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Emotional Triggers

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

What is going on when we are triggered?


Our ‘buttons’ are our emotional triggers, they are memories of emotional pain from our past. When they are ‘triggered’, the emotions are compounded by the original pain. There is a backlog of unresolved pain sitting there. Those we love the most are usually the ones to push them. Children bring out the best and the worst in their parents, from the heart expanding unconditional love to the diabolical humiliation of the supermarket tantrum.

Children are supreme masters of button pushing, but with every button there is a story behind it, and that story needs to be told. Buttons are an excellent way to reach our unhealed pain. However, sometimes they present as seemingly innocuous everyday annoyances such as untidy house, the kids are too noisy, or a pain/rash/itch somewhere in the body that shows up when under stress. If you pay loving attention to every button pushed, you will cease to have buttons to push- eventually. However, don’t be surprised if this process takes a lifetime to complete!

Partners and children will challenge us and bring up everything that we have unresolved issues with. They love to push our buttons. They don’t do it deliberately although it may seem that way! Their purpose in our lives is to push our buttons to show us what feelings need to be resolved. Children and partners are the ‘messengers’ it’s vital to understand this to maintain healthy relationships and to become self aware of what we need to heal within ourselves. If we don’t, those relationships can sour over time and our conditioning remains. ‘Don’t shoot the messenger’, the messenger is showing you where you need to love and heal yourself. Its not just partners and children that trigger us, it can be anyone however, its usually those we are closest to that activate our triggers that are attached to love.


Disclaimer: I wish to be very clear on this point. This post is for those in loving relationships. This is NOT for those in relationships that are tarred with abuse, violence or power imbalances. Those couples and individuals need far more intensive and long- term therapy to overcome those painful and damaging patterns of trauma bonding.


Example of how triggers develop: When Robert was little, his mum yelled at him when she was drunk, which was a weekly event. He felt deeply hurt, angry, rejected and ashamed of his mother’s behaviour. Robert has never acknowledged his feelings, and as time went on and he grew into a man he had forgotten all about it. However, he loved his mum and had an OK relationship with her. Robert got into a relationship with Sarah and they loved each other immensely. Things were going great until Sarah started to have a few glasses of wine after work to help her relax. Robert felt uncomfortable that she drank, he felt uneasy about it but he was unsure why. Sarah drank a little too much one evening and became argumentative toward Robert. She started an argument regarding some money issues they were having. Robert was deeply hurt by Sarah’s behaviour, and his reaction to her was much bigger than the situation called for, as it was compounded by the unresolved pain of his mother’s yelling, years earlier. Sarah pushed his button, by replicating his original pain. He took his pain out on Sarah, blaming her for how bad he felt. Robert’s brain is firing those same neurons that were firing when his mother was yelling at him many years earlier. He is back there emotionally, however, he now has the opportunity to resolve that pain. He has the opportunity to respond rather than react.

If Robert resolved his feelings with his mother for her behaviour (the original pain), his situation with Sarah would change. His ‘button’ or trigger would no longer be there, so Sarah could no longer push that button. Their relationship would improve because his pain is no longer compounding with his past hurt. He might still get upset, but the pain is not backed up with his past hurts adding to his reaction. The money issue could be sorted without the other issues being tied up in it. Sarah may have money issues in her past, which may have triggered her angry outburst towards Robert, again, Sarah has the opportunity to look at what her beliefs are around money and what is triggering her anger.

Buttons or triggers are not always that easy to decipher where they came from and quite often many situations trigger a complex network of brain wiring that involves many past hurts.

I had a massage client that came in for a massage to de-stress. She also had a painful shoulder problem, but she didn’t expect to be helped with that. She had the problem for 15 years and had not been helped with doctors or physiotherapist appointments. She told me of her problems with her mother, that were stressing her out. She told me she had a problem with Kleptomania and her mother was nagging her to get some professional help and she was fed up with her mother nagging her. I asked her when the kleptomania started. As she was telling me, I began working on her painful shoulder. She was 15 when she started stealing from supermarkets and multi-national companies, she was adamant she would only steal from those big companies that could afford it! I asked her what else was going on her life at the time, she didn’t answer for a while and I didn’t press for one. I continued to work on her shoulder and heard her sobbing, I offered tissues and massaged gently. She then told me she had an abortion at age 15, she told me the story of how it all played out and the stress it caused her and her family. I took her thorough a process to tell me about the baby she might have had, a boy or girl and to give them a name. The process is an effective way to connect to their pain, guilt, shame or grief that they might be feeling. She told me she had all of those feelings. I asked her to picture the baby now and if the baby forgives her and if she forgives herself. She cried for a few moments whilst I continued to massage her shoulder and she said yes. “Yes! It’s all OK” she sounded relieved and happy. I continued to massage and when it was completed, she got dressed and said her shoulder felt much better. She began moving her arm around and with a look of shock on her face said, “There’s no pain, there’s no more pain!” I was also a bit shocked, having not seen such a dramatic recovery. (And hoping it wasn’t temporary)

The point of Jenny’s story is that, her mother’s nagging and Jenny’s reaction suggested there was more going on than meets the eye. It was an eye opener for me as a therapist to see, not only the way our deeper issues are buried in the body, but are bound up in everyday issues. Those triggers or buttons are important. They are telling us that there might be an issue that needs resolving. Something painful. The trigger is the reminder that touches on that pain, we have a tendency to lash out at those that touch our pain. Imagine cutting your finger and someone kept rubbing a drop of lemon juice onto it. When someone pushes our buttons it’s the same thing, except it’s an emotional wound. It pays to heal that wound so no-one can ‘rub lemon into it’.

Imagine having a lot of unresolved emotional pain. Those we spend considerable time with and have attachment to will push some or all of those buttons and your reaction to it, over a period of time, can shape the entire relationship.

I wonder how much of our behaviour is spent trying to avoid getting our buttons pushed? Or how much energy we expend each day trying to suppress those buttons or triggers? I spend a bit too much time on social media, prior to that, I used to binge watch shows on Netflix or Stan for many hours, prior to that I would eat inordinate amounts of sugary treats, prior to that I was an alcoholic. The more I healed my old wounds and triggers, the less self- destructive my ‘crutches’ became. Our ‘crutches’ are also indicators of how much we are suppressing. I spent a lot of time on my own to avoid being triggered instead of working on them previously, until, a friend of mine told me that it’s all good and well to ‘work’ on yourself, but you don’t know how good you are until you have an opponent. He said “ You can practice tennis with the ball thrower machine all year but until you play the game with an opponent, you have no idea how well you play” By staying away from people to avoid your triggers, you are not growing and evolving.

What are your triggers and how are you avoiding them? And are you allowing yourself to feel them?


For support with anything triggering you, please make contact.

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