EQ Workout #3: Befriend Your Triggers


At the entrance to the Temple of Apollo in Delphi was the inscription, “Know thyself.” Those two simple words form the foundation and serve as the most important element of emotional intelligence. One of the key learnings we make in this area is self-knowledge about how we react when where are stressed and triggered. This is especially important in the workplace. More often than not we get triggered in inconvenient places:

  • In the middle of a meeting;
  • During a tense conversation with a work colleague;
  • Standing in front of an audience giving a presentation.
Befriend Your Triggers

When this happens, we have nowhere to run and we are forced to manage it in the moment. Sometimes, we manage these situations well, and other times, not so much.

It is so easy to curse these triggers and the impact it has on us and our behaviors. However, cursing them will have little impact. I suggest we learn to befriend them. The first step in the befriending process is to recognize the original purpose of our emotional triggers and how they have served us well.

We human beings are wonderfully made to survive, and the limbic part of our brain is constantly scanning for threats just like a radar. When a threat is detected, an amazing set of reactions begin to take place. Oxygen is diverted from the brain to other parts of the body as its higher functions are not needed. That oxygen is diverted to our lungs should we need to make a quick escape. Our hearts beat faster pushing blood to our legs for the same reason. Now, this system was perfect for the mornings when we wandered out of the cave and saw a woolly mammoth facing us. We went into automatic functioning with no thought required. You are reading this blog today because of this amazing system. It helped you and your ancestors survive.

However, it’s also important to recognize that this survival system is still firmly in place even though the woolly mammoths are long gone.  When it to comes to threats, our brains do not do a wonderful job of distinguishing between real, imagined, or relived threats – they are all treated the same way. Each one is treated as a life-or-death situation. It’s as if our body is saying “Better not take any chances. After all you only have to be wrong once.”

The problem of course is that most of the situations we encounter each day are not life or death situations. They pose little threat to us, yet they do impact our performance greatly and get in the way. When we are triggered and we go into a reactive space, our tendency is to look at things as black and white. Our ability for learning decreases, we tend to look for quick-fix answers, and our capacity for curiosity decreases. Finally, we have less ability to use humor and start to take things too seriously. Needless to say, these are less than optimal in any line of work.

So, what can we do?

The first step is to grow in our awareness of our triggers. It’s only when we become aware of the emotional triggers that we can choose a more thoughtful response that will better serve us and those we work with. I invented the word trigger print to describe these emotional triggers. Just as each person has a unique fingerprint so we also have a unique trigger print. What triggers me is different from what triggers you.

Take some time to explore the situations or behaviors that emotionally trigger you. As you reflect write them down. You might discover that you are having a hard time naming them. If that is the case don’t worry. Instead, take a few moments every few days to reflect and see if you were emotionally triggered in the days that passed.

After you have named your own unique triggers the next step is to dig a little deeper and ask if there is an underlying need or value or belief that has been violated. Our triggers come out of nowhere. They alert us. For example, when I am in a grocery store at the express lane for 10 items or less and there is a person in front of me with 20 or more items, I get so triggered. Now I realize this sounds stupid. However, when I think about why it has such a hold on me, I come to a deep value of respect that is dear to me.

I created an exercise called “Finding your unique trigger print” which will take you through this process. You can find it here:

You may also like this “>YouTube video I recently recorded which explores situations that trigger physical and emotional reactions.