How to Manage Emotional Triggers in Relationships

Emotional triggers in relationships and the negative reactions that result often stem from multi-generational patterns around events or events about which we have made decisions in our own lives. They are strong, hypnotic, frequently irrational, and can seem almost nonsensical until we look at them systemically, and then everything swings into focus.

To the one whose raw spots are triggered, they may make complete sense. On the other hand, their painful feelings and emotional reactions may leave them bewildered and confused, wondering why on earth they reacted to something that often seems fairly innocuous.

With intimate relationships, we quite often bond in the wounds of personal histories, past trauma and childhood experiences. In other words, we expect a spouse or current partner to make up for what we did or didn’t get growing up.

We suffer together in what should be a healthy, supportive environment, and it seems to work until one of the couples matures past the coping mechanisms, and then everything changes. Suffering is no longer attractive, and they have to move away.

Good News

The wound is a very powerful source of negative emotions and limiting patterns. But we don’t have to keep being run by these painful feelings and raw spots from our past.

Negative reactions, trust issues, and painful feelings are indicators that the negative emotional patterns are trying to stop and become the pivot point for healthy patterns trying to start.

By diving into and exploring these patterns in a healthy way, we can see where they limit our ability to connect and bond.

We can see where our lack of healthy boundaries came from, the root cause, and then what relationships could become if we use the trauma triggers to transform rather than to suffer. In other words, this is an area where you can thrive and grow if you just know how to look at the situation.

Complexities of Our Emotional Triggers

So what, really, is an emotional trigger? Why do they happen, and what can we do about them?

The origins of common emotional triggers are often a response to a decision we make about an event. It’s not the event itself. We stand up to speak at school and the teacher tells us we did a terrible job and we make that a huge deal and turn it into a traumatic event that creates a negative truth about our public speaking ability.

We eventually develop a huge emotional trigger about public speaking in general, never speak up ourselves, and wonder why we are not called upon to be leaders. Thus, we create our own jail cell. The teacher casts the spell with their critical words, and we swallow it whole, making it mean something awful, and then live our lives around the awfulness.

Emotional triggers happen because we have created a certain mindset around something. Then, when that something shows up in our lives, just like AI, we automatically start to spew out our already-cemented-in-place beliefs, judging it good, bad, scary, evil, exciting, horrific—emotionally reacting according to this fabricated truth in our minds. Only it’s not the truth, it’s just a concept we have created and labeled the truth.

Family Trauma Triggers

In families, we see this all the time. We swallow bits and pieces of sayings, beliefs, feelings, actions, events, and conclusions passed down to us that hold strong emotional responses to a particular situation—whether it’s about sex and marriage, what kind of work we should do, or religious beliefs, etc. We hold onto traumatic memories. And then think these triggering sayings, beliefs, feelings, actions, events, and conclusions are ours.

We do this unconsciously in order to belong. But here’s the thing: You can change! You, believe it or not, can play a crucial role as the antidote to these triggers. They are in your hands, waiting for you to evolve yourself—and humanity—beyond them in a healthy way. (Haven’t you wanted to help change the world for the better?)

Personal Growth: First Step

When you’re in emotional reactions to past experiences and patterns, if you can look at what’s happening and learn to be consciously aware of what you’re feeling instead of staying in the intense emotional reaction, you can make a choice about how you process emotional triggers. Instead of being at their mercy, you can use them to grow and thrive. It’s all about being conscious, aware and at choice.

I can see you shaking your head, but it’s true. How often have you heard someone say after some difficult illness or other traumatic event, “That was the best thing that ever happened to me! I learned so much! It jolted me out of my complacency and forced me to grow up!”

What’s happening is they’re doing something they were born to do—expanding and creating positive change while breaking negative cycles! And when they have done that once, they know they are no longer at the mercy of emotional triggers and that if they continue to choose wisely, they will evolve and grow.

Passing the Buck

Patterns (including emotional triggers) have a relentless way of resurfacing until you see what they are trying to show you, and do what has to be done to stop a pattern that needs to stop and start a new healthy pattern of your own that serves you and the world around you.

If we don’t step up, then we pass the buck to future generations and force our children and grandchildren to have to deal with them. Sometimes this takes generations because, as humans, we have been programmed to believe that playing and being small is sacred and wonderful. That we are helpless victims of circumstance. And we are not!

A Story of Positive Change

Emotional triggers in relationships are keys to an incredible life. Learn to use them and you will be investing in developing deep, rich and healthier relationships. You will be investing in your own life adventure. So, let’s take a look at one example together.

“Lena” attended one of my events and asked to do a constellation. As we sat together the first words out of her mouth were: “I’m about to get a divorce from my idiot of a husband.” (Her husband was in the room with her and I remember thinking, “Wow this is going to be interesting.” I even had visions of physically wrestling them apart!)

Now, early on in my career that might have thrown me or perhaps I would have rushed to make peace and restore order, but as I have evolved within my practice, I remained curious and silent, letting her proceed.

