How to Drill Down to Understand the Root Cause of Triggering Emotions

The divorce journey can feel like walking through an emotional minefield–you never know what triggering emotions may cause an explosion…or do you?

An emotional trigger occurs when an event, experience, memory, or action rouses a very intense emotional reaction in you that probably would not elicit the same response in another person. You might become furious, sad, defensive, guilty, anxious, or emotionally derailed upon facing the triggering event, whereas another person might shrug and not give it another thought.

For example, imagine that your ex-spouse drops off the kids at your place and says: “Ordering pizza again tonight?” Many people might with a simple “yes” or “no.”  But the statement makes you furious, and you snap: “So what if I do? Is that a crime?”  Your ex’s statement is an emotional trigger.  The question is, why? To find out the answer–and better manage your reaction–you’ll have to assess the root of the trigger.

Our guest this week, Joree Rose, will show you how to use mindfulness techniques to trace the root of your emotional triggers and develop a healthier reaction to them. Joree is a licensed marriage and family therapist, mindfulness and mediation teacher, author, and speaker who leads mindfulness retreats worldwide. She’s helped thousands of people to live happier and more fulfilling lives by guiding them to shed unhealthy habits, decrease stress and anxiety, and live with greater awareness and compassion. She’s also the host of the podcast Journey Forward with Joree Rose, and she’s written two mindfulness books: Squirmy Learns to be Mindful and Mindfulness: It’s Elementary.

Why don’t you check out the whole episode? Listen in Divorce Dialogues or Listen in Spotify

Tracing the Root Cause of Emotion

To get to the root cause of an emotional reaction, you must be prepared to do some deep digging. In the example above, your angry reaction may initially appear to be triggered by a perceived criticism. You might hear your spouse’s statement as: “You don’t cook often enough.”

But you need to go a few layers deeper to get to the root of the issue. Ask yourself why you interpret your ex’s statement that way? And even if your ex is implying that you don’t cook often enough, why does their statement elicit such an intense response in you? Why do you care?

Joree Rose says that in her practice, she finds that the root cause of a trigger is almost inevitably connected to someone feeling a lack of self-worth. Examine your feelings and consider whether or why the triggering incident might have aroused feelings of insecurity in you. You might find that you feel triggered because you were raised in a community that believes a good parent always provides home-cooked meals for their family. Or perhaps you have a long-held reputation in your family as being lazy, and you’re lashing out against that old hurtful idea.

It’s not always easy to figure out the root cause of a trigger. A good place to start is keeping a journal. Write down the details of the triggering incident and try to recall other times you’ve experienced a similar feeling and reaction. Ask yourself when your first remember having this particular emotion-reaction combination? Do you notice a pattern of behavior? If you notice that specific events, experiences, or memories frequently bring about the same intense emotional reaction, then you’ve identified your emotional triggers.

Rewording Your Story

Once you’ve identified your triggering emotion, how do you stop unhealthy reactions to it? Joree Rose counsels her clients to compassionately reword the original story that gave rise to the emotional trigger and produced the feeling of lack of self-worth.

Using the above example, if your spouse’s statement about pizza bothers you because of your childhood reputation as a slacker, instead of giving in to an angry reaction, mindfully reframe the story from a more compassionate point of view. You might say–in the past, it hurt when my parents accused me of being lazy, but that was then, and this is now. My worth is not tied to cooking, and there’s no need for me to react emotionally to this old pain. I have the power to choose a different response.

The beauty of identifying the root cause of triggering emotions is that you can eventually neutralize your emotional trigger. When you feel secure in the knowledge that you are not lazy, for example, and you provide well for your children, you’re not going to be triggered by statements that may imply that you are.

Use this technique through your divorce process to identify where you are being triggered and why. This way, you can work to take the sting out of the trigger and find greater emotional balance.

Read the rest of our series of blogs:

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