Until Prince Harry proposed to Meghan Markle I had never even heard of the TV show “Suits.” Now, I confess, my husband and I are just shy of binge watching yet another series. Let’s just say it is our way of winding down after a busy day and has nothing to do with whether “My Purse Still Fits.” (cough, cough…)
But I digress. The point of this post is about something I notice that keeps coming up. Whether it is Harvey or Louis (two of the protagonists in “Suits”) or my family, friends or clients, I keep seeing or hearing about the struggle that occurs when someone gets triggered and then thinks and/or behaves in less than constructive ways. And though I am eager to write of other things, I have a sense this topic is begging for some more attention. So here is another round for your consideration. It starts with a couple of scenes from “Suits” and concludes with some questions and insights that have emerged from the collective conversations I have had with others.
Scenes from “Suits”
In season 7, episode 10 of “Suits,” there are two particularly intense scenes where Louis lashes out at an associate. He is unbelievably harsh and condescending and his verbal assault ultimately results in a harassment suit being filed against him. In short, Louis is on the brink of being fired. In deep indignation, and also out of desperation, Louis goes to see his therapist. His therapist, who has an ongoing role on the show, supports and encourages Louis to look within for the real cause of his outburst. Because of their exchange, Louis is able to see what is going on for him and take ownership for his behavior. His demeanor shifts and in the next scene, he goes to see the associate to apologize.
It is a very moving scene. In it, Louis tells the associate how deeply sorry he is for how he treated her. Because he is finally willing to be vulnerable, he also shares what is going on in his life that caused his extremely inappropriate behavior. After hearing his perspective, and accepting his heart-felt apology, the associate shares her perspective too. Louis then comes to understand how what he did deeply offended and hurt her – even more than he originally surmised. And because of this exchange, they come to see one another in a different light and their relationship is back on track.
Though this brief paragraph doesn’t begin to do the scene justice, it validates a deeply-held value of mine. I believe when two people are willing to take the risk of being vulnerable, when they allow themselves to have a heart-felt conversation, when they speak and uphold one another in a respectful manner, when they can share their perspectives and own their mistakes – all while showing kindness and compassion to one another – it leads to deeper connections and healthier, more satisfying relationships. (And yes, being able to show up in that way is a very tall order, particularly when coming on the heels of a triggered event. I am reminded once again how blessed I am to have a husband who shares this value with me and is consistently able to show up in this way!)
Several years ago I asked my coach if the goal of being grounded, centered and present was to never get triggered. She assured me the answer was no. Now, instead of hoping to never be triggered, I find it’s a lot less daunting to focus instead on resilience and recovery. Today I work hard to make friends with those times when I or those around me are triggered; to see those moments as my teacher instead of something to dread. If I can pause and reflect, there is always much to learn, and even more to gain, once I have come to understand what is beneath the trigger. From this place, more constructive thoughts and better behavioral choices become available to me and a new wisdom becomes part of who I am.
First a Couple Quotes
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” Helen Keller
“When people can tell the truth and people can hear the truth, it is a holy moment.” George Peabody
So now, dear reader, it’s your turn. Below are some questions for you to reflect upon. If you are the journaling sort, all the better.
Questions for Reflection: Finding Your Wisdom
Think of a recent time when you were triggered. What circumstances or people cause a triggered reaction in you?
Note: If any of the below are going on for you, it may set you up for the possibility of reacting from your less than best self. See if any of these compounded the situation:
- Lack of sleep, being over-tired or hungry.
- Experiencing high stress or time pressures.
- Carrying underlying feelings of inadequacy.
- Unresolved past experiences that can re-surface from today’s unrelated reminders (particularly experiences of trauma and loss).
- What else sets you up?
When you get triggered (and we all do!), what are some of the things you think or do? Indicators that you are triggered can include outward and/or inward reactions.
- Speaking down to others in sarcastic, condescending, cynical or critical ways.
- Outbursts of anger or emotion, such as shouting or tears.
- Laughing nervously or when your voice becomes high-pitched or strained.
- Becoming a whirling dervish, knocking over anyone in your way. Usually this reaction is marked by impatience and a curt demeanor that gives everyone the message you don’t value them or want to be around them.
- Body language that speaks volumes: Wringing your hands, bouncing your leg or a folding up of your body in attempt to make yourself smaller?
- Withdrawing from others.
- Ruminating about what a horrible person you are, or they are, or how awful your life is.
- Becoming more self-loathing, self-critical to the point of diminishing your self-esteem. (Note: This happens to a lot of women I know every time they look in the mirror or step on the scales…)
- Experiencing depression, sadness, anxiety and worry.
- Having knots in your stomach, tension headaches or other physical reactions.
How do you want to think and behave during triggered and trying times? What matters to you about what you are thinking and how you show up in your interactions with others and life?
What is the difference in your behavior when you react vs. when you respond from your wisest self, aligned with your values and with what you know to be important to you?
What do you do that helps you recover, bounce back and be more resilient? (Hint: It takes practice, practice, practice….)
Lessons, Insights and Perspective: The Stuff Beneath Our Triggers
As you continue to reflect, note whether any of the reasons below speak to the deeper reasons you get triggered. (Be assured, you are quite normal even if all apply to you!)
- Your identity, who you know or define yourself to be is questioned, threatened or mislabeled.
In the book “Difficult Conversations,” this is known as the identity conversation. At times like this the voice inside you head will pummel you with questions like “Do they see me as capable and worthy of my job?” or bigger still, “Am I worthy of love?” (And they say if this is happening, the difficult conversation is actually one you need to have with yourself. I agree!)
- Much like the chicken or egg thing, what comes first for you, the triggering event or voice inside your head that too often points out your [imagined] inadequacies?
- A deeply-held value is violated.
For example, if you value being treated with respect (who doesn’t?) and find yourself in a situation where you, or someone else, is not being treated respectfully, it can cause a triggered reaction.
- Whether consciously or not, a current circumstance can remind you of a defining past event or life experience. Then something occurs in the moment and, like a bolt of lightning, it goes deep into your body or psyche, finds the old wound and causes a triggered reaction.
- Often, we become unhinged by a fear. (i.e., a fear of being wrong, fear of failure, fear of being “found out,” fear of being embarrassed or even a fear of success.)
- What else might be true for you and be beneath your trigger?
Note: Sometimes we may not even know or be aware of what is really going on. All we know, in hindsight, is we reacted in less than stellar ways. Think of it as a clue…
- It is easy to lose sight of both our own and others’ perspective when we are triggered. Exploring perspectives puts a new light on everything! (See Resources below for more on these first three in “Changing on the Job.”)
- Ask different questions. (Play with it and I think you’ll see what I mean.)
- Seeing systems. (Think bigger picture and polarities.)
- Having someone in a supportive role (friend, family, coach or therapist) can help us find our way out of the dilemmas our triggered behaviors can create. What’s important is to not stay stuck in the story of what happened and instead look to understand cause and solutions.
- Think about why this happened and what thoughts or behaviors could move you towards what is important to you. (See Resources below on Acceptance, Commitment Therapy, which is a great model as you consider this move. )
- Allow room for the possibility that your reaction was appropriate, given the circumstances.
Mindfulness or “Centering” practices come up in all of my posts. Please trust me on this one!
- Difficult Conversations, How to Say What Matters Most, by Douglas Stone and Bruce Patton.
- Changing on the Job: Developing Leaders for a Complex World, by Jennifer Garvey Berger.
- Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems, by Barry Johnson.
- Brief Interventions for a Radical Change, by Kirk Stroshal and Patricia Robertson.
- ACT Made Simple, by Russ Harris.