When I learned the word trigger, I couldn’t have been but knee high to a grasshopper.
Not so much. No. Not at all was there any reference to even the word trigger beyond gun references. Hair trigger. Trigger finger. Pull the trigger.
Emotional triggers: I learned this insightful word and its meaning only in the past few years.
This is the story of a mild trigger - like a gnat buzzing around my ear, I could step out a bit and see more clearly how and why I was triggered, and that working on my response is a practice well worth the effort.
Likewise to all things personal growth for me I dived into the deep waters of learning and came out with painful lessons, forgiveness, warning signs, and most importantly a few pretty simple practices addressing how to better respond when I’m triggered emotionally.
Practicing how to process my reactions in a more positive way.
Inspired as well after a recent conversation with a friend. She had just been triggered by something in her social media feed that just a couple years ago had coached me through: trigger, reaction, emotional backlash, deeper trigger, change action(s). Our talk providing a bit of comfort around the open timeline and process of putting change work into practice.
Being able to better feel the spark ignited by the trigger without the powerful rush of my history with the subject matter has enabled me to function a bit more skillfully through both my response and attempts at prevention.
Just like peeling off the layers of winter clothes as Summer approaches to go to the pool, shedding the angry and visceral responses to what the world around me presents is like a cool float on a hot day.
Nothing like a community Facebook group page to test my progress.
It’s now been a year living in a planned community with my mom. It has all the things you could possibly want if you play fairly nice with others. It has a pool and hot tub, a homeowners association, and of course a group facebook page. Oh yeah, and plenty of deer.
Seemingly the most boring of pages, which is quite nice given the madness available on the internet, still has its moments. I rarely pay attention to it unless there’s complaining involved. Always a man. Always.
For me, my social media pages are such a learning process and sometimes quite baffling source of stress, getting emotionally charged by something triggering me out of a fairly calm and peaceful state.
Thankfully, I get to go online and enjoy it in short bursts. Having a business has increased my presence, also directing it in specific ways. Having a business so closely tied to my identity creates new possibilities and new pitfalls. In retrospect, I created the many pages because I think I can balance the two. The verdict on my success with that is still out
Fumbling through social media and experiencing both my own and others triggers put personal growth work to work. Getting a glimpse of my process play out, is both good and the helpful in the areas still needing work with more and more skill to navigate moving forward with less trauma.
Working to overcome my anger and temper has helped me identify more acutely my triggers with some great skills to remain out of the red - most of the time.
This is an example of the progress I’ve made and the constant work in practice I call my life.
I go to the pool here in my community, swim and relax a bit in the sun while I dry off. The times of extended laying out for that tan are less important than less healthy to me now. Life is shorter now and I ain’t got time for laying around baking to a crisp in the desert sun.
Our pool closes in winter and only has 2 precious weeks before kiddos get out of school and it admittedly gets a bit hectic for my taste.
The weather was perfect! I jumped right in and even took some photos, documenting the serenity and joy I was basking in more than the sun. A little bit of sun. Just the vitamin D requirement worth.
Good to go with my fun in the sun fix. I got out, dried off, headed home, and got online posting amusing pictures of the deer pruning the bushes outside the pool. This is when I noticed a grumpy neighbor posted a complaint on our group Facebook page and I lost my cool.
I have a few internet and social media rules now that I try to abide by. Embracing a more harmonious and pleasant presence in social media land with a goal to reduce triggers as much as possible. Probably helped when I started using it for work purposes. I didn’t want to let my personality and posts be all business though, these few steps just help me navigate away from negativity.
Creating a social media mission or values philosophy. Everything I post now aligns with my main goal of sharing a thoughtful and overall good time. I’m a photographer and painter so I share beauty in images. I’m a health & lifestyle coach so I share expressions of my journey to living a more energized, fulfilled, and joyful life now, before it’s too late.
I don’t have time for people that spread anger that ends up on my feed. I’m not in any kind of business that requires I see these toxic posts. Unfollow and unfriend if posts trigger a downward spiraling response, getting them out of my space.
