Everyone has something or someone in their lives that triggers them. When we’re triggered, certain people, behaviors, situations, or words happening in the present cause us to relive an emotion or experience from the past. The most obvious example is someone living with PTSD. If something happens that brings to mind the past traumatic event – for instance, fireworks, a car accident, a crying baby, an anniversary – that person’s emotions associated with the trauma will be activated, and it’s like they’re back in the moment of the trauma.
That’s a very simplistic definition, but it captures the idea. Of course, the word “triggered” has come to be applied to much less traumatic events, such as when a person gets upset because they don’t get their way, or they respond angrily when presented with information that doesn’t match their world views. It’s probably more accurate in those cases to say that your buttons have been pushed, because what’s being activated is probably not trauma, but feelings of frustration, being disrespected, or not being in control. Granted, it could be emotional trauma. I might get triggered if I feel my opinions aren’t being considered at work, and that takes me back to childhood when no one listened to me and I felt invisible.
I can think of a few people in my life who push my buttons; whether or not I’m technically triggered, I don’t know. But that’s part of what I want to explore in the spirit of us learning together. Let me describe two of those people. One is very self-promotional and the queen of the humble brag. She’ll post on Facebook that her clients think she’s the cat’s meow, and then all of her friends will pile with comments like “you’re a rock star!” and “you go, girl!” Yuck. Her posts on Facebook got so annoying to me, I hid her feed so that I wouldn’t have to stomach it. But does hiding her really make me feel any better?
Another person comes across as condescending and smug, at least, that’s how I experience him. Others fall at his feet and act like he’s the be-all-end-all of experts. Almost everything he says puts me on the defensive, which makes it hard for me to hear if he’s actually offering any value or maybe really does know what he’s talking about. And I should add, he’s triggered me almost since day one, and day one was about 5 years ago. Since I currently am part of a project with this person, I power through my annoyance, not wanting to jeopardize a professional relationship. But does powering through do me – or him – any favors?
There are a few directions to go with these situations, and I’m going to focus on two symbiotic options. The first option is to use my response to these two people as an opportunity for introspection and personal growth, keeping the matter completely internal. Choosing this option means I’ll be having a courageous conversation with myself.
The second is to determine what part of my reaction is subjectively about my personal stories, and what part is objectively about someone acting in a distasteful, disrespectful or otherwise unacceptable manner. Looking at it from this second perspective may or may not involve a conversation with the other person.
In both cases, I’m going to refer to what’s happening as interpersonal triggering. I define an interpersonal trigger as one that’s between two people but only one person – the person who’s triggered – is aware of what’s happening, and it’s not directly related to an identified trauma, but it does activate a strong reaction.
A popular quote from Carl Jung sums up the essence of option one. He said, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” There’s a bit of an ouch to that realization, isn’t there? It’s uncomfortable. Because if we take that idea to heart, it means that the very thing that triggers or irritates or inspires a strong reaction is a reflection of us. It’s often a reflection of something we want or something we don’t like in ourselves. For instance, let’s take the person whose Facebook humble bragging drives me crazy. What are the thoughts that go through my mind? My internal monologue might sound like, “why does she feel a need to do that? Does she think she’s better than the rest of us? Does she think we even care? Is she just looking for attention? She must be really insecure.”
When it comes to the colleague who I experience as arrogant, my internal monologue might include all of those same thoughts, plus “he’s not respectful of us. He thinks we all report to him or something. He always sounds so self-righteous, like if you don’t see things the same way he does, you’re an idiot. And we don’t dare question him! If we do, he’ll talk in circles and turn it around and make it seem like we’re foolish to even bring up the point. Why do people bow down and kiss his feet? I just don’t get it.”
Wow, you just got an inside peak of my brain! But I don’t feel embarrassed by those petty thoughts, because I know from conversations with trusted friends that we all have them. We’ve all had the “who do they think they are?!” thought at one time or another. What we haven’t always done is turn that question around and use it to examine our own feelings of self-worth, trust, and competence. And that’s the exact opportunity that’s being presented.
With both people, I’m most likely experiencing an interpersonal trigger because they are reflecting something I want. I say that I despise humble bragging and arrogance, but maybe there’s a part of me that wishes I were more confident about putting myself out there and sharing what I’m proud of. Or perhaps I wish I could state my opinions more firmly, without disclaimers or self-deprecation. My reaction could signal that I crave respect or admiration, or to be seen as a leader, and that I’m not getting enough of that feedback.
