and healthy and she enjoyed it as much as possible. When we first started dating, it was a HUGE trigger for me. I hated hearing about her past and wished it never happened.
Over time, I did get past it. I did heal. Through the techniques I discuss here and others I’ve talked about on the show. For me, I felt very insecure because I have always been a one-girl type of guy, and I was always loyal, monogamous. For her to be so flamboyantly sexual was such a brain-f*** for me at the time. It didn’t make any sense. I wanted that down home girl with good morals and ethics.
My partners over the years have represented an extension of me. That’s what many relationships are, extensions of ourselves. So when I think back to that one partner with the sexual history I didn’t like, I think about myself doing those things that she did. Would I if given a chance? Was I really upset at her for doing those things or was I more upset with myself for lacking the confidence or the boldness or whatever for not being more sexually active.
My personal journey has been discovering that I was very sexually repressed growing up because I was just insecure about my body and had it ingrained in me that one should be in a relationship with one person FOREVER.
Now that I have several relationships behind me and am in a good one now, I realize that anything I don’t like about my partner’s history is because I wouldn’t or didn’t do it myself.
How to get past this? I often challenge myself: “If you don’t like her history, why don’t you break up and leave her?”
This may be harsh because why would my upset lead to me leaving? But I do challenge myself like that sometimes when I think I’m being overly critical. What it causes me to do is really consider where my priorities are. Plus, it forces the healthiest decision out of me. In other words, if I say, “Fine, I’ll leave her. I can’t stand hearing about or thinking about her past”, I have another voice that comes up and says, “What? You’re going to throw all of this away because of behavior she did in the past? You’re a fool!” and I come to my senses and consider what I have right in front of me right now and how giving that up would be painful.
The alternative is that I say, “No, of course I’m not going to leave. That’s ridiculous!” and I start focusing on all the reasons I love her and want to be with her. This really puts things into perspective.
When I realized that my own lack of action in having more sex with more people when I was younger, or even open relationships or friends with benefits, I came to the conclusion that she had the life I wouldn’t mind having! Of course, she had a lot of pain too… we tend not to include the bad stuff, only the “good” stuff.
I don’t know if any of this helps, but I thought I’d share from a similar perspective. I don’t know if I’d like my girlfriend talking about a past relationship with sex and all that. We do have conversations about her sexual experiences in the past, but not in too much detail. Envisioning her with other people is not what I want to do, but when it happens, I remind myself that she could be with anyone in the world, right now, and she chooses me – and she wants to have me and me alone sexually too. That’s kind of a big ego boost 😉
Thank you again for sharing this. I hope you get into a better space.
I understand this and am working on this with my therapist. The question I have and would like your input on is when I trigger my husband and he yells at me, I am choosing to breath and not react. However, because I do not want him to think that his treating me in a degrading way is ok, I remove my self from him for a long time. I disengage with him. This is our pattern. I am working on reacting to him when he triggers me, but I can’t go on with him like everything is fine when he treats me poorly. He is not working on his triggers and I seem to trigger him a lot. Thougts??
Thanks for sharing. If he doesn’t want to work on his triggers, then the only thing you can do is make decisions that are right for you. That means honoring yourself and showing up as the best person you can be. That might mean that after looking at your life and determining what’s right for you, you determine that you deserve to be treated better and that if you aren’t, there will be consequences. Those consequence present accountability to your husband so that if he continues to treat you badly, you will show him through your actions that it will not be tolerated. What those actions are, are up to you (stay with a friend for a week, abstain from sex, or other things that he can only get from the relationship). I’m not saying that you *should* do those things, but without any accountability, he will never have any incentive to change.
Does he ever admit when he’s wrong? Does he ever apologize? If you get a No to both of those, you may have a bigger challenge than you describe here. A partner that takes no responsibility for the issues in the relationship is a partner that is not in the relationship as an equal. They want things to go their way all the time. When it doesn’t go their way, they get upset at their partner for not doing things their way. This is more of a controlling relationship than an equal one.
I rarely, if ever, see this type of relationship work out. There’s always an unhappy person in this dynamic.
As far as you withdrawing… does it work? After you withdraw, does he seem affected? Does he change after that? If not, then that behavior has no function. This type of withdrawal can also be seen as emotional abuse because you are withholding love and attention from him to make him feel bad instead of having a conversation with him telling him why you feel bad. Sometimes in this type of situation, you feel like you have no choice but to withdraw because you don’t know what else to do to get your needs met.
I think the best approach when you trigger him is to take a step back out of the intensity, then ask, “Okay, it looks like I triggered something in you… what’s going on? What is making you so upset?”
You don’t have to use those exact words, but you want to know what’s triggering him.
If he says, “YOU are triggering me.” Then you need to ask more specific questions like, “What did I do or say that triggered you?”