If I don’t have anything encouraging, constructive, relatable, or funny to say in response to someone’s post, a loosely termed friend according to Facebook, I move on, making no comment. Leaving posts and comments I disagree with and quickly moving on to more pet photos, please. An effort of being kinder and more respectful to myself first. Everybody else gets a beautiful, upgraded version because of these simple rules.
When I saw this neighbors rant about our pool, I was at first critical; don’t you have anything better to do than get in our neighborhood group and complain? Followed by thinking how fortunate are we that we have such sublime problems; a step emotionally in the right direction.
Just that moment of a curious thought mixed with a bit of gratitude adjusted the trigger a bit in my brain.
At this point, I was instantaneously distracted from my original purpose for getting on Facebook, which isn’t uncommon in playing the game of social media.
Of course, in retrospect I can clearly see the trigger had been pulled.
I wrote a scathing response, which I deleted. Wrote it again. Deleted. Knowing me I probably copied and pasted it into my journal if it was a good enough zinger. I finally trimmed to the most zen I could think of, taking a pause in my emotion.
Why did this get me so hot?
Hot: a word I now use in reference to my temper.
Dissociating from the anger a bit and giving it a little space to simmer down.
What I ended up responding with:
“When I go to the pool or any place and find that it is too crowded, or the scene isn’t what I’m interested in, I leave and come back another time. I hope you find your right time.”
Not bad, Sam! Way to reel it in.
Not everyone can do this - yet! I didn’t used to be able to do it either. Sense that I was being triggered by something in my line of fire and sooth my emotional state instead of letting my temper flare, and my fingertips deliver a snappy comeback.
It wasn’t until I saw my partner at the time fully check-out from reality and into a past experience, unleashing a fury upon me that taught me what PTSD can do. Only in reflection can I see the triggers so clearly and how they reflect our responses. It didn’t take long before I knew something was drastically different in these incidents. I quickly and desperately wanted to know how I could change MY behavior because my reactions were not helping the situation. I can look back on that now with forgiveness for us both, and a very clear understanding that I’ve got to do my own work first before I can help others.
In additional to my outwardly mild response to this neighbors post, I upped the ante, taking a completely unnecessary passive aggressive turn. Posting pictures I’d taken around the pool, the calm waves on the water, the blue sky with clouds in the distance, that cute deer picture with a pretty obvious and overly enthusiastic celebration of all things community pool.
The passive aggression was only obvious to me in retrospect, not in the moment. In the moment my only thought was to show something else, more positive because I knew that lashing out at him with a verbal tirade was not the answer.
I’ve been kicked out of a social media group before!
I know how to play this game!
My real trigger came blathering out of me in my initial response to this man’s criticizing post: the only people I’ve seen behave badly at the pool are male. From little boys cannonball diving next to my head - to this old guys post.
My biggest response to being triggered is anger. Red, hot, anger released in a wave of psychobiological response surging through my body, wreaking havoc on my entire being.
My most profound personal growth work has come through working on my anger response. I learned too young the power of anger. How it shapes interactions. How energetically charged and in control I felt while in reality, I was completely out of control.
Even with the therapy I received as a child to combat my anger response, it doesn’t compare with all I’ve learned to address my anger most beneficially in the past few years.
The energy of anger used to be my crack! I will forever be learning and putting into practice how to build that energy in more positive, loving ways.
It sucks really.
I’m so good at anger now!
Too much practice at anger instead of love. It wore me down after 40 years though. Leaving me Emotionally depleted.
I turned my seething anger, the chip on my shoulder, into a great career where I could siphon it through the guise of righteous anger. Working as an insurance billing specialist and medical manager. The goal to get health insurance to pay for what it states it will pay for but doesn’t guarantee it will pay for until billing is processed. A never ending battle for health. I remember thinking of it as helping so many people. I was helping people get medical care. I was helping healthcare providers treat patients. I was helping insurance companies pay for it. My anger was justified in my efforts or so I thought at the time.
This worked as a great cover-up for over 10 years. Until I got laid off and every job I looked for made me think of what most people said to me during this time of my life.
“I don’t know how you can do this everyday. It would drive me crazy!”
