Triggers: Why We Have Them, What They Say About Us, and How to Stop Our Buttons from Being Pushed

December 16, 2017


Why is it that certain things trigger us?


Each of us has hot buttons—situations or events or even words to which we react strongly, or even overreact. One second, we feel calm and at peace. The next, we are flooded with emotions, angry, and spinning out of control.


Often, we feel ourselves behaving in a way that is irrational. We cannot pinpoint exactly why we feel so angry over seemingly trivial things, but nonetheless, our emotions are hot. The triggers might even seem absurd.


Other times, our triggers feel justified. We can support and justify our anger with example after example. Nonetheless, we dislike feeling so angry and out of control.


Why is this? Why are there things that make us hot with anger? And what can we do about it? Fortunately, when we understand why triggers occur, we can take steps to eliminate them.


Why Triggers Occur


The first step toward understanding triggers is to explore the relationship between thoughts and emotions. Namely, consider that behind every emotion is a thought. Your emotions, whether they are positive or negative, are responses to your thoughts.


You feel scared when you think you are in danger. You feel happy when you think all is well. You feel angry when you think you are being mistreated.


The corollary is this idea: Our thoughts are what cause us to suffer. We might think that we are suffering because our spouse is mistreating us or because our finances are in jeopardy, but we are really suffering because of our thoughts about these situations.


Here is an example: Let’s say that a teenage child, who plays baseball, breaks his arm. Clearly this is a stressor, but how much he suffers will depend on the thoughts he thinks.


He could think: “This sucks. Now I can’t finish the season. My life is over.”


Or, he could think: “I’m going to get a lot of attention for this! I’ll get some girls to sign my cast, and I’ll cheer on the team from the sidelines. Maybe my coach will take notice of my great attitude, and next year, I can be team captain.”


Variations exist between these two extremes, but the point is that the thought and not the stressor itself is what will determine whether the person will suffer.


Of course, this also means that there are thoughts behind triggers. Our big emotional responses are an output of something we are thinking.


In the midst of a trigger, you might not even know what your thought is. This is common. Most of us have subconscious and unexamined thoughts that inform our emotions. These thoughts do not live on the forefront of our brains; oftentimes, they have been ingrained in us through past experienced that created filters and thought-patterns that occur behind-the-scenes, seemingly almost instinctual.


To get to these thoughts, then, we have to intentionally explore them when we notice we are triggered. The simplest way to identify the thought behind an emotion is to finish this sentence: I feel (emotion), because…


Whatever follows “because” is the thought behind your emotion.


However, when we’re talking about overreacting to triggers, we have to take it one step further and explore what we are taking the situations to mean about ourselves. Here is why:


The reason certain things trigger us is because the thoughts behind the triggers are not solely judgments about others or the world, but rather,

they are judgments about ourselves.


You might want to read that again. Triggers occur when people or events or situations occur that cause us to judge ourselves, either consciously or subconsciously.


It helps to give an example.


Let’s say that your best friend flubs a work project. You might feel empathy for her. Then, she acts foolishly in a social situation. In this case, you might feel empathy and a little bit of embarrassment on her behalf, but you probably are not triggered by either of these situations. After all, your best friend’s behavior has nothing to do with you.


Now let’s say that your child flubs a test. You might get upset, even angry. Then your child misbehaves in public. Again, you might get angry.


Your best friend and your child both did the same things, but you are only triggered by your child.


Why? Because your child’s behavior is a reflection on you. This is common. Parents are often triggered by children because they believe that their children’s bad behavior makes them look like bad parents.


If parents could look at their children’s behavior as disinterested parties, as they usually do with their friends, their children’s behavior would not have any power over their emotions, but because they judge themselves in the process of observing their children, their children’s bad behavior stirs up their own negative emotions.


And here’s the even more painful thing: we won’t be triggered about our kid’s bad behavior if we are secure in our belief that we are good parents. In other words, we only get triggered because a part of us is buying into the belief that we might be failing as parents in some way.


This is true of other triggers as well. We only feel triggered when someone we care about disrespects us if the underlying thought is, “Wow. The fact that he is treating me this way must mean I am not worthy of respect.”


For example, if you are triggered by your boss, you might think, “My boss is a jerk!”


This might be true, but the reason you are triggered is not because your boss is a jerk. There are tons of jerks in the world who do not trigger you, so why does your boss?