It’s vital that you understand exactly what is triggering him. For example, if you smoke and he can’t stand smoking, then you can pinpoint what’s triggering him. That’s an easy behavior to point out. But if you say, “I’m going to the store” and he gets upset for no apparent reason, there’s something deeper that you may not have a clear answer to. This is where communication is important.
If you find that you cannot communicate with him no matter what, then you are not equals in the relationship and he is more concerned about being right and in control than wanting both of you to be happy. I define love as supporting your partner’s happiness. If his goal is to just make sure you feel bad for triggering him, then he is supporting your unhappiness – not a good formula.
What exactly do you do that triggers him? If you really are doing something against his values (for example, you beat the dog and he hates when you do that), then he needs to also stand up and provide consequential accountability for you too. i.e. “If you lay one more hand on the dog, we are both leaving until you get some help.” Then he should also follow through to show that he is serious.
Bad behavior, no matter who’s doing it, is bad behavior and must be dealt with, not avoided. I don’t recommend ignoring or hoping it goes away. These are the hard conversations that need to be had. Since I don’t know exactly what you do that triggers him, I can only assume that you believe that what you do isn’t something any normal person would be triggered by.
When did his triggers start? Was there something going on at the time that made him more upset over the things you did? And since then, has he been more sensitive to your behavior and more upset with you?
None of what I’m saying means that this is your fault. He has a very big responsibility of understanding what triggers him and sharing what he wants and doesn’t want in the relationship. If you’re unable to fulfill the role he needs, he may need to figure out what he wants for a partner. If he is unable to fulfill his role for what you need in a relationship, the same thing applies.
I believe you can work these things out when BOTH people are on board and willing to be vulnerable. If your husband refuses to be vulnerable, never apologizes, and doesn’t seem to have an interest in making you happy or making the relationship something where both of you are treated with respect, then you may find that will never be able to satisfy him. If that’s the case, you may have no choice but to accept that it will always be this way.
I know this isn’t happy news, but it’s good to come to terms with what you have and what will or will not change so that you can start making decisions that work instead of ones that prolong what doesn’t.
I appreciate you and wish you the best through this.
I hate when I hear a word that reminds me of by boyfriend’s addiction to porn how do I deal without flipping out?
I think there’s a big difference between an emotional trigger that recalls a past event and one that recalls a current event. For example, I used to feel jealous and a little anger when a girlfriend would use a certain person’s name. However, that person was from her past and didn’t really exist in our current relationship at all, so it didn’t make sense to be triggered by something that had no bearing on me today whatsoever so I decided it wasn’t something to be triggered about.
I had healing to around that, but that incident helped me to learn to differentiate between being triggered by a past event or a current event. Listen to my episodes on jealousy for more on that if you ever have to deal with that. Porn may incite feelings of jealousy and insecurity so perhaps find my episodes on self-worth as well (use the search bar and look for “jealous” and “worth” (in separate searches) and you’ll find several resources that should be helpful).
For current events, i.e. if you are dealing with a porn addiction he has today, then that is not simply about healing from being triggered by a word. That is more about learning what your personal values and relationship boundaries are. If your values tell you that porn is bad or wrong, and you are with someone that watches porn, you will never be able to get past that issue no matter how much work you do on emotional triggers. You would have to either modify/update your values and choose to accept his behavior, or be honest with yourself and come to the decision that you will absolutely not tolerate your partner watching porn.
Updating your values may involve you questioning why you have a problem with porn or if you are being driven by old beliefs that no longer apply. I’m not saying you have to do this. Some people will not tolerate it in their life for various reasons. If that’s you and you simply don’t want it in your relationship, you might have to make different decisions about the relationship. It would be the same thing I’d tell anyone that is with an addict:
If you can’t accept their addiction and can’t find a way to have them and their addiction in your life, then it’s no longer about them, it’s about you and making choices that are right for you.
If you choose not to accept his porn addiction and cannot find a way to tolerate or allow it to be, and he’s not willing to stop it, then you can either stay in a relationship constantly triggered by his behavior and letting him know how it hurts you or how disappointed you are, or you can make the choice that honors your boundaries and choose not to expose yourself to someone who does things that violate your values.
It’s a challenge, I know. We can love the most amazing people but sometimes they do things we cannot tolerate. And because of that, we can either choose to continue to expose ourselves to those people and their intolerable behaviors, or we can make different choices for ourselves. But it really does come down to choosing what you want in your life and not necessarily trying to make someone change who doesn’t want to, or can’t.
If he wants to change, you should see him making huge strides in that area. You want to see him in a program or talking to a coach or therapist. You need to see him DOING things, not just talking about doing things.
If he doesn’t want to change however, and he feels porn is no problem, then it’s back on you: Do you accept that about him and adjust your values? Or do you not accept his behavior and make different choices for yourself?
