What Our Triggers Say About Us
Let’s talk about the voice in your head. The one whose running commentary is often very… harsh. While that voice is often very self-critical it can also be very judgemental of others’ behaviors, intentions and competence. And yet, when I ask someone what would increase their feelings of psychological safety, more times than not, they indicate not wanting to feel judged. So why do we judge others so much? Here’s the thing: Our brains are designed to make meaning of the world around us. Aiming to eliminate judgement is simply not possible. A more reasonable goal is to monitor how we make sense of the world around us and peel back the layers of our judgements to find the real meaning behind them.
Something interesting happens when we look at what we’re judging about others - it means something much more personal to us. Let’s test this. Think of your nemesis or someone you have difficulty working with either because you have very different styles or because you feel competitive with this person. What is it about this person that irks you? We’ll come back to this.
One of my high-achieving female clients was feeling triggered and incredibly annoyed by her male counterpart who routinely spoke over her in authoritative, binary terms about non-binary topics. She grew to view this behavior as pretentious and overbearing. After years of working with this person, she developed the unconscious assumption that offering her own opinion was pretentious and overbearing. The net effect of this assumption was self-induced silence. She was not silenced by her counterpart or the organization, she was silenced by her own meaning-making.
To curb the negative effects of this, we rewired her mindset. The practice we designed is so simple, yet surprisingly effective for uncovering what’s behind judgement. When she observes her colleague positing an opinion as fact (the trigger), instead of going into the thought pattern of, “This is so annoying/pretentious,” we rewired the script to “Good on you for having the confidence to say what you think we should do when we don’t really know.” When we can frame our judgement in “good on you” terms, we credit the person for possessing what it is that we could stand to learn from or do more of ourselves… even if we would execute or exhibit it differently. For her, she needed to take a page from her counterpart’s playbook of confidence and conviction to hold her ground and voice her value.
Put simply, what we find triggering in someone else is something we should pay attention to for ourselves. When we shift our judgement of others inward, we often find the very thing we need to focus on in our own lives.
Think of your nemesis from earlier. If you set the meaning-making judgment aside, can you determine what this person has, does or embodies that you could benefit from focusing on in your own life? Now, fill in the blank that comes after ‘good on you…’ That’s what you need.
Here are a few ways this could show up in many corners of your life:
Child being too loud? Good on you for expressing yourself. In what area of my life do I need more of that?
Person cut me off in traffic? Good on you for being bold in pursuit of where you’re headed. Where do I need to be a bit more bold?
Manager who micromanages? Good on you for taking control. Where might I need to take control in my life?
Partner playing golf while you watch the kids? Good on you for taking time to do something you enjoy. How can I do the same? [Kevin, if you’re reading this, I’ve come to this conclusion so we’re all good.]
The upside of practicing the mindset shift to ‘good on you,’ is not only learning to extend more grace to others but also determining how we need to tend to ourselves. When we do this, we realize that the judgement for the other person doesn’t matter all that much. The main point is what’s in this for you.