There’s that familiar painful feeling. You know the one, it’s when you are tight in your stomach, all knotted up, and your head feels like it’s spinning. It was an innocent comment or behaviour from someone but it deeply wounded you. It may have left you feeling off-balance with anxiety or shame, affecting the rest of your day. We’ve all experienced remarks and behaviours from others yet it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint the reason for feeling terrible. These difficult feelings are emotional triggers we carry with us.
Emotional triggers are reactions to a need we feel we are not getting from others. They are unmet needs such as:
- being liked
- feeling respected
- being needed
- seeking independence
- being valued
- being treated fairly
- being understood
There may be other unmet needs that you could add to this list. As we grow into adulthood, the unmet needs are still festering but in our busyness, they‘re pushed down. Or we use other methods, such as alcohol or drugs, to distract us from the pain. We learn to adapt, until an unkind comment or behaviour occurs, then the painful feeling surfaces once again. Some people withdraw emotionally and feel the hurt, others respond aggressively.
The origin of your emotional triggers began many years ago when you were little. An example could be of a child I’ll call Cassie. Cassie was raised with emotionally unavailable parents, she may have felt ignored and that she didn’t belong with these “people who should have loved and cared for me”. As she got older, she strived to prove her worth, studied hard, earned distinctions along the way, hoping her parents would notice her.
Now as an adult, Cassie has become super-independent, she has a need to maintain control in her life, she cannot rely on others. It’s hard to trust and let people get close to her and be vulnerable.
At home, maintaining control is detrimental to Cassie’s relationships with her partner and children. She expects their loving attention, approval from them and appreciation of being a good mother and reliable partner. She may not be able to name the words for her hurt feelings, but she aches nonetheless.
She feels lost, she feels alone. Yet the old feelings bubble below the surface. She toughens up, building an invisible wall around herself to protect the little girl within. With each year though, it increasingly becomes harder to develop a wall that is tough enough and high enough to withstand perceived emotional barbs.
So what can you do to heal these hurts?
1. Identify your triggers. In the case of Cassie, an example could be that she sees three friends together in a park. The hurt from her past intersects painfully with this present experience. For Cassie, a therapist can help her sort through feelings of being alone and hurt in this experience, and identify her thoughts of exclusion, uninvited, not belonging in this group. The therapist can then help Cassie to turn these thoughts around.
2. Understand where those triggers originated. It’s not about blaming your parents, they are a product of their own family. It’s also not blaming yourself for having these feelings. You needed to survive the best way you could as a child. We all adapt to circumstances which are out of our control. Realising where your triggers come from helps towards healing. A therapist can gently guide Cassie to reflect back on her past, come to understand her hurts and vulnerabilities so she will in time react less.
3. Be kind to yourself. Speak to yourself with compassion and understanding the way you would with a friend. A friend would voice positive words to you and remind you that you are a worthwhile person.
4. Writing how you felt about a situation is helpful, whether it be sadness, feeling ashamed or frightened and so on, in an accepting and non-judgmental way. When you later look back at your writing, you may notice a theme of your triggers and in the way you react.
5. Breathe and release tension in your body, this will help you relax and lower stress. For Cassie, she could take herself to another room or outside and breathe in as though she is smelling a rose, breathe out like blowing out a candle.
6. Turn your negative beliefs around and claim a new positive You – “I am lovable, valued and worthwhile.” Tell yourself these words, absorb them into your being, this wonderful, delightful You.
7. Consider the intent. Many people are actually unaware of the pain caused by a comment or a behaviour. Cassie could look at the situation from another perspective. There may be other reasons these friends are meeting in the park.
8. Communicating your sensitivities will be helpful to your loved ones as it will give them a greater understanding of your emotions. It will take time for you to feel comfortable in expressing your emotions. It will mean being vulnerable. Dr Brene Brown, professor and researcher at the University of Houston, said “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity.” Remember these remarkable words when you need to broach a difficult topic or are feeling sensitive.
It is difficult to re-visit the past. Over time, your emotional triggers will lessen. They may never fully go away, but you can learn to react less.
To understand more about your triggers, ring me on 0404 871 195 for a free 15 minute consultation or send me an email so we can talk about the journey to healing.
Janice Williams is a qualified therapist for women with 20 years experience. Janice will help you with the challenges of motherhood, parenting, anxiety, stress, grief and loss, and other life struggles to help you achieve increased wellbeing, improve self-confidence and create meaningful change.
Janice offers online and phone counselling across Australia. Online and email counselling is available worldwide.
Janice also offers Cuppa & Café Counselling, a therapeutic chat over a cuppa.