“This is the third idiot I’ve had to divorce,” she continued. Really? Now that piqued my curiosity. “We are not good at selecting good husbands,” she sighed.

“Who are ‘we’?I asked.

“My mother and grandmother had the same problem,” She said. “I don’t know why I thought I would be any different.”

“How about your great-grandmother?” I asked curiously.

“Oh, she had three idiots too.” Lena responded.

“Tell me about them,” I asked.

“Well!” she huffed. “The original idiot was the one who took great-grandmother’s fortune and lost it all on a business venture. It was risky even back then and great-grandma had to divorce him. But she learned her lesson.”

“How so?” I asked.

“Well, with the other two as soon as there was even a whiff of financial stupidity, she divorced them. She didn’t marry again after the third one and wound up becoming a successful business woman in her own right. Something unheard of back then.”

I asked her if we could place representatives for each of the men and women involved in her family lineage and so began her constellation. As we placed family representatives all over the room she turned to me and asked “So, is there a pattern here or something?”

The participants in the room began to laugh while she looked plainly confused. Then we added a representative for money, and when I asked the money representative to find its place, it tested several spaces before standing right next to the representative for her great-grandmother’s first husband. Then the representative moved across to her great-grandmother before finally moving to stand between Lena and her current husband’s representatives.

“Were there any sayings about men and money in your family?” I asked.

“Oh, sure,” she replied. “A man who risks money is an idiot. Divorce him before he loses it all. Also never trust a man with your money.”

“And how does that affect you?” I asked.

“I take care of my own money,” she said. “And if I see a man putting his pwn money at risk, then it’s time to divorce him.” She looked pointedly at her husband who just shook his head.

“So, all the women in this system learned to become financially responsible?” I queried.

“We’ve all made sure our money is in the bank and not at risk,” she agreed proudly. Then she went on to share that she was so risk averse she wouldn’t even put her money in high yield savings accounts. Her money didn’t grow. But it was safe.

“So, aside from being an idiot, what’s your husband like?” I asked.

“Well, he’s kind, intelligent, funny and warm. All the things I could want in a partner. But the whole money thing outweighs all that.”

When I pointed out that these thoughts and feelings didn’t come from her and didn’t belong to her—that they had begun and belonged with her great-grandmother, she looked confused. I pointed out those words and situations from the past had triggered a flight response in her.

It took awhile, because the major trigger was so ingrained, but eventually she saw that those triggers and sayings were costing her healthy relationships and her emotional health —not to mention the possiblity of financial growth.

Suddenly, she started to laugh and looked at her husband and then at me with better understanding. “My husband is actually a very wealthy man,” she said, thoughtfully. “He knows where to invest and how. He’s offered to teach me, but I didn’t trust him not to crash it all and send me away with nothing. I had no idea my thoughts and specific actions were defensive behaviors and that a pattern was triggering them, running the show. I thought it was all real and true!”

As is so often the case, what was once a solution for the great-grandmother had become a problem for the great-grandaughter. Once solutions outlive their usefulness they often become problems or limitations that keep us stuck, going nowhere.

Personal growth exercise

Take a moment to sit down and write about a relationship or a situation where something really upsets, annoys, irritates, frustrates, frightens, or angers you. It could be a personal or professional relationship or a specific event that consistently triggers strong emotions.

Write down all your thoughts, feelings, and actions about that relationship or situation that triggers you.

Ask yourself, “Where did this reaction start or come from? Did something happen to me? Or did something happen to my family members that set this reaction in motion?

Then ask yourself what might happen if you consciously changed your reactions to those triggers.

Ask yourself what you could do differently. (This doesn’t mean you suddenly have to love what you have hated or feared. I am simply asking “What could you think, feel or do differently?)

Take steps to put those different responses into action.

It's Not About You

Seriously, I’ve had to teach myself as well as clients that “Ninety-nine percent of the time, whatever is triggering you is not about you.”

For myself, a big trigger used to be if someone gave me the cold shoulder. Even if someone didn’t respond to my emails I could quickly get sad, frustrated, nervous and put some intense negative energy into the situation. Then, over and over, I would discover they were busy or simply hadn’t received my message in the first place!

When I did the above exercise and tracked the emotional trigger back in time, I remembered a teacher who told me as a kid that I was annoying and that she didn’t like me because I smiled too much. You should have seen how fast that smile disappeared! Afterwards I became nervous about my smile and my right even to be happy for a long time.

Doing this exercise helped me have a deeper understanding and realize what had really happened. That teacher probably had had a rough day and I represented someone she really wanted to yell at!

After I reframed the situation, now, instead of thinking I’ve automatically done something wrong and am in trouble when somebody doesn’t respond or acts cold to me or is outright angry,

I remind myself that it’s most likely NOT about me. I can exhale and give them grace. That allows me to remain open and receptive, giving me emotional support and the difference is remarkable. I don’t get emotionally triggered and usually the situation is resolved in a matter of hours.

Previous relationships and future relationships are our teachers. In the next blog I will share some relationship dynamics that shape your emotional DNA and tell you how to use them wisely.

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