One of the most powerful words in the English lexicon today is “trigger.” We are finally accepting that there is a spectrum of internal and external influences that can legitimately take us off course. We understand that a person, place, object, event, even a smell can trigger an emotional response so potent, we can be transported back to a trauma we’ve worked hard to forget, or come to terms with. These triggers can threaten our well-being and disrupt feelings around our core values. They can appear out of nowhere and make us feel powerless.
As an aspiring leader, a trigger can become your biggest obstacle. A strong, effective leader needs to be able to identify their emotional triggers, understand what can set them off, and steel themselves when these triggers threaten to topple everything they’ve worked for.
Here are some strategies to help you identify and deal with those triggers so you can grow and develop into the leader you are meant to become.
Identify and Map Them Out
You may not be able to fully control when you are triggered, but you can certainly recognize your triggers when they rear their ugly heads. If you know what your triggers are, write them down. Next to each one, jot down environments and scenarios you feel could potentially ignite it. Read them out loud. Name them. When we have a solid grip on the origins of things that make us feel uncomfortable, the next stop becomes easier.
Stop, Analyze, and Question
It’s happening. You’ve been triggered. Maybe you feel your pulse race slightly. You feel irritable, or maybe you’re taken over by your fight-or-flight response. Just...breathe. You’ve heard this a thousand times, but there is merit to it. Take 45 seconds to close your eyes, focus on your breathing, and then begin the process of analyzing the trigger itself. In that time, you’ve already calmed down.
Triggers often make us react irrationally. A strong leader can be quick thinking and reactive, but not when they’re acting purely on emotion and a perceived threat. Ask yourself if you’re okay. Are you safe? Is there anyone directly threatening you? And finally, is your response making you feel better or worse about the situation?
Giving yourself the time and space to process how these triggers affect you is the first step in being able to take control back.
Be Hyper-Aware of Projection
This is a common practice in those who suffer from trauma. We’ve experienced a traumatic event, and moved on without developing coping mechanisms. We are unable to see that when a similar event occurs it’s not personal, it’s merely coincidence. Leaders have to be especially careful not to project their insecurities onto their team. For example, just because someone raised their voice to you in a past relationship and called you hurtful things, does not mean that an emotional employee raising their voice is out to do you harm. We cannot color others with our own traumatic experiences, or let our past dictate how we perceive others in their own heightened emotional states.
Practice Those Reactions
You know that ol’ saying, “fake it till you make it”? This can apply to identifying and taking control of your emotional triggers.
A trigger is what you allow your mind to make it out to be. And while it is one thing to show vulnerability as a leader, it’s not acceptable to allow those triggers to dictate how you’re going to lead your team. You need to practice how you’re going to respond. It could be as simple as standing in front of a mirror, reading out your triggers from the list you made, and coming up with a practical response for each one. It could be an actual physical response, or it could be a quiet mantra that you repeat over in your head when the trigger hits. The more you do this, the less blindsided you’re going to feel by your own emotions.
Accept Your Triggers...For Now
Depending on how deeply your trauma has affected you, fighting against the myriad things that trigger you isn’t going to make those triggers disappear. We can’t accept what we can’t change, but we can accept what is, and how we’re going to move forward with it. Accepting your triggers also removes some of the pressure that you place on yourself. You need to tell yourself “It’s okay.” Give yourself grace. You’re not always going to feel this way, and these triggers are not going to haunt you for the rest of your life.
Shift Your Focus
Remember that we most often attract what we’re feeling, so if you’re happy and in a good place in your life, like-minded clients are going to want to work with you. Shift your focus from what triggers you to what makes you feel safe. What makes you feel happy, blissful, and fulfilled? What drives you? As a leader, it’s your responsibility to bring your clients through their personal gauntlet, to have them face their fears and find clarity on the other side. But if you don’t have a solid grip on your own reality, you’re not being authentic.
Triggers are real. But the power they hold over us is not permanent. We have a great deal more control over our trauma than we think, and if we want our community to believe in our leadership and to trust us, we have to trust ourselves first.
by Kristie Santana, Life Coach Path
Kristie Santana is a life coach and coaching educator based in New York. She is the founder of the National Coach Academy as well as one of the co-founders of her most recent passion project -- Life Coach Path, an online resource for aspiring coaches.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
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