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That triggered me

Updated: Oct 12, 2022

A few months ago I shared an experience where someone commented on a post I made with oppressive rhetoric in a Facebook group to a family friend. As I relayed the story I explained how I responded with, "That triggered me." And she nearly jumped out of her chair.

"Don't say that!" She barked with exacerbation.

"Say what?" I asked genuinely curious.

"Don't say something's triggering. That's so overused. Everyone cries about being triggered these days. It doesn't even mean anything anymore."

I paused a moment taking what she said in and acknowledging her thoughts on the matter. I heard how the phrase "that triggered me" upsets her because, in her experiences, it has been a way for people to deflect responsibility and perpetuate blaming others.

Then I shared how it hasn't been my experience that people use the premise of triggers as an excuse for avoiding difficult conversations. But to pave the way for a deeper discussion to be had so amends can be made.

Personally and professionally, the phrase, "That triggered me," has been an invitation to pause and take a step back.

As a concept, triggering explores how different stimuli can cause a flood of stress hormones in the body, activating a threat response, which may lead to dysregulation in the nervous system. These are the times it's hard to manage one's emotions. Strong reactions occur, like the drive to fight, flight or freeze, that don't match the situation.

Triggers can include a variety of stimuli. The tone of voice used in a conversation. The words or phrases said. Unwelcome loud noises that disturb one's sense of peace. The circumstances we encounter, which feel similar to past stressors. A news headline or commercial that comes into our purview. And disrespectful or aggressive behaviors like getting cut off in traffic.

Learning how to navigate triggers is an essential life skill. An important part of learning that skill is having the language to bring our awareness to the moments when we experience a trigger and naming our experience for ourselves and with others.

From there, we can take steps to repair the damage done.

I have found that the vast majority of the time we are triggered, the other person didn't intend to have such an impact. Therefore, we foster the space to course correct in relationship with others when we name the problem.

According to my family friend, my approach is the exception, not the norm. Her experiences have been different. And the very phrase, "that triggered me" triggers her as a result.

This illuminates a few different pieces to be mindful of as we do this type of work.

First, words matter. There's no sense in arguing or getting positional about who's right or wrong. If someone finds a word or a phrase triggering, it's best to work towards a shared understanding of an empowering terminology. Instead of triggering I could say "that activated a fear response for me" or "I experienced an Amygdala Hijack."

There are a lot of different ways to convey the same basic idea. What matters most is having a shared understanding of the terms used as well. There's not one right or wrong way to do this work. There's the best way for you.

This leads to the second piece, do the work we must. Awareness is an important first step in learning how to regulate our responses to triggers. We can't fully eliminate triggers in our lives but we can take back control of how we respond when they happen. Before we can effectively work with others we must learn to self-regulate. With intention, effort and a bit of expert + external guidance, it is possible to learn how to be both fired up and in control!

The third piece this story illuminates is the importance of engaging in conversations about the way we talk in our relationships. We need to invest the appropriate time and energy into having meaningful conversations where our thoughts, feelings and needs can be both expressed and received. We need the time and space where we can explore how different stimuli impacts us and come to a shared understanding of how to create conditions where all can be engaged, contribute, and thrive together.

When my family friend barked at me, I could have gotten argumentative. A part of me felt totally fired up that she was both censoring and rejecting me with such a short burst of phrase. And thoughts of proving her wrong flitted through my mind like an airplane crossing the sky when we're trying to enjoy watching the clouds.

Instead I self-regulated by first acknowledging how I was feeling. Then I took a few centering deep breaths while subtly brushing my fingers across my legs to diffuse the tension in my body. And lastly I posed the question, "what if there's a reason she feels this way?" to myself. which sparked my curiosity to want to hear more about her opinion.

I have to do this kind of work all the time when I'm facilitating retreats for clients. Be it simply self-regulating because a word or phrase just doesn't sit well with me personally but doesn't bother others in the space. Or co-regulating because something was shared that struck a collective nerve and we need to repair any discord + refocus before we can move forward.

As the facilitator, it is my job to be flexible and open - willing to use the language and phrases that best resonates with my clients. I need to be aware of my own thoughts and feelings without projecting them onto the team. And I must hold the space for deeper levels of awareness, open conversation and a shared understanding for moving forward to occur.

From now on, when I see this family friend, I won't use the phrase "that triggered me." But we did reach a mutual agreement on the importance of recognizing when a situation causes us to feel stuck in a reactive loop and working to heal that pattern.

Do you ever feel like you have to walk on eggshells in meetings? Is there a word or phrase you hear often at work that strikes a nerve? Would you like to move past these hindrances? Schedule a call with me and we can talk more about what's going on and strategies to move beyond these limits.

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