When you know your triggers, you can anticipate what situations are most likely to set off a chain reaction of reactivity. Identifying your triggers gives you a starting point to manage your reactions.
Have you ever felt strong, confident, and secure one moment and then a moment later, felt nagging doubt creeping in or your gut starting to churn with anxiety? Were you able to identify what triggered the uncomfortable feeling?
Triggers are events, experiences, situations, people, and activities that activate a state of alarm or threat. Triggers usually come from “out there” and are often beyond our control. They stimulate feelings of trepidation, insecurity and defensiveness that might not be apparent until they are activated. Once triggered, these uncomfortable feelings can give way to a whole range of reactive behaviors such as:
- Bypassing personal responsibility, making excuses
- Excessive compliance, accommodation or apology
- Antagonizing or inflammatory communication
- Avoiding conflict, not saying what needs to be said
- Micromanaging, excessive control, perfectionism, rigidity
- Blaming, devaluing or sabotaging others
Almost anything can become a trigger, under the right circumstances. Triggers often activate other triggers, creating clusters that typically generate a high level of reactivity both within an individual and between people. Recognizing triggers helps to make sense out of those events and situations that sometimes get out of hand.
For example, during a staff meeting with his peers and their director, Franz, a young, inexperienced manager, was triggered when his director asked some challenging questions, leaving Franz feeling insecure. The insecurity in turn activated his tendency to come back hard and fast with data and details that unintentionally exposed his peers to deeper scrutiny. This triggered in his peers, a feeling of threat and anger about being exposed. They viewed him as having engaged in hostile overkill. Their competitiveness was activated and they gathered their own ammunition in defense. Trigger begot trigger and it snowballed very quickly.
Triggers can be external, as in the above example, but some triggers are internal. For example, blushing, a rapid heartbeat, aggressive impulses, unwanted thoughts, or unexplained feelings of shame are all internal triggers. Internal triggers can be especially confusing and can activate many defensive strategies.
Since almost anything can act as a trigger, you have no control over when and how they may occur. The control comes with how you respond to the trigger. If you respond reactively, your limiting tendencies will be fueled. If you find a way to successfully manage your reactivity, enlightened tendencies will be reinforced.
Triggers aren’t the problem; unmanaged reactivity is. Awareness of triggers gives you some sure footing when looking at your reactions. This awareness gives you an alternate way to see what is happening. Any time you can see more clearly, you can intervene and disrupt what might otherwise be an automatic reaction. Identifying your triggers can help create a context for where, when, and with whom you are most likely to become reactive.
1. The next time you find yourself reacting in a way that you know is limiting, ask yourself the following questions:
- What just happened? Do your best to reconstruct the event in an objective way.
- At what point did my emotions “take over”? Try to pinpoint exactly when you started to react.
- What was happening right before you started to react? Look for the external or internal trigger. Try to separate the trigger from your reaction.
- What will give you more power—trying to control the trigger or working with your reaction to the trigger?
2. Watch your triggers for a week or so and collect them in a list. Look for patterns or strong reactions. Working with recurring patterns will be very helpful.
Managing reactivity is one of the best ways to get work back on track. If you or your work group need assistance with this, I can provide a training on how to Manage Emotional Reactions in the Workplace. And of course, I’m available for coaching.
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