That sums up my downward spiral. I don’t recommend picking a career with the need to feed anger at the top of the job requirements list. I appreciated the reminder of this in my community because they are electing a new home owners association board, and my mom suggested I throw my name in the hat after this interaction. I’ve gotten enough distance from my triggers to know one thing for sure: Don’t go into any endeavor with anger as the main motivator. It will for sure lead to more anger.
So what worked to change?
More breathing deep and exhaling fully.
Soothing myself through exercise and meditation.
Energizing my life with more joy has worked wonders.
One big key was letting go of the notion that I could flip a switch and be a beacon of positivity. I’m not going to be so dramatic as to say it was too late for me. More so, the persona I took on through my anger has lent so strongly to my personality that it will always be there.
My ah-ha moment around this came when I learned that having a long history with an emotion that has become toxic doesn’t mean I can’t make changes to improve my reactions and overall attitude.
Bonus! By fostering my softer side, finding ways to boost my joy, people that don’t know the past me think I’m always going to be chill, relaxed, and affable.
Working on boundaries has helped considerably in conjunction with working on my temper.
When a conflict situation arises, I can now better catch the trigger. My responses have the expertise from a lifetime of anger as a go-to response behind them.
The energy is palpable. As I write this, it flares slightly, like standing near an electric fence. Tick, tick, tick.
The deeper work for me under this trigger was enlightening. Given the current rise, not so much moving toward more equal footing between men and women, as making a long overdue jump forward. When I was able to sit with the reality of most of my negative, weirded out experiences in pool setting, they involve males. I’m using males because the range is from boys to old men.
Being leered at and hit on by men at pools. Not at my current pool. Thankfully!
A young male child, like 4 or 5, pointing at me and saying, “that’s the lady that never talks to anybody” while dad ignored his kid talking to me this way. Thanks kid. Thanks dad. I think it’s best that women in their 40’s aren’t talking to you but nice to see you’re already passing judgement on how I should act at your age.
In the hot tub by myself when a gaggle of pre-teen boys being obnoxious in the pool all get out simultaneously and get in the hot tub with me. Nothing like being surrounded by pubescent boys for hot tub relaxation. I’m not going any deeper into hot tub situations, we’ve all got other things to do today.
A teenage boy, who’s mom was trying to tell him it was time to go started doing flips into the pool right in front of me. I’m not sure if it was to get attention or just not thinking of other people around him, or the rules, or to simply ignore his mom’s request.
An evening when I wasn’t going to the pool but walking by it when a young woman was insisting to her male companion that she wanted to leave. He just flat out told her no and loudly. Leading her back into the pool area by her arm. There were other people in the pool so I just hurried away, not wanting to get involved. I wouldn’t do that now. I would make it known that I was there and ask if everything is OK.
When I was younger being aggressively “played with” at the pool by boys, often holding my head under water and lunging at me to scare me. Similar to other scenarios, if I saw that now I would say something, loudly and sternly.
This older man, complaining to everybody in the community triggered a whole landslide of bad experiences at pools that I never processed.
It wasn’t until I saw his post that I was able to soothe another layer of buried anger and resentment about how males have generally been able to act however they want in any situation while the rest of us let it happen. I’m all kinds of over that.
When I saw the Facebook group admins warning come across my alerts, asking for positive posts and not complaining, it was good to see some amount of checks and balances, helping temper my triggered response.
People also got on board with my passive aggressive post with over the top appreciation and many likes. There was a pang of guilt. That I encouraged others to gang up on this grumpy guy through my exuberantly positivity, passive aggressive cheer for our pool, wasn’t the ultimate in better behavior.
For me, a step in the right direction. I can reflect now on how I would have responded just a few years ago. In a way that would have gotten me kicked out of the group and even more angry at myself.
That’s the old rollercoaster I no longer choose to ride. The magic is that choosing works. I can make that choice more successfully now. Making different choices that better reflect how I more so want to interact with… I should say people, but with myself.
I have a better relationship with myself and that includes my anger. Something delightful and a bit sinister has happened with my efforts; I am also better able to unleash it in healthier ways. We all get angry. I’m not as afraid to say something when something needs to be said. I don’t check myself as much, and I can better express my reactions when I am confronted.
