What (Not) to Do When Triggered

by | Jan 23, 2018 | Healing Trauma


As I was helping two people work through a conflict a few weeks ago, one of them turned to me and snapped,

“So basically you’re accusing me of being abusive?”

I took a deep breath.

“OK. Let’s slow down … first, am I understanding what you are telling me accurately: You said you called your partner a liar, swore at them multiple times, raised your voice, followed them from room to room after they asked for a time out and then shattered a glass on the floor between the two of you – is that right?”

“Yes,” she replied, “But you’re basically saying I’m abusive and I’m not! I was just frustrated and angry. I love them and I care.”

“I don’t doubt that,” I replied. “I believe everything we do is our best attempt in that moment to meet deeper, sometimes urgent and intense needs that we have. I’m sure you were trying to go to bat for something deeply importantto you.”

She settled and nodded reluctantly, still taking in what I was saying.

I continued, “What happens for you in this moment as you look at the difference between how you see yourself, who you strive to be in the world, and the ways you find yourself reacting in emotionally charged situations when you feel triggered?”

She paused.

“It’s painful … I don’t want to sit with this pain. I’d rather blame others for making me resort to these things, but then I feel ashamed of myself for not owning up to it. It’s just not who I am or how I see myself.”

Many of us can relate to the painful tension between who we think we are, what we find ourselves doing and who we aspire to be.

Bringing these 3 aspects of our lived experience into synchrony with one another can be deep, life-long work.

  • When triggered into old patterns of behavior, we often face a contradiction between our sense of identity and our reactions, we often reel away and out of the moment.

  • We feel vulnerable and exposed; we turn quickly to self-protective strategies.

  • In an effort to escape pain and vulnerability, to find relief, to help, we unfortunately usually respond to ourselves and others with judgments, diagnoses, shame and defensiveness.

There is a different choice.

We can either continue the familiar cycles of shame, blame, defending and diagnosing, or, we can choose to place our attention on observations, feelings, needs and new strategies in the service of healing, transformation and growth.

One of the most important things we can do in moments of disappointing self-recognition, is to greet ourselves gently with compassion, humility, openness, grief and – most importantly – with love.

Instead of resorting to shame and blame, we can choose to:

  • Look squarely at what we did or said that impacted someone else

  • Feel the pain, the remorse, the desperation, the helplessness all mixed up in the memory of our reactions

  • Courageously interrupt our habitual patterns of defensively blaming others

  • Stop ourselves from self-recrimination and spiraling into shame, and instead:

  • Get curious about what we were feeling and needing

  • Explore how we might go about honoring our needs in kinder, more effective ways next time.

Although the person I was describing earlier defended herself against being seen through a stigmatized, pathologizing label, she didn’t argue about the actual behaviors that had occurred.

She resisted (and feared!) being reduced to “an abuser,” but was able to takeresponsibility for her behaviors and to express regret and empathy for the impact her behaviors had on her partner.

Grounding heated discussions in observable behaviors (without adding ideas of wrongness and pathology) helps us inhabit a space of shared reality and increases the possibility of connection and healing.

What do you do when faced with something that you don’t like about yourself? An aspect you have not yet made peace with?

  1. Do you reel and shy away? Defend, blame, go on the offense, attack, withdraw, retaliate, cut off? Do you harm others? Harm yourself? Or do you take a deeper look, relaxing into the moment, breathing deeply and mindfully, just noticing it arising within you and around you?

  2. Do you hunker down in defensiveness and resistance, fearful that you might not be who you thought you were? Or, do you open yourself up to its transformative truth and allow your sense of identity to expand?

Are we serving our fears or moving towards more love?

If you want to choose love, remember this:

1. Be Gentle with Yourself. Transform your Self-Judgments into Self-Compassion:

  • You are allowed to make mistakes and to show up imperfectly.

  • You are lovable anyway.

  • Ask yourself: what was I feeling in that moment? What was I needing that I wasn’t getting?

  • Practice speaking about your feelings and your needs when you aren’t triggered, so that those skills are available to you the next time you are triggered … we don’t learn new skills during the crisis itself!

2. Be Gentle with Others:

  • Talk about specific behaviors instead of using shortcut labels and diagnoses.

  • Stop reducing people into who or what they are.

  • Commit to seeing their humanity, their intentions, the deep needs they were trying to meet and then help each other find kinder, more effective ways of meeting those needs.

  • Focus on the growth, the healing, the insight that can be unleashed in any micro moment as you go … stop getting so hung up on “what is wrong with them…”

I’ll end this week with one of my favorite quotes; one of my frequent mantras:

“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage.

Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” Rilke.

1 Comment

  1. Christopher Gordon

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom. I appreciate hearing how others struggle at times with who they think they are or try to be vs how we sometimes react. I have been pretty hard on myself in the past for exactly this reason and this is such a great lesson. “Transform self judgements into self compassion”. . . we don’t learn new skills during the crisis itself! So well said. I appreciate the reminder of how important it is to practice, practice, practice.


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