This world is full of things that trigger us: those things that get under our skin, those moments where we lose all the cool we have been cultivating and fly off the handle, those unspoken rules of etiquette that we know and are shocked that others do not abide by. Each one of us has our own unique set of triggers and the people who match them. We may try to ignore them, we may want to avoid them, but we cannot escape what we avoid. Whatever triggers us is an opportunity to learn and grow, which is exactly what we came here to do, and we won’t get past it until we work through it.
I have heard children and adults say “they/that/this are/is triggering me” as if it is the fault of others that we are triggered. Our triggers are our own. They are our receptors to the world around us and they show us where our work lies.
There are some people that just push all of our buttons, and even some new ones we weren’t even aware of! In Buddhism, it is taught to think of these people as our teachers. There is even the saying “thank you precious teacher” to mental say as we begin feeling triggered by another. This is incredibly helpful when someone is really getting under our skin—when we remind ourselves that whether we like it or not, this person is a teacher and we have something to learn, then we can behave better in the situation. As Pema Chodron says, everything and everyone in our lives is part of our mandala of awakening. No one is brought into our lives by accident or for any other purpose than to help us on our path to enlightenment. If we believe this and put this in practice, we will naturally have more respect and compassion for everyone we interact with. Those folks that trigger us are really just handing us our homework!
What to do we when we are triggered? Well when someone or something is triggering to us, we must not stop with just that perception or acknowledgment, but take the experience deeper into the why beneath it. When we ask ourselves, “Why is this such a trigger to me?”, we may be very surprised by the answer. Sometimes it is an event or association from the past that has nothing to do with the present moment, and so no one else is responsible for our present annoyance but our memory. We can own this: go back to the original experience and re-pattern ourselves by reminding our mind that the association was from another time and not necessarily relevant to the moment. We can come back to the present moment and explore it without the residue from the past and see if we can detonate the current trigger.
It takes discipline to do this practice, and it may take time, but eventually the trigger will lose its charge and no longer affect us. In the instances of working through traumatic triggers, it is important to work with someone, ideally a practitioner with experience and compassion who you really trust, and to move slowly to reduce the trauma associated with the trigger. This is big healing work and there are deep teachings available to us when we are ready to do this work. It may be easier to work on triggers that are not associated with trauma first and then move towards the more painful triggers as you become more confident in your ability to digest experiences and unlock their teachings.
In relationships, we can find ourselves triggered as our relationships become closer and deeper. When we feel ourselves triggered we can want to back away or blame the other person, but if we don’t work through the trigger with the person in front of us, we will just find the same pattern with the next person who comes into our lives. The moment the trigger arises we can admit it to ourselves and the other person by simply stating just that and our willingness to work on it. Together we can take a look at what it is that is triggering us—say, a partner’s lack of availability triggering insecurity about the relationship—and then we can talk it through, stating what is coming up as honestly as we can. When we communicate in this way, from a place of wanting to grow and do the work, instead of a place of blame, we can really get to the roots of what is arising. Perhaps in this situation, our partner is working overtime to support us to overcompensate for their own insecurity of not feeling like a good provider, or maybe it is their own fear of intimacy that is using work as a distraction to create some distance. We will never know if we do not explore it. When we communicate our challenges with our partner we invite them to support us in our growth. It can also give them permission to share their challenges with us so that we can in turn support them, and this provides for a deeper, richer relationship.
The above example is just one of a million possible scenarios that can come up in relationship, but with honest communication and a dedication to work together, a good partnership can be prepared to work through anything that comes its way.
It takes deep bravery to work through our triggers—even reading an article about them—so here is to your healing journey and your brave heart!