Our Emotional Triggers

Because we are unique in our history, circumstances, and personal qualities, the hard-wired human emotions with which we were born–seeking, care, fear, lust, rage, panic/grief, and play–are triggered by meaning structures that are unique to each of us. You may find that some interactions create uncomfortable amplified emotional states in you while another person sees the same experience as trivial. These amplified emotions carry a subtext that assumes there is something real we are reacting to. Emotions are protective and directive: helping us respond to danger and problems and moving us to seek nurture, connection and care. So, when we have strong emotional responses to some event or interaction, we not only feel the emotion, we believe it.

How are we to respond to our own emotional signals, which are generated by a self-caretaking part of our minds, beneath the surface of our cognitive understanding? If we discount our emotions we feel we are betraying ourselves, and yet, if we take them at face  value we know that we can be wrong, the emotions can be misdirected, or we can overreact to our experience.

It can be helpful to make a distinction between perception, emotional response, and reflection. Generally speaking, our perceptual experience is taking in some kind of raw data from the environment. We can respect that our perceptions are a reflection of some reality. The problem is, our emotional response is created by how the perception feels based on our experience. We have a perceptual experience, we interpret what it means instantaneously, and we have an emotional reaction. Only with a little time can we reflectively assess whether we were accurate or not.

If we smell smoke, we immediately may feel there is danger. Unless there is a barbeque. The perception is true: there is smoke. The meaning we attach to it–danger–is instant. Our emotional fear response is instinctive. It is only after that when we can stop and remember our neighbor is having a barbeque. We are triggered by experiences that we have learned to attach idiosyncratic meanings to. For me, disagreement may feel like criticism. For you, it may feel like engagement. Our emotional responses will be engendered by the meaning that is triggered by our perceptions.

In order to respect ourselves and at the same time to recognize the fallibility of our understanding, it might be helpful to accept that we are perceiving something real, but that we may be inaccurate in the way we understand that perception. The emotions can be overwhelming and compelling. We may need twenty minutes to get some distance. And we may then be able to reflect on the different meanings we may be attaching to some experience and choose whether to accept those at face value or recalibrate them.

About norasblog

I am a psychotherapist with a private practice in downtown Chicago.
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