Likely, if you explore, you will find that you are triggered because you think you should be able to command more respect and there must be something wrong with you that you don’t. Perhaps you beat yourself up for allowing someone to treat you that way.  


Only you can find the thought behind the trigger, but to be sure, it will include a judgment about yourself.


For another example, if your spouse wants to take a trip with friends instead of with you, you might explode and call them selfish. If you explore the trigger, though, you will find that all sorts of other thoughts: Perhaps you think that you fail to inspire appreciation and devotion. Perhaps you think you are no longer loveable. Perhaps you are worried you are not a good judge of character.


One way or another, you will find that you are judging yourself. 


You might not realize you are judging yourself. In fact, in the heat of the moment, you probably say things that indicate that you believe your strong emotional response is the other person’s fault. However, if you dig deep enough, every trigger will point you toward a negative thought you are having about yourself, your choices, or your life. The reason you feel intensely and irrationally upset is that you interpret situations as meaning something negative about yourself.


So, what do you do about your triggers?


When you are triggered, you have some soul searching to do. Turn the lens on yourself and explore the deeper layer of thoughts. If you are triggered by your children, ask yourself what you think their behavior means about you. If your boss triggers you, ask yourself what you think your boss’s behavior means about you. If your spouse triggers you, ask yourself what you think your spouse’s behavior means about you.


This is not easy to do, but it is empowering because it puts control back into your hands. Once you identify the thought, you get to decide what to do about it.


  1. You might identify the critical thought and realize that it is an accurate and true representation. In this case, you can cultivate your own self-worth.


Sometimes, the critical thoughts that you have about yourself are a true and accurate representation of your failure to meet a value. We all have things we value—things like friendship, education, traveling, productivity, or whatever it might be.


Yet, we commonly neglect these values.


Neglecting these values impacts our self-worth. We feel judgmental about ourselves when we aren’t living up to our own standards. If you value freedom, entrepreneurship, and creativity, and you have a tedious, 9-5 desk job, of course your boss’s behavior will trigger you. It acts as evidence that you have failed to take care of yourself. If you value education, and yet you do not spend time reading to your children or helping them with homework, you will be triggered when they fail a test.


In these cases, you can begin to change your behavior, taking small—or big—steps toward meeting your own values. You can collect evidence that you are engaging in behavior that moves you closer to your values, and this will alleviate much of the tension related to your triggers.


When you know you are a few months away from quitting your lousy desk job, your boss will not have the same impact on you. Your thoughts will be different. You will think about how close you are to launching your business, and you will feel confident, excited, and at ease.


When you start spending time talking to your children about the value of education, and when you engage in behavior that reinforces this value, you will take a calmer approach to your children’s failures.


You might still be upset. After all, negative emotions are still a part of life, but you likely will not be triggered. After all, you will know that you are doing everything that you can do to be the best mom you possibly can.


  1. At times, though, we find that the critical and judgmental thoughts we have about ourselves are not accurate representations of the thoughts we want to have or of the values we hold.


This happens because many of our beliefs are unexamined. Oftentimes, our beliefs begin in childhood, through the examples parents set or through the circumstances of our youth. Because as children, we knew nothing other than the models set for us by our own parents and authority figures, these beliefs can take hold. Then, we can spend years building paradigms around these beliefs, never questioning their validity.


Let’s go back to the example of parenting.


Imagine that your child fails a test, and you are triggered. Once you examine your reaction, you realize that your strong emotional response was based on this critical thought: “I am failing as a parent because they have two working parents. My children are going to fail in life because neither parent is a stay-at-home parent.”


When you examine this thought, you realize that it is not a true representation of what you value or of what you want to belief. You realize that tons of people with two working parents have well-adjusted, successful children. Beyond that, your child failed one test, not every test. Maybe your child was sick. Maybe your child was having a bad day, or perhaps your child is struggling in a subject, and the failed test was your indicator that he or she needs a little extra help.


You might even realize that in today’s world, education is not the biggest indicator of success. You might think: “Most jobs of tomorrow have not even been created yet. Why am I worrying about this one test?”


As you examine your thought, you realize that you actually do not believe that your children need a stay-at-home parent. In fact, as you go deeper, you realize that you love your work, that it gives you energy, and that your children have a model of someone passionate about work.


Only you can decide whether your thoughts serve you and whether they are true and accurate representations of the paradigms you actively choose for your life.


The good news is this: Once you are self-aware, you cannot go backwards. The trigger will lessen its hold on you when you realize that it is based on a thought that you are actively rejecting.


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