Identifying Your Triggers: Unconscious Defense Mechanisms For Underlying Emotional Wounds

What are triggers? How can they be used as a catalyst for self-discovery and healing?

Sometimes, you will get triggered. After all, it’s a natural phenomenon, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up about it.

Despite how much work you’ve done on yourself, sooner or later you will bump into someone who redefines the word infuriating. But there’s nothing wrong with that. This person should be thanked, and for good reason.

A trigger doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. All a trigger does is illuminate a sore spot. It’s an unconscious defense mechanism to divert your attention away from an emotional wound. In other words, someone is bringing up something painful to look at, so you snap back to avoid thinking about it.

It’s easier to neglect a wound than to take a long hard look at your dysfunction. Your ego wants to actively prevent you from healing the wound because it perceives the wound to be part of its (your) identity.

This is why you shouldn’t treat a trigger as something bad, nor should you treat someone who triggers you as being in the wrong.

Your triggers are your teachers. When you listen to these teachers rather than brush them away, you will uncover pathways into your hidden trauma, and use these triggers as catalysts for healing and transformation.

Triggers, our best teachers

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While living in the United States, I was in a relationship with a beautiful woman who was a successful entrepreneur. For the most part, things were great. We genuinely enjoyed each other’s company, but something got on my nerves more than it should have.

Sometimes I felt frustrated because I thought she didn’t care about me. From my perspective, she never took the time to reach into my world when I was hurt or acknowledge what I was going through. This brought up feelings I didn’t want to feel; a wound of neglect.

After having a bad day one evening, we were hanging out and I commented on it a couple of times, but she didn’t see it as a big deal (and to be honest, it wasn’t). My ego told me a different story, however, and I became engrossed in this narrative that she didn’t care about me.

I felt I couldn’t express myself, and the only time I could was if I was prompted. So I grew more visibly upset throughout the night because I was feeling unacknowledged – like I was just there for her, but she wasn’t there for me.

Eventually, I stood up, said “You know what, I’m just going to leave”, and headed for the door. She looked shocked and snapped back “What’s your problem?” Which erupted into an argument.

We communicated and cleared the air. At a later date, however, the same wound began to resurface. She wanted me to meet some of her friends for a dinner arrangement. This happened to fall on the same day as a ceremony I wanted to attend. Reluctantly, I said I would go.

The night before the dinner arrangement, I withdrew and said I wanted to do my own thing, as I felt my desires weren’t acknowledged.

All I wanted was for her to acknowledge that I was sacrificing something I wanted to do, to make her happy. Then in my mind, I would have happily gone. She stormed out and things fell apart.

Later down the track, once again, everything was going well. Until I got a frantic call from her telling me that her dog had run away at a local park. I immediately called an Uber to get to her apartment, kept her on the phone as she was distressed, and met up with her.

It was a cold rainy night, and we spent hours searching for the dog. We finally got the dog back, and things started going downhill once again from there.

No thank you, no acknowledgment, and once again I was triggered. These painful emotions began boiling to the surface. I couldn’t contain my resentment I stormed out, telling her that she didn’t care about me. We stopped seeing each other from that moment.

This was a particularly painful relationship for me because it illuminated a hidden trauma, the feeling of neglect. Ironically, without experiencing this trigger, I would have never given this wound awareness and never worked on it.

Even though she genuinely tried to be there for me and didn’t see any issue, my inner child was always screaming “What about me? I’m a person too! Acknowledge me!”

Most people in a relationship won’t need the affirmation that they are cared for. In my case, however, the reality of the situation was distorted because of this emotional wound.

What is a trigger?

Have you ever had someone rub you the wrong way, without actually doing anything wrong? Maybe someone said something that provoked a disproportionate emotional reaction. There may have been no negative intent, but at the same time, you felt personally attacked.

Maybe when a friend cancels on you last minute, you may think ‘What an asshole! I would never treat a friend like that.’ A part of you feels betrayed, and that part takes over. However, you have no idea where these reactions came from. Why did it hurt so much?

These are triggers – unconscious, but disproportionate emotional outbursts that are brought on (or triggered) by an external event. The emotional reaction is generally irrational and tends to happen instantly.

A trigger usually comes in the form of an intense episode of anger, distress, or sadness. When you’re triggered, you may become hostile to someone because you feel like they’re deliberately trying to hurt you. An immature, unconscious part of you erupts because it feels you have been rubbed the wrong way.

When someone is triggered, it usually comes across as an overreaction to other people.

I’m sure you can recall times when someone overreacted to something so small – in which they were disproportionately upset and became irrational. Maybe you teased someone in good faith and they exploded. Perhaps you challenged someone’s opinion in good faith, and they took it the wrong way.