This came up with a coaching client recently. She found herself getting irritated every time her coworker took a personal phone call when he should have been working. My client’s work ethic told her that you don’t mix personal and professional business. She thought it was extremely disrespectful that he didn’t share that same ethic. So what was really going on? We took a step back: Was it such a terrible thing that every once in a while, he’d take a personal call and talk for a few minutes? Did it disrupt anyone else in the office, or cause his work to suffer in any way? Let’s say that it wasn’t such a terrible thing, and it wasn’t disruptive. That leaves us with the question of “then why does it bother you?” It’s irritating in part because there’s a values mis-match. My client thinks it’s inappropriate and values clear personal/professional boundaries, and her coworker seems to value his personal life over his professional life. If we dig a bit, we find that the client struggled when her brother was ill and felt bad about being at work when she could have been helping him. She did her best to keep that situation away from the office, even when it was painful. Would she have liked to have kept in touch by phone during the day? Of course. But she didn’t see it as an option. She didn’t want her boss to think she was distracted and not able to do her job. And now she has this coworker, who doesn’t even seem to have an emergency going on in his life, talking on the phone whenever he feels like it. He doesn’t seem to care what anybody thinks!
You can probably hear where this is going: my client is irritated because he colleague doesn’t care what others think, and he’s choosing to do something that she wishes she could have done. Upon reflection, she might realize that there’s a part of her that cares too much what others think, and that keeps her from doing what she really wants to do. That realization shifts her relationship with her coworker, because if she sees that he’s holding up a mirror to her, she has to come to terms with a new piece of information about herself. In this instance, it’s that she lets her worries about what other people will think stop her from doing things she wants to do.
And that’s a perfect segue to our second option, which becomes possible if we’ve gotten real and honest with ourselves. Now that we’ve peeled back a few layers to find out what our reaction can teach us, we can look at the situation more objectively. To continue with my client’s situation, there is an element that’s cause for legitimate concern, that of her colleague taking care of personal business during work hours. Just because we choose to extrapolate a personal lesson from the situation doesn’t mean there’s not something wrong.
If she decides the behavior is worth addressing, she has to separate her emotional reaction from the policies that she sees being violated. Doing so completely changes the conversation. In the first place, she might decide that yes, he’s violating the no-personal-stuff-at-work policy, but it doesn’t happen that often, it doesn’t interfere with him getting his work done, and it’s not affecting her ability to get her work done. If it’s not doing any harm, is it even worth mentioning? She might decide it’s not.
But what if she decides it’s important enough to discuss? Now she can isolate the behavior, without injecting the interpersonal trigger aspect. That self-awareness isn’t important to the conversation; it’s only important to her, and she has a choice about what to do with it. So when it comes time for the conversation with her colleague, she can share with him that she’s noticed he’s had to take a lot of personal calls lately, and she’s finding it distracting, since she can hear the entire conversation. Would he please take those calls on his breaks or during lunch? If she feels there’s enough mutual trust and wants to open a possible can of worms, she could ask if everything’s okay. That goes in the category of assuming best intent – that he wouldn’t be breaking policy if there wasn’t a good reason. If being direct with her colleague doesn’t work, another option is to share what’s happening with her supervisor. Not to tattle on the other person, but to report that there’s a problem and seek coaching or support around it. Her supervisor might have observed this behavior, too, but not felt compelled to do anything about it because no one had complained. If the supervisor knows it’s become disruptive, that might be the catalyst for them to finally address it.
When it comes to the interpersonal triggers I shared at the start of this episode, I’ve decided not to say anything ever in the case of the humble brag Facebook friend. She’s not a close friend, and she can post whatever she wants. It has zero effect on my life. Regarding the colleague, I’m now aware that there’s part of me that’s responding to his arrogance because I wish I was a bit more confident. But I’m also aware that he can sometimes treat his peers disrespectfully, and that might manifest in ways that impact our work. In that case, I will likely find a tactful yet direct way to raise the issue.
Here’s your call to action: the next time you have a heightened emotional response to someone, take a step back and ask yourself: is there something this person is doing or saying that gives me information about myself? Is the thing that annoys me telling me about something I don’t like in myself? Or is it revealing something I wish I had more or less of? You might come to the conclusion that no, that other person is just being a jerk, or they’re just breaking the rules, pure and simple, and that conflicts with your sense of fairness. In that case, you might decide to have a conversation with them, or you’ll decide you’re willing to ignore it – in which case, it would serve you well to release the charged feelings you were experiencing and not let yourself be annoyed! If you do find that your reaction is revealing a blind spot in your own thinking, sit with that and explore it. See the irritation as a gift that has allowed you to grow and evolve.
I hope you’ve found value in dissecting what’s happening when we become triggered or irritated by someone else. I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t consider my thoughts to necessarily be clinically correct. I come at this from my perspective as a coach and what I’ve learned through my formal training, work with clients, and continued learning. I’m always in process, as I imagine you are, too. Thanks for joining me on the learning journey.