emotional triggers

The Self-Improvement Trap

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When you last picked up a self-help book or took the initiative to participate in a personal development course, what motivated you to do so?

Was your motive something along the lines of…

  1. I need to fix my negative thoughts because their messing up my life
  2. I need to get rid of my insecurities because they have ruined so many opportunities
  3. I need to become more present because if I don’t I’ll be forever anxious 

Or did they embody something along the lines of this…

  1. I would like to establish a more positive outlook on life so that when I’m in a conflicting situation I can make more proactive decisions
  2. I would like to respond to myself with kindness when my insecurities arise and reduce the self-critical effect
  3. I would like to become more present so that I can enjoy my family and friends

So, which one was it?

Isn’t it interesting to see how similar yet different these motives are? There is a fine line between self-improvement and self-degradation. In the first category, there is a great emphasis on trying to ‘fix you’ as a person. The motives are laced with a negative undertone and a disease like quality. It’s like once I become emotionally stable, then I’ll be lovable. Once I tackle my anxiety, then I’ll be able to live. It’s the never ending pursuit of once I have this, then I’ll be good.

Many of us take this self-improvement approach. We have this belief that we need to eliminate the bad, before we can see the good in a situation or in ourselves.

What’s The Problem With This Thinking?

The problem is that we become trapped into trying to fix the old rather than build the new. When we create goals around ‘fixing ourselves’ we carry around a heavy weight of powerlessness, shame, not enoughness and struggle; which makes growing and improving so much harder (and failing even more so). Because of this strong negative undertone, we place more focus on protecting ourselves than growing.

Give Yourself Some SLACK!

If what I described above sounds like you, it’s not your fault and your 1000% normal. Emotions are real. Psychological issues are real. Triggers are real. Habits are real. The struggle is real and you’re not alone.

From an evolutionary perspective, this way of thinking and behaving helped us stay alive. Your anxiety helped prevent unwanted outcomes like rejection, failure and ultimately death. Your depression helped prevent the emotional overwhelm and everything in between helped manage something to keep you in the here and now. If you think about it, the blame is quite ambiguous because who you are right now is merely a compilation of the people you were around, the culture you’ve been exposed to and life circumstances you’ve experienced.

The important question comes down to… is there a way out and is there a way to use growth that is healthy and uplifting? Yes. 

That starts with the practice of self-acceptance. That means being okay with where you are at the moment and understanding that you are exactly where you need to be right now.

In our new course ‘Emotional Intelligence for Beginners’ we cover and provide tools on how to develop self-compassion so that you deal with difficult emotions when they arise and make choices and decisions that are based on growth rather than insecurity.

Primary Versus Secondary Emotions

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You may have heard about (or have first hand experienced) emotions in various intensities. 

Say you’re experiencing the emotion of anger. That anger can look differently in different settings and circumstances. When a cashier takes an incredibly long time to scam your items you may feel a mild version of anger like irritation (because you have places to go and things to do). In another instant, say you discovered your significant other cheating on you with one of your closest friends you may experience a strong emotion of anger like rage. 

But did you know that emotions come in different levels with different motives and different trigger points? In this blog we’ll be discussing primary and secondary emotions and how they influence our day to day lives. 

Primary emotions are our first initial reaction. Let’s say that a friend of yours cancelled going to a party with you at the last minute, what would your first reaction be? You may feel hurt, sad, lonely or confused. Primary emotions are the vulnerable emotions that we feel; they center around what our child-self would experience. Secondary emotions, on the other hand, are the emotions that are much more defensive in nature. Emotions like anger, envy and jealousy are a few examples of it. In this case, you may feel anger towards the friend because you were looking forward to going to the event and don’t feel like your time is respected.

Unfortunately, unlike the elaboration above, a great deal of the time we are unaware of our primary emotions and are only consciously aware of our secondary emotions; the anger that covers up feelings of hurt, the embarrassment overpowering our sadness, or the anxiety masking a much deeper fear.

Our secondary emotions, therefore, are in response to our resistance of feeling our vulnerable emotions. This is a protective mechanism designed to keep us free from pain (because pain is uncomfortable). If you’ve ever responded in the heat of a secondary emotion, like anger, you may have ended up with maladaptive outcomes. However, despite that it’s important to not rule out these feelings because their role is to let us know when something isn’t right. An easy way to spot a secondary emotion, like anger,  is by noticing if it’s action oriented. These emotions make us want to get into fist fights, destroy property or create a desire to ruin a person’s reputation. If you also feel driven to act without any sense of relief that too is a great indicator of a secondary emotion.

