Know your triggers

We all have certain things that get under our skin, things that are likely to get us annoyed, irritated or distressed. These are known as ‘triggers’. Some triggers are shared by a wide range of people (if not by everybody) – for example, losing face or being humiliated. But there are also triggers that are specific to each individual. For example, what gets me really riled may have little or no effect on you, and vice versa. It depends on a number of factors, not least past experiences, future aspirations and, of course, our values. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Our past experiences can be significant in so far as they can leave us sensitive about certain issues , feeling vulnerable about one or more things that have proven painful or problematic for us – a ‘once bitten twice shy’ scenario. That is, the past has taught us to be wary of certain situations. Sometimes we will be only too aware of precisely what it is that is triggering a strong response in us, we may have a vivid memory of what has hurt us in the past. But at other times, the connection may not be so clear; we may have a strong reaction, but not be able to pinpoint what the trigger was. That can leave us feeling confused and perhaps insecure (and potentially leave others around us feeling confused and insecure too).

Our aspirations have an important part to play too. For example, if we are hoping to achieve something important in the future (let’s call it x), and something happens that blocks our path to x (or threatens to do so), this may again serve as a trigger to provoke a strong emotional reaction in us. So, it’s important to understand that our triggers can be linked to the past or the future. In some circumstances there may be elements of both.

Our values also have an important part to play. Our values are, by definition, what we value, those things that are important to us. Events or circumstances that offend or unsettle our values in some way can serve as a very powerful trigger. For example, if a major part of our value system revolves around a commitment to fairness and we encounter a situation where someone is being treated unfairly, it is highly likely that it will trigger a strong response, such as anger.

Of course, triggers can set in motion positive processes too – provoking satisfaction, joy and so on. But when we add together triggers from our past experience, our future aspirations and our ever-present values, we can see that these are important influences on our behaviour, our emotional responses and our interactions with others. It is for this reason that getting to know what our triggers are can be a very wise move. Having a degree of self-awareness about these can help us to anticipate difficulties, prepare for potentially challenging situations and feel more confident because of our greater sense of control.

What we shouldn’t do, though, is focus too closely on those triggers and risk obsessing about them. That’s the difference between being self-aware (which is a good thing) and being self-conscious (which is not so good). We have to be balanced about it, of course.

Once we have a good grasp of our own triggers we will then find ourselves in a stronger position to tune in to the triggers of other people – and that applies in our private, personal lives as well as in our working lives. The more skilful we become at these matters, the more effective we can be in various aspects of our lives.