There is no wrong answer, it’s just a matter of understanding one concept:
If he doesn’t want to change, then you have to change, accept, or leave.
If he does want to change, then you need to decide if you’re going to stick around while he goes through his process.
However, be aware that some people work on their addictions indefinitely so you could be there for a long time and still see no changes.
I think the bottom line for any addiction is if it takes time and energy away from you or the relationship. Does it decrease intimacy? Does it take away from “us” time? Do you have less sex or less connection because of it? You may say yes to all of those things but make sure it’s not because you have a bad feeling about it. Make sure that his addiction is actually taking away from your relationship before you make any major decisions that change everything.
I’m not saying porn is good or bad. Addiction is addiction and needs to be treated and healed if it’s a problem (addictions are usually a problem because of how invasive they become). I’m just saying it’s important for you to first get a handle on what you will and won’t tolerate from him or in the relationship (your boundaries) and then decide that if he doesn’t want to change then the choice whether to stay and accept his behavior, or reject his behavior and leave is entirely up to you.
The solutions aren’t always easy, but when it comes to present events as opposed to past events, the focus needs to come back to you and what you are going to do to honor yourself instead of trying to make someone else do what they don’t want to do.
It sounds harsh when I say that, but I say it with love and understanding for your situation – and wanting what’s best and healthiest for you.
Again, if this is about his past, then search for those episodes for more guidance. I hope some of what I said has been helpful.
For more info on focusing on yourself when it comes to someone else’s addiction, read my article on my previous judgment issues when I was married here:
Im not very old, but I wanted to thank you for letting me know im not alone. Im currently dealing with repressed memories, and can’t accurately pin point my triggers, but im working on it! My heart goes out to everyone with these problems. Also, thank you all for the comments, you all are amazing. THANK YOU!
Thank you so much for sharing here. You are definitely not alone, all ages are affected by this. In fact, the younger you discover and deal with this the better! For questions to ask yourself when you get triggered, see this article:
https://theoverwhelmedbrain.com/stupid-questions-lead-healing/ I wish you much strength and healing.
Thank you so much for the support! this article hit really close to home, and i hope ill be able to learn from it, Thank you again!
You’re welcome. 😉 Thank you!
Hi for some reason for the first time i actually dont feel like seeing women anymore something came out of me my girl nags and nags over and over and even stops having shes so focused on her foreign immergrant friends and never goes out hardly ever now something happened i became so in disgust i cant trust who i look at like the feel is not there no more ……
Thanks for sharing this. It’s so important to address a specific behavior the moment it happens, especially if it’s violating your personal boundaries or values. For example, if someone is “nagging” at you about something and you find it disrespectful, you can say, “When you talk to me like that, it feels disrespectful.”
I’m not saying this solves the problem, but I am saying that in order to change a series of behaviors, you have to start with one and let the person know they’re doing something you don’t like. If you have already told her you don’t like some of her behaviors and she still does them, then it’s time to look within and figure out if you really want to be with someone who refuses to stop doing things you don’t like.
That doesn’t mean she’s wrong and you’re right (I don’t know your situation) but it does mean you have every right to follow a path that works for you.
The most important parts of this are communication and action. If you communicate what you don’t like and she continues to do it, then you take action for yourself. That might mean leaving, it might mean suggesting couple’s therapy, it might mean giving her an ultimatum like, “If you don’t stop, I’m leaving” or something else.
I have very little to go on so I may be way off. But I know with behavior that doesn’t stop, you have to let them know you won’t tolerate it anymore. And if they continue doing that behavior, then by staying with them, you are choosing to be with someone who does behavior you don’t like – which is really your choice.
Again, I don’t know everything about what’s going on but that’s where I go with your comment. Thanks so much. I wish you much strength through this.
Once in a while, we all wonder about the purpose of our life & the experiences we go through. Paul, From where I stand, I see that your life has the most beautiful purpose. It is to help heal many like myself. I can’t express my gratitude enough.
The emotional work you put in releasing your triggers has helped create a relatively easier path for many like myself. By myself, it would have taken me years (or maybe a lifetime) to understand what you’ve put so simply and honestly in your article.
I’ve been seeing a licensed therapist for almost two years, but your article has a way more significant impact on understanding everything I’m going through. My marriage is in a similar situation as yours right now. I am not sure what our final outcome will be, but regardless of the outcome, I am able to keep individual blame out of the situation.
Always know that a complete stranger from a country far away who comes from a completely different cultural background & life experience is blessing you and rooting for a beautiful life ahead for you!
I am honored and grateful for your words. I wish you very much the same: A beautiful life ahead for you and much strength and healing for whatever you’re going through.
Thank you so much for taking the time to share this with me.