Luckily, before we take any action desired by our secondary emotions we can develop a habit of slowing down our impulses by noticing our primary emotions and unmet needs. These emotions can include feeling hurt, unwanted, or ashamed and can showcase in the body as a vulnerable feeling washing over you.

Through this identification process of our feelings and unmet needs we enable ourselves to practice good emotional habits by communicating our needs to others and learning how to meet them ourselves.

Where Do Primary Emotions Come From?

Primary emotions can either stem from a present moment or from the past. In psychology this is known as adaptive and maladaptive emotions. 

Maladaptive emotions can be sparked in the present moment but are tied to the way we felt earlier in life. For instance, a girl that grew up in an environment where everyone told her she’s incapable will feel triggered by someone saying, “You can’t do it.” These feelings evoke a lot of shame but before the vulnerable emotion can be recognized she will be swept away with feelings of resentment, anger, and defensiveness. As a result, she begins to participate in self defeating behaviours such as holding herself back and pushing away loved ones. 

Adaptive emotions, on the other hand, are closely tied to the present moment. For instance, a black man that is racially profiled may feel saddened and hurt for not being given the same opportunities as his fellow white counterparts. He too may be swept away with anger for the unfair treatment. 

Luckily, with conscious awareness over our emotional states we can respond to our life situations more strategically and emphatically. 

Emotional Triggers and You.


Have you ever found yourself saying… I’m getting triggered or I feel so triggered? You may have felt emotionally put off after seeing an old high school friend that’s mighty successful now, a house that resembled your childhood home or an opinion about climate change that you couldn’t agree with less. An emotion you may have felt during this trigger resembled an intense sudden flooding of anger, fear, shame or sadness which led your body to react in a respective manner; either an intense constriction in your chest and throat was felt (fear), the sudden urge to run away (fear/shame) was experienced or your fists clenched firmly and your face flushed red (anger) when you were mistreated or didn’t get what you want. 

When I asked our awesome community of 27K+ on Instagram about what triggered them I got a variety of responses. Triggers ranged from seeing people from high school, having fake gossips being spread around, having statements like, “You need to listen better,” said to them, socializing in large groups, smell of cannabis, hearing news about suicide, loud noises, the colour yellow and having the toilet seat up. 

Each circumstance described above may not have much in common but the one thing that does bind them together is that they all can be a trigger for someone. But what exactly is a trigger? What does it really mean and where does it come from?

Emotional triggers are people, words, opinions, situations or environmental circumstances that can provoke an excessive emotional reaction within us. They commonly evoke the emotions of anger, fear, shame or sadness leading us to act from a place of survival. Because our subconscious mind is in full swing we tend to act in disappropriate ways to protect ourselves. In this blog, we will be discussing the three common sources of emotional triggers and how to notice and identify them within yourself. 

The three common sources of triggers are… 

(1) opposing beliefs and values

(2) PTSD or CPTSD 

(3) ego preservation

  1. Opposing Beliefs and Values

    When we’re strongly attached to a belief we may find it difficult to accept or even tolerate an opposing belief. This is one of the reasons why religion and politics are such touchy subjects because it calls us to question the truth and legitimacy of what we believe in so dearly. You may ask, but isn’t knowing who you are and what you believe in important? It sure is, as a matter of a fact waking up every morning without having beliefs and values would be a scary world to live in (so having them is important). The key to good emotional well-being, however, is in recognizing how attached we are to our beliefs. Are we capable of understanding that what we believe in may not be the ultimate truth but a combination of cultural, personal and genetic influences. Are we capable at accepting and recognizing that what is true for us and what works for us may not be the same for others. The less attachment we have over what is right and wrong, true or untrue the less triggered we become when someone has a differing opinion.

  2. PTSD or CPTSD

    Getting triggered is tracing back to an event that had a post traumatic origin. A PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) or CPTSD (Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) flashback can be triggered by an object, person, place, touch or smell where the victim is likely to respond with an immense amount of fear and panic. The difference between PTSD and CPTSD is that PTSD is a single traumatic event like a sexual assault and CPTSD is a series of traumatic events like emotional, physcial or sexual abuse. A sexual assault victim may experience a trigger when she sees men with beards because her perpetrator had a beard. An adult man who was emotionally abused by his mother in childhood may be triggered when he sees a woman that portrays similar characteristics of behaviour. Someone who was outcasted as a child may be triggered by seeing people having fun.

