It can be just a little nudge, almost imperceptible. Or it can be a full-on heart pound that makes you wonder if you’re gonna need a trip to the emergency room. You’ve been triggered. Maybe it’s a snarky comment in a meeting, a critique from your partner about how you might’ve scrambled those eggs better, the tipping point of a crushing workload, or your manager just found a mistake in your analysis. If it’s a little thing, it might distract you from what you’re doing for a bit. If it’s a big thing, it can bring an out-sized sometimes regrettable reaction, or cause you to shut down. And it doesn’t feel so good.
Self-regulation — the ability to control and manage yourself and your emotions, inner resources, abilities, and impulses — is one of the major elements of emotional intelligence. Out of the 67 leadership competencies in FYI for your improvement™ (FYI), “Composure” is often a top pick for my clients — not because they have a problem with it — because they see it as foundational to great leadership and want to up their game.
FYI describes Composure as being cool under pressure, handling stress well, not becoming defensive, irritated, or visibly frustrated in tough situations or when resisted or blocked, being a calming force in a crisis, and not getting knocked off balance by the unexpected. It’s not just acting this way, it’s being this way.
What just happened?
“Emotions are electricity and chemistry,” says FYI. When we perceive a threat, our heart pumps faster, and with greater pressure. Glucose is released for increased energy and strength. Our eyes dilate to take in more light. Breathing increases for more oxygen. The system’s designed to help us fight or flee from danger — it makes the body faster or stronger temporarily, diverting resources meant for our stomach and thinking brain. That’s why we get upset stomachs or can’t think straight in this state — we might be able to lift a heavy object off a trapped person — but we can’t think of the right thing to say in a meeting. When this electrochemical cascade kicks-in as a reaction to being criticized, misunderstood, or blocked from something we want to do, it can cause us to say or do bonehead things, or shut down. If no threat follows the trigger, it takes 45 - 60 seconds in most people to run its course. That’s why your grandma told you to count to 10.
Tame those triggers. FYI tells us that most of us have just a few repeating triggers, and a little detective work will expose them — write down instances where something’s set you off in the last week or so, and notice what registers on your threat meter as you go through the next few days. What themes emerge? LifeLabs Learning* says our triggers fit into the four basic buckets below. Physical space, time of day, hunger, and exhaustion can also be culprits.
Belonging threats — not feeling liked, accepted, valued, or included
Status threats — feeling disrespected, dismissed, incompetent, criticized, maringalized, or misunderstood
Fairness threats — perceived unfair or inconsistent treatment
Safety/security threats — loss of control, security or independence, negative surprises, or discomfort
Get curious: what’s causing these reactions? Is it ego? Sensitivity? Getting caught short? Being found out? Publicly called out? Lack of patience? Perfectionism? Are you controlling or maybe defensive in the face of criticism? Do you overreact when you’re tired or hungry?
Our reactions are mind-made — we choose them and we have the control to change them. How could you reframe these threats — see them differently — and insert better responses? What do people you admire do in these situations? Practice different reactions.
Look Inside. Eleanor Roosevelt declared, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” A dedicated daily meditation and mindfulness practice teaches us that the true source of our sense of belonging, status, and safety comes from within ourselves, not the external world. The “wholeness” muscle that builds from this is transformative.
Take a minute. No matter how good we are at keeping our cool, we’re still gonna get set off at times. As Ram Dass said, “If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.” The power of the pause combined with some tools can help us get back on track: (1) Notice when you’re getting triggered — a heart rate increase, a tightness in your gut, or muscle tension. Try to name it. Are you feeling anger? Fear? Sadness? Don’t judge the feeling, let it be. Then, choose a better response. (2) Shift your sitting or standing position, and do some deep, slow inhales and exhales to calm your system down. (3) If you feel the need to react, try to ask a question and listen to the response. Research shows that after being triggered, somewhere between the second and third thing you think of to say is the best option. Think of three responses before you say one. (4) Ask yourself if you can see the situation in a different way. (5) What would someone you admire do? Do that!
Most people I’ve worked with make quick and lasting progress — they easily gain insights to their triggers, figure out better ways to react, and people around them take notice. Meditation has a multiplier effect. Feeling calmer is its own powerful reward — you’ll never want to go back.
Viktor Frankl said it most profoundly, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
*From LifeLabs Learning Emotion Regulation workshop. Check ‘em out. They deliver affordable great workshops for “life’s most useful skills” for organizations and individuals.
Sunday Morning Reflection
What are your triggers? How can you reframe and show up differently? Ready to dust off that meditation practice?
Sunday Morning: 126