On the Clock

Tame Your Triggers

Triggers shut down our ability to work, get along with people, and succeed. Career coach Liz Bentley tackles them head-on.

I was recently working with a client who came to our coaching call very upset. She said her business partner of many years had told her she was “not as smart” as him and that is why she couldn’t solve a problem they were having. She was outraged that he would have the nerve to say this to her, let alone think it.

I thought it was fascinating that his comment triggered her and I said so immediately. Naturally, she didn’t want to believe this was her trigger—instead, she saw it as his character flaw. She said, “Anyone would be insulted by being called dumb.” And while many people would likely agree with that, the issue isn’t about him. Sure, he might be difficult, but we had to look at this more broadly so she could evolve and rise.

It isn’t people who trigger us. It’s the fact that we have triggers.

In my client’s example, the issue isn’t about her intelligence, it’s about how she feels about her intelligence. Her trigger is that for some reason she is insecure about her intellect, and when her partner challenged her, it brought that insecurity to the surface, making her feel badly and mad at him. That’s how triggers work.

Now let’s turn it around. Let’s say she is confident in her intelligence and he makes the same comment. Her thought process can go a couple of directions. She can ask herself, “Is this true, am I not capable of problem-solving in this way and therefore need to either give up control or grow this part of my life?” Or simply, “Is he wrong or even just joking?” When it’s not a trigger for you, people can say almost anything and it won’t bother you because it isn’t something you feel insecure about.

In coaching I work with people and their triggers all the time to help them grow. My code word for it is “getting poked.” I call it a poke because it feels like someone is literally poking us to make us feel some sort of pain. And what’s interesting is that we often think the person is doing it on purpose and that the poker is the problem. But that poke can actually help us because it’s a window into our subconscious brain, showing us where we need to heal and grow. By leaning into the poke and working through it, we open ourselves to growth.

To learn how to manage and grow through our triggers, I recommend these steps:

1. Identify the trigger.

Most of us have no idea what our triggers are, so we first have to figure them out. We can do this by examining what makes us react so instinctively that we aren’t able to take a moment and pause because the pain or hurt is so intense.

2. Stop blaming the poker.

Our tendency is to validate the trigger by blaming the poker, getting people to agree with us and making a case in our head for why anyone would be upset by the poke. But it isn’t people who trigger us. It’s the fact that we have triggers.

3. Own it.

This is your own unique trigger, so own it. Don’t be afraid of it. Having triggers is human and everyone has them. You don’t have to put them on parade, but you can talk about them privately to work through them.

4. Be vulnerable.

Once you have uncovered the trigger, figure out where it is coming from. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and see your truth. Think about why it hurts you so much and why you have created this belief system. What’s the source and how can you work through it?

5. Change your thinking.

Stop giving this belief system a life. If you think you aren’t smart, you may always look for examples that prove that to be true. Instead, look to the examples that highlight your competency in ways that disprove that belief.

6. Forgive yourself.

Forgiveness is often the answer to all pain. For whatever reason, you have created this trigger. It comes from some sort of struggle that you need to forgive yourself for. If you’re sensitive to not being smart, it may be because you didn’t do well in school and still carry the image of being embarrassed in the classroom.

Reframing our thinking around triggers is critical to growing to the next level of our lives. Most people will notice that their triggers shift as they develop, but it’s often easier to understand triggers in hindsight. Seeing a trigger while it’s live is far more effective to evolving, which allows us to grow, be vulnerable, pivot, and adapt appropriately to the changing world around us.