  3. Ego Preservation

    The ego is a sense of self that we carry around. It’s an artificial identity we hold on to composed of thoughts, memories, cultural values, assumptions and belief structures designed to help us fit into society. Every living being possesses an ego where its core purpose is to preserve the self through a series of coping mechanisms centred around beliefs, ideals, desires, habits and addictions. All of this effort to run away from the one thing our ego fears the most- it’s own death. When our egos are challenged, provoked or hurt in any shape or form we become triggered and act in maladaptive ways to protect ourselves. We will argue, defame, insult, backstab, sabotage, assault and even murder (in severe cases) people who pose a threat to our ego’s survival. Luckily, through inner work like shadow work and self compassion we have the ability to liberate ourselves from the hands of our ego. 

Recognizing a Trigger 

We all have a vague idea of what triggers us but may have a weak understanding of the dynamics behind our triggers. In this part of blog we will be looking into a step-by-step guide on how to notice and become more aware of how our triggers impact our being and behaviours.

Take a moment to think about a recent event where you felt uncontrollable anger or anxiety. Once you’ve selected the event proceed on with the guide.

  1. Pay attention to your body reactions.

    Our memory systems may be flawed but our bodies tell the full story. In every moment of the day our body is letting us know whether something is good for us or whether there is something to be concerned about. Therefore, it is an important source of information. It also is a great tool used for grounding ourselves; when we’re stuck in an emotional hijack the only thing we really have control over is our bodies therefore understanding what our bodies are going through is key to managing our triggers.

    Are you experiencing… 
    1. palpitations/ racing heart
    2. Choking feeling
    3. A constriction in the chest
    4. Hot flashes
    5. Chills
    6. Dizziness
    7. Nausea
    8. Sweating
  2. If you could label the emotion, what would it be?

    Labelling emotions allow us to become less ambiguous about our internal experiences. When we label emotions we enable ourselves to see emotions just as that – emotions. No longer do we attach it to a state of being but rather see it as a visitor.

    If I could label the emotion it would be ___________.
    1. Hatred
    2. Fear
    3. Terror
    4. Grief
    5. Anger
    6. Disgust
    7. Shame
    8. Melancholy 
  3. Notice the thoughts in your mind. Are they calm and observant or are they drastic and polarized? Polarized thoughts are thoughts that centre around labelling things as right or wrong, good or bad, holy or evil, and woke or for the weak (a concept seen so prevalently on social media these days). What story is being played over and over in your mind (you may come to observe that there is one main message being replayed in many different scenarios)?

    Don’t try to control these thoughts, simply observe them.
  4. Who or what triggered the emotion? Was it an object, a type of person, an opinion, a smell, a colour or a viewpoint that triggered the emotional reaction? Sometimes you may come to label the trigger easily (like oh, yeah it was that comment) but other times the triggers can be a series of complex stimuli. Take a moment to reflect upon this.
  5. What happened before the trigger happened? Sometimes there are specific prerequisites that trigger us. For example having a stressful day at work, hearing teenagers arguing near a convenience store, waking up on the wrong side of the bed, or going to a shopping mall can put us over the edge; virtually anything can set the stage for a future trigger. Becoming aware of the effects of these setups can help us be more prepared for future events; enabling us to establish healthy coping mechanisms when triggers hit.
  6. What need isn’t being met? Every conflict we find ourselves in is because of an unmet need. This way of thinking can be revolutionizing because we no longer place the blame on self or onto others but instead recognize that a need isn’t being met. This thought process is a lot less ego driven and more solutions and fairness driven. When we acknowledge the needs that aren’t being met within us we have a much greater capability to communicate these needs to others and to find ways to fulfill them within ourselves. Take a moment to reflect upon the list below. What need isn’t being met?
    1. Acceptance
    2. Autonomy
    3. Attention
    4. Love
    5. Safety 
    6. Fun
    7. Respect
    8. Consistency
    9. Being liked
    10. Being needed
    11. To see and be seen
    12. To understand and be understood
    13. Being right
    14. Being valued
    15. Being in control 
    16. Being treated fairly 

That’s a wrap on the step-by-step guide on how to identify triggers. If you’d be interested in learning how to manage triggers with greater effectiveness and kindness take our ‘Emotional Intelligence for Beginners’ Course. For more information click here.