When You’re Triggered In A Relationship
No matter how much work you’ve done on yourself, shit can still come up, especially if you’re in a relationship where you don’t know if you’re coming or going. Intimate relationships present all sorts of triggers—ones you thought you have already dealt with, ones you knew about but have avoided and brand spankin’ new ones that have been buried (oh yes, so much fun!). It can be painful at times, but I always look at triggers as opportunities, which is why you grow faster IN relationships than when you’re single.
This work I do, and what I share with you, is like working with a whole new toolbox. We see situations through our own lens, which is cloudy and colored by our past. It is not innate; it’s what we learn through our lens. Everyone’s perspective is different, but knowing it gives you the opportunity to look at things differently. Self-awareness lets you access this new toolbox because you can’t change what you don’t understand.
Even though we may shudder at the thought of our reactions to people and situations, these triggers are a great way to jump-start that awareness, and can be anything from a vague text from someone you have been waiting to hear from to someone’s tone of voice to their words and actions. What triggers have in common, however, is they always incite an emotional reaction (or OVER reaction). You know, those times you fly off the handle or shut down and retreat to your igloo. And let me tell you, when this happens, it is never ever about the present situation. It’s always an old pain or hurt that has been poked. This is why triggers are such great opportunities to learn about ourselves. They’re like little shit packages… but if you open them up, there’s a gold nugget inside.
WHEN I WAS TRIGGERED
Let’s look at a recent scenario from my own life. I’m going to share a situation with my boyfriend to illustrate the process. You’ll see it doesn’t take much to start that internal firestorm!
I had taken a day off work to spend with my partner. He needed to take care of a few things in the morning, and we agreed on a time for him to come over. He was several hours late. We were in communication the whole time because his delay was beyond his control, but it didn’t matter. I was transported to familiar feelings from the past… when someone was late, it told me they didn’t care, I wasn’t important, I had been forgotten, etc. No these aren’t rational (emotions never are) and any human with a different perspective would say it had nothing to do with me. But it wasn’t about the present situation; it was about the old emotions that were stirred up by him not being there.
I knew what was happening because I’ve done a lot of work around my triggers—”time” being a big one. But simply knowing what’s going on intellectually isn’t enough to stop the emotional spiral, so the first thing I did was stop and sit with my feelings. It helped that I was by myself because it gave me space to process—it’s not always possible when it happens during an in-person conversation. I grabbed my journal and let it flow out.
I started by naming my feelings… I felt left out, alone, resistant, confused, frustrated, uptight, guilty (it wasn’t his fault he was late), sad and tired. I asked myself, “How do I deal with me? He can’t fix the situation, so what can I do?” When he eventually got to my house, I had some sort of a clue about my feelings. I had to really stay in check with myself, keeping focused on communicating all I was discovering, and how his actions triggered me. Knowing it was up to me felt insurmountable, but the longer I sat with it, the more that feeling of overwhelm subsided.
I kept digging deeper. I was challenged because I thought I had already worked through this in the past—why was it coming up again? I also considered whether I was using this perceived rejection as an excuse not to get closer to him. “See? This is what happens when I open myself up. I get hurt!” It’s amazing what our subconscious can do to keep us “safe.” These emotions were old and deep and I could feel my resistance to allowing them, but I stayed aware and present and stopped resisting. The tug-of-war between my conscious self and my subconscious self eventually loosened as I continued to sit with it… and breathe.
In the past I would’ve emotionally checked out, threw up a wall and retreated to my igloo. I also would have shut down. If I even allowed myself to talk about it, I would’ve blamed my boyfriend and expected him to fix it. Then I would’ve felt guilty for putting that on him, and this whole dance would’ve created distance between us. I have grown a lot, because that was the furthest place from where I wanted to be.
As he sat across from me, I had processed my emotions enough that I could talk to him from a place of compassion. I told him I understood what his day was like without blame or accusation so he knew I was seeing the whole picture, not just my part. As I was talking, I felt exposed. My instinct was to pull away, but I stayed with it. The conversation triggered him as well, but we were both committed to total vulnerability: talking it through openly and honestly from the perspective of our feelings—never blame. Neither of us shut down and we continued talking until we were both clear and the tension was gone. It helps that my boyfriend has also done a lot of work himself, so he’s able to meet me where I am.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR GROWTH
Even in the height of emotion, I knew this was an opportunity. I took responsibility for my reaction and identified the underlying beliefs. That day we made a pact to talk about everything. There would be no stuffing of emotions or pretending everything was ok. We both have baggage, and that’s ok. This stuff is hard and it can be exhausting, but every time you challenge these emotions, they have less power over you—until they completely dissipate around the particular belief being triggered. Our trust in ourselves and each other has grown from these conversations. And yes, triggers still happen, but NOT the same ones. We’re both committed to honesty and transparency because it’s a hell of a lot better than pretending and carrying the old heavy emotional loads of yesteryear.
My hope in sharing this is that you’ll see it’s a process. Growth isn’t linear. We all get triggered and feel emotionally crazy, but we have a choice in how we respond. We can come from a place of awareness and personal responsibility without discounting our feelings or judging them. We can even let feelings go or change the pattern so we are not triggered around this piece of old baggage anymore. We can stop personalizing and realize these triggers are about US and our old pain, not about THEM and the present situation.
The next time you’re triggered, no matter how small and ridiculous it may seem, don’t stuff it down. Sit with your feelings and dig deep to see where they stem from. Then be courageous and share them openly, without blame. You may be surprised at how much lighter you feel, and how there may not be a “next time” around a certain trigger related to old pain.
For more about triggers, I have a podcast for you…