Every time I get angry, whether it’s an injustice in the world or some heated post on social media, I used to end up internalizing that anger. This causes suffering. My life is not for the suffering. Life is too short. The people I love and most care about deserve better too.
The jig is up and this story adds to it. It’s a privileged and very 1st world example. Nonetheless, the facts are in*; when people lash out in anger and we see it, we can be confident there’s an outdated behavior screaming out to be upgraded
The facts are in*; when people act out in anger and we see it, we can be confident there’s an outdated behavior screaming out to be upgraded.
Knowing this now brings me a similar joy to floating buoyantly at the pool because I’m doing it and it’s working.
As a coach, I love helping people make this upgrade - from anger to joy in 90 days.
With this expertise, I’m more confident than ever that I most definitely can’t make anybody change that doesn’t want to, so I no longer have to worry about beating my head against a wall trying.
The day after or maybe the day of this incident, I received a book I ordered more as a joke than as a serious dive into personal development.
The Manual: A Philosopher’s Guide to Life, by Epictetus, A Greek philosopher circa 125 ad. A short book of passages to live by. I about fell out over reading passage number 4:
“In preparing for any action, remind yourself of the nature of the action.
For instance, if you are going to a public pool, remind yourself of the usual incidents: people splashing, some pushing, some scolding, thieves stealing unguarded personal belongings.
You will not be disturbed if you got into the experience prepared for such things and determined to retain inner harmony.
If something undesirable happens, you will be able to say, “My desire is not only to swim, but to remain in harmony with the nature of things. I cannot stay in harmony if I let myself become upset by things beyond my control.”
Why had I never seen this wisdom before?
So old and so profound this learning.
I turned into Yoda!
It was yet another positive reinforcement of the practice to consistently embody my desired state more than trade it in for anger. I wish I could give three easy steps so let’s see if I can:
As always with me, take a deep breath in and a full breath out; releasing any tensions or judgments you may be holding. Engage with a positive self state. I like a happy medium. Can you embody a contented emotional state? It doesn’t have to be over the moon but something above complete emotional wasteland.
Take another deep breath in, letting the pleasant emotion you’ve invoked ride the breath throughout your entire being. Hold onto that emotion and that breath, for another second or two, turning the volume up a notch on the pleasant sensation rising within you. Release. Breathing out fully any toxic remnants of emotion no longer serving your higher purpose.
This is the desired state that will tread the current when, in an instant, a trigger comes rushing forth with charged, toxic anger**. Take a few breaths as the wave rushes over and past. Breathing deep and broad into your desired state. Breathing out fully any rising tensions.
Everything starts and ends with our breathing. From the moment we arrive in this life to the moment we leave. Throwing a couple water comparisons along the way reminds me that I have been practicing floating when I go to the pool. Which may look funny to some people at the pool because I never see anyone else floating. Either that, or I’m perceiving myself catching glimpses because I don’t see anyone else ever doing it. Either way, I’ve learned through trying it that it’s something that both soothes my senses and invigorates them all at the same time. Helping me connect with my own joyful state of being fully present in my life. Now, I just want that for everybody.
I recommend trying it. There is something fully engaging and joyful about floating freely in the water. The sound instantly quiets. I fully engage my breath through my entire body as I gently tread water under the blue sky and sun.
I am able to change and through pretty simple and often repeated actions, I can create new habits.
So can you.
Believe me! If I can do it and Epictetus from 2000 years ago can do it, anybody that wants to can. Grumpy pool guy complainer too.
As always if this resonates with you, please leave a comment. If you think someone you know may benefit, please share. If you have questions or want to talk to someone about increasing positive emotions in your life and releasing toxic anger, I encourage you to schedule a free energizing vision session with me. You can also get a video version of this blog on my Youtube channel and a podcast version wherever you podcast.
*Plataforma SINC. "What happens when we get angry?." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 June 2010. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100531082603.htm>
**Dr. Caroline Leaf enlightened me to the terms toxic anger and the love zone. Her podcast. Cleaning Up the Mental Mess, episode #54: How to Deal with Anger and Toxic People. November 11, 2018.