The Tango of Triggers

How to balance the act of triggering others

We all have those encounters. The ones that stick with us and we don’t know why. It wasn’t necessarily what was said but how it made you feel. It always reminds me of the beautiful Maya Angelou quote “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” And that’s the thing with those moments, something feels off and we can’t shake them.

Often I find it helpful to circle back to that specific feeling and try to remember the context. It could be that someone said something and it triggered something from your past. We all have triggers, sensitive spots on our soul that when they are touched we crumble from pain even though the other person did not mean to harm us at all. At other times, sometimes we trigger something in someone else, that makes them want to hurt you. As another great saying goes, Hurt people hurt people. Sometimes people trigger us without them wanting to and sometimes we trigger them. Neither of us are responsible for how we make the other feel, but both of us are responsible for how we react. And when we are hurt, there are only two reactions possible. Fight or flight.

If you are already around people in a social setting, the flight mode becomes a little harder. Often, people default to fight, in the most social way possible. They become passive aggressive or just aggressive. These moments stick with us so much because we often didn’t notice we triggered someone, hence feel this fight reaction is coming out of nowhere. Even if we did know we triggered someone, we can never know to the extent of the impact we had and we don’t need to. Everyone’s triggers are so unique. They are often unexplained and very hard to explain to others (without some oh so heavy troubleshooting therapy but oh so worth it). Triggers are personal and are allowed to remain private. So how do we deal with someone that we have somehow hurt, but we don’t know why and we cannot fix the pain that was already caused in this person?

For one, if you have noticed you may have caused a stir, you can show empathy. You can say “Sorry if I said something earlier that was out of line”. Or “I apologize if I said something that startled you”. If you are not at that stage in your relationship, you can simply give the person space. Some distance for them to process the situation and allow them to regain their composure. The same goes for you should you be the one that has been triggered. Take a moment to piece yourself back together.

Two, don’t take the hits. Just because you triggered something in someone else does not mean you have to carry their hurt and their pain. What of sad world would we be if we just let ourselves be punched around due to other people’s inadequate dealings with their emotions. Too often we feel we have to be polite, tip toe around the issue or engage in the fight. There is a way to avoid the hits and defuse the situation. No, that is not by fighting back but by compassion and rationality. Speak calmly and with foresight. Understand what the person is trying to do and decide not to engage. Sentences like: “I wonder what makes you say that”. Or “Hm. That’s an interesting point of view”. English language is full of sayings that can defuse a situation (and I am sure many other languages are too). Find the one sentence that works for you and bring it with you to the next situation like you do your wallet.

Three, remind yourself that it is not your fault. People go around hurting each other. It is what we do. We are all like bulls in a china shop. We try not to, but stuff is bound to break. Unlike china, we can put ourselves back to our initial state. Humans as resilient and we have the power to even grow from our pain. The same goes for you, should you find yourself with triggers. There’s always time to meet your triggers and take them out for a dance. If you do, you will find yourself untriggable.


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