Do you know what your triggers are?

One of my anger triggers is cleaning. I have such negative, painful connections to cleaning from my childhood that my first few years on my own as an adult, I pretty much refused to clean at all. That was almost 20 years ago.

Still today, even if I volunteer to clean the house and start out enthusiastically, by the time I get deep into it I’m usually feeling angry and resentful.

At work my triggers are different. They revolve around gaining approval. These cause a different reaction in me: nervousness, anxiety, embarrassment, fear. With my kids, it’s guilt.

These are the times—when I recognize I am starting to feel negative and getting worked up—that I need to stop myself and recognize that my behavior is off. When I don’t, I usually regret it: I may pick a fight, or blow up in a fit of rage.

You’ll know something has triggered you, when you find yourself getting angry, anxious, embarrassed or otherwise negative for reasons you don’t fully understand. You may feel yourself generating lists in your head of all the things your partner has done recently to upset you, or looking for someone to blame.

The first thing to remember is self-compassion. You are not perfect. You are human. You will make mistakes and have to keep trying. You can’t change a lifetime’s worth of behaviors overnight, but at least you’re trying.

Second, ask your friends, partners, or whomever you are closest to for help.  We have a natural inclination to want to do things on our own – no one was ever there for us and we learned early on that we could only rely on ourselves.

But we are no longer children living as captives to an abuser. The reality is that others do care and want to help us, and deep down we want to be able to receive their help. Without this vulnerability, we cannot build relationships where we are truly bonded to someone else — and we wind up hurting those who actually love us and pushing them away.

If you feel one of these negative spells coming on, what can you do?

  • Do not act on your feelings immediately.
  • Warn your spouse. Talk about this beforehand and come up with a plan for the next time it happens – how each of you will handle the situation. Then stick to it. If you tried your best and you failed, don’t give up. Try again. It will come easier next time.
  • Ask for the space you need to gain the necessary insight into your behavior. Take a time out or create a physical boundary between you, until you calm down (i.e. leave the house for a few hours).
  • Don’t give the “silent treatment” or otherwise indicate that your feelings are the fault of someone else withe your words, body language or actions. Instead, explain to your partner what you’re doing (taking time to think things through) and give a time frame for when you think you’ll be ready to discuss. Especially in the beginning, you may need some flexibility on time frames, which can be difficult to balance with your partner’s right/need to discuss their own feelings. If it’s taking you longer than expected, communicate that calmly and respectfully to your partner, and let them know you haven’t forgotten about it. Ask for an extension if needed.
  • Give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Don’t assume they meant to hurt you. At work if I receive an email I don’t like the tone of, I step away for a half hour. When I come back to it, I read it again, but this time I imagine the sender reading the email to me in the nicest possible voice/tone/delivery and see if I’m still upset. Respond based on the best possible interpretation of their message rather than the worst.
  • Do not let yourself talk about it until you’ve had a chance to think about what your deeper motivations were for getting upset and how you can handle these feelings going forward.
  • Apologize. You lose nothing by apologizing. It doesn’t make you weak to admit you didn’t get something right, it makes you a good partner. Apologizing makes us vulnerable, and we fear vulnerability, so we avoid it. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable is one of the keys to your healing.
  • Practice this over and over until it becomes your new normal.

What to say to get the space you need: Calmly, “When [XYZ] happened earlier, something made me very upset and I don’t fully understand what/why. I need some time to think about why it upset me so much, so that I can address it constructively. I need [insert time frame here] to mull it over and then I promise we can discuss it. It would help a lot if we can agree to shelve this until then.”

Just saying this to your partner may be an uncomfortable level of vulnerability for you. If you can’t say it to them face-to-face, send a text, write an email, leave a sticky note. Just make sure they get the message.

This is as much an exercise in setting healthy boundaries, as it is in behavior modification. Use your time to dig as deep as you can into the root cause of what upset you.  I still struggle with each of these, but it gets just a little easier each time I try.

For help understanding your insecurities and triggers, see Who’s Pulling Your Strings?: How to Break the Cycle of Manipulation and Regain Control of Your Life. Most of our insecurities can be summed up into a handful of larger issues. For example, approval seeking or fear of abandonment. This book explains it well and offers practical advice for addressing them.

For those of us who are just becoming more self-aware and introspective, this process can take a week or two. But as you better learn your insecurities, patterns and motivations, and the more you practice changing your behavior, it will come easier and much quicker – hours as opposed to weeks.

Do you know what your triggers are? What do you do to stop yourself from acting on them? 

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