Can you think of any instances where you were triggered?

How are triggers created?

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Think of a trigger as an emotional Band-Aid. Triggers are a mechanism to deter your attention from something undesirable to acknowledge. Therefore, a trigger often causes people to project their emotions rather than confront them.

If you experienced a traumatic event as a child, you didn’t have the emotional maturity to understand it – let alone deal with it. Therefore, the wound is pushed into the subconscious mind so you can get on with your life and return to it when you are emotionally mature enough to heal it.

This trauma never goes away. It might appear as it does, but it is stored in the emotional body like a poison that slowly rots away your well-being, inside out.

By the time we grow up, the wound has been buried, but it has never been healed. To keep this wound tucked away in the darkness, your ego becomes overly defensive. If anyone or anything brings your attention to this wound, the ego will attack whatever is doing so.

When someone touches on a trauma, you unconsciously snap back as a way to prevent yourself, or anyone else from opening up that wound.

Your ego says “That’s a can of worms I don’t want to open right now, so I’m going to divert your awareness from going inwards”. The ego is like the guard dog protecting a vulnerable baby. The intention is good, but it’s misguided.

This unconscious mechanism to project causes more harm in the long run as it prevents you from looking at the wound underneath the trigger.

Why do you need to look at your triggers?

Your triggers won’t just go away on their own. They are signals that there is something out of balance, and you need to work on those issues by feeling them, learning from them, and resolving them.

Trauma doesn’t just disappear on its own. It needs to be worked through. If you deflect every time someone brings you awareness to this wound, then you’re never bringing that wound into awareness to be healed.

This means the wound will remain. Unresolved wounds manifest in different ways. They may manifest as behavioral issues, emotional dysregulation, emotional blocks, depression, anxiety, and even mental illness. Think of trauma as a cancer cell that slowly spreads over time, causing more damage to you the longer it’s left unresolved.

For example, if you get triggered every time someone leaves, it’s probably covering up a wound of abandonment. If you allow the ego to take control every time you’re triggered, it’s doing its job perfectly – which is to cover up the wound and prevent you from being aware of it.

If you acknowledge those triggers and use them as invitations to do shadow work: which is to sit with the uncomfortable feelings that arise, reflect, and integrate your experiences, then you set yourself on a path of healing and growth, and use triggers as indicators that something needs healing.

Common triggers

  • Criticism: You might lash out when someone corrects you. This trigger often comes from core shame, where the person feels as if other people are constantly degrading them, or perhaps being overbearing when they may just be trying to help. “I know exactly what I’m doing, pick on someone else”.

  • Authority: People having authority over you may trigger a wound where you feel like people are always trying to take advantage of you. You may get upset or defensive when someone instructs you. This is often a sign that you didn’t have much say growing up. “I can make my own choices, you have no say”.

  • Boundary: If you felt you couldn’t stand up for yourself when you were younger, you may get triggered when you feel your boundaries are being infringed upon. For example, you might lash out when someone touches you rather than calmly asserting yourself. “I didn’t say you could touch me, go away!”

  • Compliance: Someone who respects rules may get triggered when they see someone break the rules. People with this wound may project when they see others breaking the rules, as it brings awareness to their true feelings of powerlessness. “You’re not allowed to break the rules if I’m not”.

  • Jealousy: You may meet a ‘type of person’ who just rubs you the wrong way for no apparent reason. I’ve had this with the alpha male archetype in different workplaces because it illuminated a desire of mine.

  • Abandonment: When someone leaves and doesn’t tell you why, or where, you may have an intense reaction of anxiety. You may lash out at the person, resent them, or jump to all sorts of conclusions due to a hidden abandonment wound.

  • Neglect: This trigger is often seen in people who didn’t get much attention growing up. People who dismiss you, ignore you, or just don’t pay attention to you incite a heavy emotional reaction, and you might believe they’re being rude or condescending.

Identifying triggers

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The first step in healing a trigger is to become aware of it.

Having a disproportionate emotional reaction to whatever caused it indicates a trigger. If you find that you get riled up at things that don’t seem like such a big deal in retrospect, you’re probably being triggered.

The bigger the wound, the bigger the trigger. If you explode from something so little, that means you have a gaping hole in yourself that you need to patch up. Having a meltdown from something indicates more severe trauma than getting pissed off about it.

The more wounds you have, the more you will get triggered by different things. If you have a lot of unhealed trauma from different instances, you will likely be triggered often, by many different things.

So let’s look at how you can catch these triggers.

Pay attention to your reactions

How you react is a key indicator of your triggers. However, since emotional outbursts are usually unconscious, it can be hard to catch yourself when it happens. Most likely you will believe your response is justified, and you’re just reacting proportionately.

