How Your Emotional Needs Can Become Emotional Triggers


It was the most upset I’ve ever been at work.

Years ago, a part of my job was to negotiate contracts with vendors. One negotiation reached an impasse. The vendor raised his voice slightly and accused me of personally derailing the process. My reaction was intense. I shouted something back at him in my defense, hung up the phone, and busted a plastic baseball bat over my knee. My body shook with anger.

For years, I’ve contemplated that explosive reaction. And since that time, I’ve wondered about other overreactions to certain people or situations.

Do you ever overreact?

In hindsight, I can see that that particular negotiation followed a series of difficult work interactions over the previous weeks. In each of these hard interactions leading up to the vendor negotiation, someone had questioned my contribution. Apparently, I can only take so much criticism about my contributions before I reach a breaking point and overreact.

As my self-awareness has increased since then, it’s become clear that I have built a lifelong need for being seen as a capable contributor. Much of that stems from being the oldest child, oldest paternal grandchild, and son of parents that always have been heavy on approval and affirmation.

According to author Marcia Reynolds:

[Emotional] needs are not bad. You have these needs because at some point in your life, the need served you. For example, your experiences may have taught you that success in life depends on maintaining control, establishing a safe environment, and having people around you who appreciate your intelligence. However, the more you are attached to having control, safety and being seen as smart, the more your brain will be on the lookout for circumstances that deny your needs. The unmet need or threat becomes an emotional trigger.

Perhaps in your life, you’ve gotten too much or not enough from important relationships, and that’s formed an emotional need. Maybe you were neglected by a parent, teacher, or boss. As a result, you may have developed an attachment to people paying attention to you. Now your brain is highly sensitive to anything that looks like neglect. And being more sensitive triggers strong emotions that neurologically provide a greater sense of control. As I wrote in my post last week on anger, strong emotions can prove to be powerfully self-soothing.

In her book Mindset, Dr. Carol Dweck writes, “All people keep a running account of what’s happening to them, what it means, and what they should do.” But, she notes, this “interpretation process” can go awry: “Some people put more extreme interpretations on things that happen — and then react with exaggerated feelings of anxiety, depression, or anger.”

What Do You Do with Emotional Triggers?

In his recent Emotionally Healthy Leader podcasts on the topic of emotional triggers, Pete Scazzero offers some advice on how to deal with them. Here’s a summary of what he suggests:

  1. Understand your emotional triggers so that you’re more prepared for the over-reactions you may have. This requires analyzing family-of-origin tendencies, early experiences, and unmet emotional needs.
  2. Do the work to emotionally mature beyond triggers. I will probably always have a strong emotional need for approval and for people to affirm that I’m contributing. That said, I’m continuously reflecting on the reasons why that need developed in me, I’m understanding where that need presents itself most strongly, and I’m lessening that need by evolving the source of my self-worth and identity.
  3. Appreciate the emotional triggers of others. As I wrote in last week’s post, never tell someone that they are overreacting. Instead, be curious and patient as other people release and work through their own triggers. Avoid criticizing people when they’ve been triggered. Be gracious and create non-judgmental space for them to discover more about their own emotional attachments.

Where do you have strong emotional attachments? Are you doing the work to understand how these triggers show up in your life?

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