Four Principles Behind Emotional Triggers in Relationships

Systemically, if we look at emotional triggers in relationships and the accompanying emotional reactions we have, we find ourselves back at the principles that govern all systems: belonging, order, and balance of give and receive. But how do we create a healthy relationship with someone and generate positive emotional responses that support us?

Raw Spots Around Belonging

The first step is to understand our need for belonging. If we look at belonging, we often find ourselves triggered by specific events into various negative reactions and coping mechanisms when we don’t understand how to belong or figure out if we even do belong.

Fear around not belonging—often based on childhood experiences and past events—is a big emotional trigger. This major trigger takes on various shapes and forms, such as I’m not good enough, smart enough, big enough, small enough, rich enough, humble enough, etc., to belong.  

We tell ourselves stories about all the above and interpret peoples’ actions and reactions through the lens of an old traumatic event. 

For example, a classic is when we send an email or a text and receive a quick, bare-bones reply. Immediately, our subconscious mind comes into play, and our brain associates the terse reply with traumatic memories, stirring up our own triggers and defensive behaviors. We start thinking things like, “Oh, my goodness, I’m in trouble.” Or “I knew they would think that was a stupid idea. Will I get fired over this? Maybe I should just resign.” 

Only to find out 10 minutes later that the person on the other end of the email was flying out the door to the dentist and simply wanted to be sure they responded. That critical inner voice beat us up for nothing creating an intense emotional reaction, as the trauma triggers shot our cortisol levels and maybe even our blood pressure through the roof.

Good Idea

Of course, there is an antidote for this situation. But we are woefully bad at applying this good idea, which is: 

1) Quit making assumptions and assuming ill intent and 

2) Actually have the courage just to ask “Hey, what’s going on?” Don’t you know we could save ourselves a bunch of unnecessarily negative reactions and painful feelings doing that!

However, that kind of open communication in itself is a trigger with its own set of traumatic event trust issues based on past experiences. If you’ve never experienced open communication in a supportive environment before, a whole new set of fears and painful feelings show up at the very thought. “They’ll get mad if I question them!” Or “Who am I to question?” Or “They’re going to think I’m pushy. I definitely think I should leave. I just can’t handle the conflict.” 

Making a Huge Deal out of Nothing

The next step is to notice how we often think of what could be a healthy emotional discussion as “conflict” and how this kind of association (the root cause of which is often based in childhood experiences) can trigger an immediate flight response? 

Surprisingly, once we learn to have such discussions in a safe space, get beyond our trust issues, and discover we don’t die engaging in open communication, we actually begin to get closer to the people around us. We find out more about them and let them get to know us and thus build healthy relationships and support groups around us wherever we go. We begin to feel that we belong. 

Building strong and healthier relationships through open communication is especially healthy for adoptees who sometimes find themselves permanently triggered by their need to belong, thus subconsciously setting up similar situations over and over again that prove to them (in their own mind) that they’re right—that they don’t truly belong. What a setup!

Adoptees who do well know how to hold the space for and acknowledge their biological parents, even though they don’t know them. They can also turn their fear, based in their childhood experiences, into a superpower. Being so sensitive to the negative emotions around belonging, and the root cause of those negative emotions, they often turn out to be social connectors, making sure there is a place for everyone around them. They become known for their ability to give everyone a place.


If we look at the principle of order, it tells us exactly where we belong in our family system. It’s literally a matter of which family members were born first, then second, then third and so on. Being born first isn’t “better” than being fourth or tenth in line. It’s simply the natural order in which people in your family “showed up” on planet Earth.

When it comes to the principle of order, our exact place in the lineup is where we are the most capable and innately feel the most comfortable. Which means if we find ourselves “out of order,” we can become emotionally triggered by the situation and other similar situations when we are asked to be too big or need to step up in a difficult situation.

For example, say your parents have serious alcohol or drug problems and you’re required to act as the adult in the family—basically taking care of them. Or perhaps both your older siblings have gone off the rails and as child number three, you feel the need to step up and act like the eldest “responsible one,” making your parents proud. In both cases, you are definitely “out of order” and may have to carry a bigger load than you should.  

