You and your dear one are discussing what to prepare for dinner. Suddenly your heart races and your fists clench. You are ready to fight, run or collapse. Your dearest is now the enemy! YIKES! You are now in the depth of an emotional trigger! Most of have been there!
Repeatedly, when people ask, “What happened? Why did I say or do that?” the answer is,
You got triggered!”
Bless my client for giving me permission to change some details and share an email of distress. The client describes an episode of getting lost in an emotional trigger. Some call it losing control or being triggered while others use the phrase emotionally overwhelmed or emotionally dysregulated. Dr. Dan Segal calls it Flipping Your Lid.
My client’s story illustrates how a simple interaction can escalate to an emotional trigger to name calling, and then to emotional wounding. It also demonstrates what happens when two people are emotionally dysregulated at the same time. It is as if there is no brain nor adult in the space. Using this scenario, I will weave in observations of the stress response, emotional triggers, and the dynamics of the drama triangle roles of blamer, rescuer, and victim.
Related Post describes the drama triangle: How to Stop Your Relationship Drama
Here is the edited email with my comments in brackets. Note: details are changed to protect anonymity.
A Story of Emotional Triggers
Tommy (adult son) and I went to do errands. We were at the mall because he had something to pick up. Then he said he was hungry and was going to go to Wendy’s to get something to eat until dinner was ready. I said I was not going to pay for him to eat at Wendy’s. (She is making an assumption that Tommy expects his food to be paid for by her. Or she and he have a pattern or an unspoken agreement that Mom will automatically cover expenses for her son. In that case, she has just announced she is no longer participating in the pattern or participating in their unconscious agreement).
I also said that he had all afternoon to make himself something to eat and that I didn’t have that opportunity. I said I was hungry too. (She is triggered and speaks from the position of a victim. “Poor me, I didn’t eat”). Well, maybe he was hungry but there is always something to eat at our house. (Here she is defending in her head that she is responsible for Tommy’s happiness and should be providing food for him. She may have moved to the role of rescuer). He and I went back and forth saying things like, ‘Everything is frozen at home’ and ‘We can pick up something at the grocery store.’ On and on! (Tommy is probably playing the victim role. “Poor me. I don’t get to eat.”)
After we had a string of snarly, quick, and sharp comments, he walked away from me. (This line confirms that my client and Tommy are moving around the Drama Triangle). I stayed where I was for a few minutes then walked to him to say, “I’m leaving!” We were tense with one another. But he followed me out to the car. After we got home, I went into another room. He warmed up some leftovers, ate, and went downstairs. (When we feel out-of-control stress we tend to fight, flee or freeze. Both, my client and Tommy are fleeing the presence of one another, the source of what they perceive as their stress response).
Later, he came upstairs and said “Sorry”. (Tommy has got his pre-frontal cortex back in place. Maybe he used breathing or some other self-calming strategy. He regrets what he said or did and apologized.) I said I was sorry too and said that I was only making suggestions on what we should do for dinner. (My client began well by taking responsibility for her contribution to the conflict by saying “I’m sorry”. Then she moved into defending her end of the conflict. She moves right into the role of a blamer as if to say, “I was only trying to do what was right, which makes you wrong.”)
Then Tommy started explaining that when we were in the mall I talked too much and when he tried to say something, I was sharp with him. (Now Tommy is triggered and defending himself. He is now in the blamer role as if to say, “It’s all your fault that we are having this conflict” My client has a childhood wound about making mistakes. If she made a mistake it was met with severe punishment and shaming.)
Then he turned around and went back downstairs. I went downstairs after him. He looked at me and said something like, ‘I came to say I was sorry to you and you brought up the mall, and only want to argue. F#$@$% you! I need a break from you.” (Tommy is still emotionally dysregulated and in the blaming role. He uses emotionally and abusive language. Of course, this is a big trigger for my client.) I said, “Well F#$@$% you, too!” (Again, we see defending and blaming!) and went upstairs.
I fell to pieces and felt again as if I were dead. (The sensation of ‘as if dead’ is the freeze or collapse response to stress. It is as if we say, “I give up!” And yes, it is important to check out ideas of suicide when people use this kind of language.) If I were dead, I wouldn’t be feeling so sad, hurt, and alone.”
More Insight into Emotional Triggers
It may surprise you to know, I like and appreciate the end of my client’s message. Here is an explanation.
She ends with authentic feelings. Now, this is exciting for me. When I first met this client her feeling awareness consisted of “I feel angry or I feel pissed off!” Her last line demonstrates awareness. She knows she would not feel her feelings if she were dead. She also knows she is feeling sad, hurt and alone. Regardless of not wanting to experience uncomfortable, unfamiliar, painful feelings, she is! Her willingness to be vulnerable allows an opening for healing.
Additionally, the mere fact that my client has calmed down enough to write and forward her message to me is a good sign! She is observing herself. The observer is never wounded. Plus, she is reaching out for support; a darned healthy and resiliency strengthening act!
My client now knows she wants love and connection with her son. Tommy was not able to give it, in this scenario. She can learn to get love and connection in healthy ways, particularly with herself. Then she will be fully alive!
I told her, ”Those feelings just are. They tell you the core of who you are. The more you feel them, talk about them, and cry with them, the less they will overwhelm you. Embrace them like a crying baby You will start to feel happier and connected.”
Become Aware of Your Emotional Triggers and Needs
Most of us have an emotional trigger or hot button. When it gets pushed and sets us into a gush of feeling resentful, anger, fear or hopelessness. The source of our triggers may be having our values violated, or more often an incident that reminds us of a conscious or unconscious traumatic incident. You are triggered if you impulsively say and act in ways you will regret.
Emotional triggers indicate that our emotional needs are not being met. We often seek to have our emotional needs met from others or the outside world. Tommy, a grown man wanted his mother to feed him. I suspect he was seeking to meet an underlying emotional need. She wanted love, connection, and appreciation. Neither of them were aware of, nor articulated, those needs.
Are you aware of what your emotional needs are? Keep your awareness open for longing for attention, independence, safety, peace, appreciation, being right, valued, being in control, and the ever complicated state of happiness.
Like my client, if you value your relationships, seek out professional support. Don’t risk creating unnecessary and painful dynamics. Explore your emotional triggers. Remember, the next time you ask, “What just happened?” the answer just might be, “Someone’s emotional triggers were fired.”