In almost all my client work, the most powerful insights come from discovering stories that are running in the background of the client. Stories that the client is not conscious of, and that often get in the way of making the best decisions.
The way we discover these stories is often through the body. Through the “triggered” fight or flight state that shows up under pressure—sudden anger, pulse pounding, or an immediate need to leave the room, for example.
Sometimes those triggers are around money, or around feedback from others. I have one CEO client who recently discovered a trigger linked to a fear of board criticism.
I could tell you more about that, about how he discovered it and about the process that we used to begin to dissolve that trigger. But the truth is there is another trigger that resonates more strongly for me right now.
A couple of nights ago, I very quickly discovered myself triggered—too quickly to stop it, in fact. There is a righteous anger that emerges from me when I get triggered. It’s ugly. And it seems to happen most often when our older kids are home and we are trying to do things as a family that no one might individually prefer. One or more of us gets triggered, and there is yelling and often tears.
It started with a game of Yahtzee
This one happened during of all things, a game of Yahtzee.
One child didn’t want to play, and came up with what I am sure was a good excuse to them to quit, even though the game was almost over.
We talk about doing things as a family a lot. And that sometimes, we have to do things that we might not choose individually, because it is something the family can do together.
Yahtzee is one thing that we can all (the kids are 10, 20, and 22) do together. And requiring that we all finish seemed like a good way to reinforce the importance of family time.
That sounds reasonable enough in retrospect, but that’s not how it showed up for me.
Let the righteous indignation begin
Instead, I was hugely triggered and in that moment I didn’t know why. I ordered the offender to remain in the game. I yelled. I blustered as I lectured. It was ugly and I’m ashamed of it and I wondered what the heck had happened.
Has anything like this happened to you?
It was what happened in the aftermath that was interesting. As we all settled down and they rejoined the game, I had an insight about what had triggered me.
When I was a child, my dad had outbursts like this occasionally. I had never really thought about why, but it hit me in that moment. He was reacting because his authority was being challenged. Behind that was a story that your job as a parent is to maintain control through authority. If you lose that authority, you aren’t a good parent. Or at least that’s what he thought as I was growing up in the 70s and 80s. I don’t consciously believe that now. But I saw that he did. And the wiring in me is clearly there.
Now one of my children was challenging my authority.
And here was my father’s story, showing up in a visceral way through me.
Is it any wonder I struggled in that moment?
It helped to name it
As things cooled, I apologized for being triggered and told the offender, in front of the group, that I would tell them a bit about my experience later.
My wife gave me a gentle nudge. “Would it be helpful for everyone to hear?”
Not only was it helpful to them, but it might have been even more helpful to me.
I explained what a trigger was and what I thought had happened to me and why. My oldest actually laughed and said, “Well, we’re certainly good at challenging authority.”
I told all of them that I believe life is a perfect system, which brings us exactly the things that we need to work on. I felt like talking about it and naming it helped me to process what had happened. I hope that it normalized triggers, and the process of repair that is often necessary after, for my three kids. But perhaps most importantly, I think they appreciated my willingness to be vulnerable, even though (maybe because) it was difficult for me.
The next test
Triggers that show up in the body are often from stories that were formed when we were young, sometimes even before language. The stories are often strategies that keep us safe.
Sometimes they cross generations.
I was living my dad’s story, trying to stay safe as a parent by staying in charge. But I’ve also seen clients work with stories from their childhood around not feeling safe, not being enough, not being able to speak up.
Of course, seeing the story behind a trigger is only the first step. It’s a very important step, the most critical one. Robert Kegan calls it the “subject-object move.” We move from being subject to and unconscious of the effects of a story, to seeing its effect on us, to being able to make another choice.
The next test will be when I’m triggered again. Sometimes, the subject-object move is enough to see that you are triggered and either stop in the moment or repair pretty quickly after the fact. Sometimes, there is deeper somatic work that is necessary to release the trigger.
I’ll talk about that work in future posts.
Where does this show up for you?
Just about everyone I know is triggered sometimes. In that triggered moment, you feel unsafe. You flip into fight or flight in a split second. Getting out of the perceived danger, through taking a deep breath or even removing yourself from the situation, may be the best move you can make when you are caught in the middle of a triggering situation.
Later, it can be helpful to unpack that trigger, and how it impacts your leadership, with a qualified coach or another professional. But it can also be helpful just to know that there is something about the situation that feels threatening or unsafe to you, and that it is often based on a childhood fear.
Triggers are a normal protective mechanism, but they can get in the way of our leadership. Whether that’s leading a family or leading a company. Seeing that you are triggered can be very helpful. But seeing the story of why you are triggered can change everything.