This is why it’s important to pay attention to your emotions, how you feel, and when something unpleasant surfaces. Instead of reacting to your unwanted feelings, try observing them, regardless of how upset you feel.

Think as rationally as possible every time you’re getting riled up, and instead of falling into impulse, breathe into the feelings and reflect on them. Not to say you can’t have justified emotional reactions, you’re human after all, but make sure you reflect each time you’re upset.

Once you make an effort of catching yourself when you’re triggered, you can begin healing the underlying wound.

Notice your reoccurring patterns

Triggers are often reocurring patterns, meaning similar situations will cause the same outcome. When a painful situation seems to repeat itself routinely in your life, it’s important to look at this pattern.

If something keeps happening over and over, it could involve trauma that is being illuminated. When this wound is being illuminated, you have a disproportionate emotional reaction. However, because this wound hasn’t been healed, you’re bound to continue repeating that reaction every time that mine is stepped on.

Look into the painful trends in your life, whether it’s from attracting a particular type of relationship or argument, being taken advantage of, being neglected, or personally attacked. What trends continue in your life, and is there a wound you can identify through it?

Look at what exactly triggered you

Can you pinpoint exactly what was said, or done that made you react in a certain way? Try to identify what caused the emotional reaction. Was it something that someone said? Did someone do something that brought up painful feelings?

When you have cultivated enough awareness about your triggers, you must cultivate a desire to heal them. Affirm to yourself that you want to see the wound. Your awareness will go inwards as long as you keep reinforcing this desire.

When you are well aware of your triggers by knowing what sorts of situations cause them and why you have them, we can begin the process of healing.

Healing the underlying wound

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The only way to get rid of triggers once and for all is to heal the wounds that they’re covering up. This by no means is an easy practice, but like all healing, practice, patience, and perseverance are important keys.

Acknowledge that you’re probably distorting the reality of the situation due to your wounds. Use this knowledge as a springboard to launch into your emotions and work on them.

When you allow yourself to feel the pain fully without distracting yourself, projecting, or trying to escape it. Can you name the emotions you are feeling? Is it guilt, shame, jealousy, or resentment? Can you sit with those uncomfortable emotions without judging them or feeling ashamed of them?

Being present with an emotional reaction can be an unpleasant process. Because the emotional reaction is due to a wound, it may be painful to allow these associated thoughts and feelings to rise to the surface.

Feeling the hurt is like disinfecting the wound. You’re flushing out this pain, and acknowledging it. The more you sit with it, the less it will hurt with each consecutive time, and the less you will feel triggered when something brings you awareness to this emotion.

Furthermore, it’s important to show yourself compassion when you’re going through this process. Think of the inner child who just wants to be accepted. Self-love is so hard to do, especially when we have these gaping wounds because they allude us into thinking that the cure is outwards, but it’s not.

You also want to practice healthily expressing yourself. If someone does something that you take offense to, how can you manage your emotions to better handle the situation? How can you respond to the situation without exacerbating it?

When you build a habit of expressing yourself healthily – that is to allow yourself to be angry, sad, or hurt in an introspective, conscious way, the trigger loses power. Instead of bottling up the pain until it explodes, your emotional health becomes much easier to manage.

Dealing with triggered people

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If you trigger someone else, first of all, realize that it’s not you at fault. Something you did pressed on a sensitive spot, which caused an emotional reaction. In this case, you may gently bring their attention to their disproportionate reaction, but when someone is fired up, they are unlikely to be rational.

Don’t try to make them see it. In most cases, this is just going to make the situation worse. Their trigger is a defense mechanism. Their ego will make you out to be the culprit because it’s trying to prevent you from opening up the wound.

Therefore if you’re telling them that they’re reacting this way because of a trigger, or that they’re at fault, they’re probably just going to get more triggered. In their eyes, you’re probably gaslighting them, or manipulating them into being wrong just to save yourself.

Instead, just understand.

Don’t react to their projection. Hold space for the person, be there for them, and don’t be judgemental. This may be difficult to do because you may feel wronged. When you lead with compassion and understanding, however, this is often a big self-reflection moment for people.

This is an appropriate time to gently talk to them about what happened – of course coming from a place of understanding and compassion. Not authority – saying I am right!

Knowing how to navigate triggers is a skill we should know. Generally, it will make social interactions easier, and it allows us to do the deeper shadow work and healing that is required to reach our highest timelines.

2 comments

Angel 13 November 2023 - 4:34 am

I loved this post, it has helped me tremendously! Thank you!

Reply
Daniel Hannah
Daniel Hannah 13 November 2023 - 9:31 pm

Glad to hear it! You’re welcome

Reply

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