Mental health professionals see children becoming overly responsible all the time, picking up a crucial role in the family that requires them to be too big. This kind of effective coping strategy can trigger feelings of being burdened or having to take care of everybody—a strategy that can easily become a habit and extend itself into similar situations in the workplace. If the trigger of always having to step up into roles larger than you is severe enough, you can easily end up collapsing when the burden(s) are removed because they have become your identity and whole purpose in life. 

The complex world of emotional triggers is…well, complex. For example, the exact same kind of dynamic can occur if you’re required to be too small. Perhaps a sibling needed a lot of attention growing up and you stepped back to take up less space. Other family members supported this action and you ended up subconsciously believing that being small and invisible was the best way to handle similar situations.

Or perhaps a teacher tells you “Nobody likes bossy people.” Or maybe a friend accuses you of being an unlikeable “know it all.”  Humiliated, you may not recover from this kind of traumatic event. And even though you know how to lead (perhaps you were born the oldest of your siblings), your nervous system may require you to stay small for safety, melting into the shadows, not wishing to be labeled unlikeable or bossy ever again. 

NOTE: In both cases the emotional triggers around order often still revert into whether we feel like we belong or not. We are so tightly wired as human beings to belong that any lack in that area can make us feel like we’re dying.

Balance of Give & Receive

In our personal relationships, the one who gives too much gets too big, and this often destroys relationships. The other person can never measure up and is emotionally triggered. Feeling small, they feel compelled by a flight response to remove themselves. On the flip side, the person who takes too much (including taking up too much energetic space) can end up feeling entitled, and end up being perceived as arrogant and selfish, triggering emotions of resentment in other people.

Relationships work best when the balance of give and receive is consistently achieved with healthy boundaries. A good balance of give and receive with a clear intent to build a relationship tends to trigger emotional health, continual growth and positive change. The relationship becomes a dynamic adventure where bumps and hiccups are worked out in a safe space due to the abundant currency of goodwill. 

Balance in the Workplace

In our jobs, most often the dynamic is “We give our work and we receive pay.” There is a balance of give and receive that is implicitly understood. Yet even here there can be echoes from previous relationships that were out of balance that can cause emotional triggers in a current situation. 

When the balance of give and receive is off at work, you commonly hear things like, “I’m overworked and under appreciated.” Or “My whole life belongs to this company.” You can see and feel the resentment. Rather than address the imbalance, people tend to revert to past avoidance behavior and arrive late and leave early and call in sick a lot. 

Many of the emotional triggers we have, either at work or at home, are also meta-patterns or multi-generational patterns. They are the result of unaddressed intentions and assumptions or unresolved events and patterns in the past that we inherit—in other words, emotional DNA. 

A Healthy Way to Achieve Personal Growth

The most important thing you can do for yourself is to explore your emotional triggers and understand where they came from. They are gold. For every emotional trigger there is an antidote and a path waiting to take you to a higher level of expression. 

The adventure is to spot them and create opportunities for new patterns. Every emotional trigger is a clue asking you to decode and recode them. Once you understand what to do with them, you can use one new thought, one new feeling, and one new action every day to rewire your brain and change the patterns of the system. Here’s how:

  • Pick an emotional trigger.
  • Write down your thoughts, feelings, and actions around it.
  • Which of the principles is does this trigger belong to?
  • When did it first begin for you?
  • What was happening in your life at that time?
  • What assumptions did you make? 
  • Did you ever check those assumptions out?
  • Do you still operate under those assumptions? (A client of mine had to rethink his entire life once he discovered an assumption he’d made was completely incorrect.)
  • What would happen if you checked those assumptions out?
  • What would happen if they weren’t true anymore?
  • If they are true, how can you think, feel, and act differently around them?
  • How can you change that emotional trigger to an emotion that serves you better?
  • Now, take action and follow through on those changes!

The most important thing about emotional triggers is to understand that you are the master, not the triggers. You are not at their mercy. You can choose to have them serve you as you finally understand their source, take charge and choose positive change. When we are mindful, we can turn triggers into transformers and create deep emotional support for ourselves!

To find out more about how to grow your emotional DNA, attend one of our events this year! For more information about my 2024 events click here.