We’ve all been there. You’re Involved in what seems like an uneventful conversation, when seemingly out of nowhere the other person says something that sends you from zero to 60 in a split second. And before you know it, you’re up to 90 and still climbing. In all likelihood the person who is (at least in your mind) responsible for your reaction is reacting to your reaction, and then… well you know the drill. This is, for many of us, an all-too-familiar pattern that generally does not end well.
There is a saying that “differences are inevitable, but conflict is optional.” For those of us who have been in a relationship long enough to see that in all relationships there is usually an end to the honeymoon stage and often, it ain’t pretty. The honeymoon officially ends when you have that first unanticipated, out-of-nowhere explosion of anger, fear, or some other painful emotional interchange that turns a perfectly rational mature adult into a panic-stricken or enraged three year old. And it’s more than likely that your reactivity has provoked a similar set of feelings in the person in front of you who has suddenly transformed from a loved one into a demon. What has happened is, in a nutshell, you’ve been triggered.
There are different types of triggers, but the one that we are referring to is defined by Webster as “distress, typically as a result of aroused feelings or memories associated with a particular traumatic experience”. “Trauma” comes from the Greek word of the same spelling which means “a wound, hurt; or a defeat,”. So, no, this piece is not intended to be a lesson in etymology, which is the study of “the origin and development of a word” … OK I’m done. If I continue I’ll probably trigger you, that is, if I haven’t already done so.
So, what to do when we get triggered? First of all, acknowledge it to yourself, and then immediately to the other person. This can be done by saying something as simple “I’m triggered”, which is probably the most effective and (importantly) non-blaming way to let them know that you are no longer present to really hear and absorb what they are saying. This is usually easier said than done, because your partner may at this point seem more like an enemy than they did a few minutes ago. This simple acknowledgment, however, can and often does defuse some of the tension that triggering events cause. It is also helpful to add to this statement what it was that your partner did or said that triggered you. For example, saying “When you said that you were seriously considering ending our relationship and didn’t know how much longer you would be willing put up with our constant bickering, I just flipped out and checked out. I haven’t really heard much of what you said since then.”
If your acknowledgement of your experience is received and responded to by your partner, with some degree of understanding or at least a less intense reaction, you may be able to slow down the velocity of your interaction. When we get emotionally aroused or feel threatened or angry, our anxiety level skyrockets which accelerates the intensity of our communications, which makes it much harder for us both to be present to each other and even to our own experience.
Slowing down is always the most important thing that we can do when our attention gets hijacked by a triggering event. The chances are, we both need to slow down, but it only takes one to initiate the slowdown, which can be done by making another simple statement or request such as “My heart is really racing and I need to cool things down. Can we just pause for a moment so that I can take a couple of breaths?” It’s better not to tell or even suggest to your partner that they should do the same. That would probably trigger them even more than they already are. It’s likely that this little “mini break” will slow them down as well.
Once you have regulated the velocity and intensity of your interaction, you can begin to address the content of your conversation in a more productive and less reactive way. Doing so will require each of you to make an effort to speak without blame or judgment of each other. Doing so will require you to speak from and about your own experience rather than to project blame or criticism towards each other. Speaking about what you are feeling is generally more productive and inviting than trying to convince your partner of why they are wrong and what they should not have done or said. At this point, one or both of you may still be feeling anger and there’s no problem with acknowledging that, but if that is the case, try to express it without blame or suggesting that your partner “made me feel angry”. Statements like,” I really got angry when you…” or I still feel upset (or angry) but I want to get through this and I want to hear your side of things without either of us getting defensive”, or issuing demands, threats, or verbal personal attacks on your partner.
The object here is to tell the truth about you’re each feeling rather than demonizing the other person and holding them totally responsible for the breakdown that you’re currently experiencing. Triggering events generally activate one of three possible responses: fight (anger and hostility), flight (withdrawing, disengaging) or freezing (checking out, trying to disappear, going numb). A fourth possible response is accommodation (making an effort to appease or comply with your partner in order to prevent further attack). Try to recognize what reaction you default to in these situations and see if you can catch yourself in that behavior. The way to reengage with yourself and your partner when you catch yourself triggered in onto one of those states is to get vulnerable, which is probably the last thing that you want to do when you’re feeling threatened. It’s particularly hard for those whose tendency is to go into an angry or fight pattern. It’s not about denying the angry feelings but going through or beyond them by noticing what else might be there for you to express and then go underneath the anger. Usually what’s there is fear or pain.
Vulnerability is always the doorway into the reconnection that we need when we’re in the middle of a triggering event. And it’s usually the very last thing that we want to do. It is, however possible to break or at least interrupt our defensive habits and replace them with responses that can enable us to reconnect from a place from which we can proceed with a greater sense of mutual safety and understanding.
I don’t know if we ever can get to a point where we are no longer triggerable, but that’s not the point. The point is to be conscious enough to notice when you’re triggered and take the steps that will enable you to recognize what triggered you and why. Chances are it’s related to a previous experience from the (probably) distant past and then to get to work to come to terms with some of your unfinished business. But that’s a topic for another time.