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The Upside of Emotional Triggers


More and more these days I’m noticing a troubling trend in psychotherapy involving tiptoeing around certain subjects and side-stepping the use of certain words in fear of offending or upsetting clients or readers. This seems to stem from a well-meaning desire not to trigger an audience of one or many. In either case, our goal should not be to fear triggering them, but to bring sensitive subjects out into the open so that we can understand and deactivate them once and for all. 

In 13 Strategies to Deal with Your Emotional Triggers, David Richo, Ph.D. defines a trigger as “any word, person, event, or experience that touches off an immediate emotional reaction.” Triggers vary in intensity and can lead to either comfortable or uncomfortable feelings—or both. Looking at photos of myself as a child at sleep-away camp, for example, stirs delight that I had such a wonderful time there as well as a weepy nostalgia for those care-free summer days and nights that are gone forever.

Dr. Richo reminds us that “None of us is entitled to a life with no triggers.” This truth is what concerns me when we sanitize therapy sessions, blogs and articles to avoid provoking emotional discomfort. It’s the clinical version of parents backing off from correcting their children so as not to harm their self-esteem. But how can we teach others to manage triggers effectively if we and they act as if they’re too hot to handle?

My hunch is that therapists and writers who go out of their way not to hurt their clients or audience do it with the best of intentions to avoid causing harm. However, says Dr. Henry Cloud, author of Necessary Endings, “There’s a huge difference between hurt and harm. We all hurt sometimes in facing hard truths, but it makes us grow. It can be the source of huge growth. That is not harmful. Harm is when you damage someone. Facing reality is usually not a damaging experience, even though it can hurt.”

For example, my client Francesca who was criticized mercilessly by her mother growing up, can get techy and slide into recall when I suggest she might be setting herself up for trouble with a new friend or could make better lifestyle choices. Knowing that her feathers ruffle easily, I usually go out of my way to couch what I say in gentle, caring terms. But occasionally I blunder by moving in too fast or coming on too strong. Then Francesca gets triggered and interprets my remarks as telling her she’s doing something wrong and is, therefore, thoroughly defective and a hopeless case. 

There’s only so much validating, empathizing and soothing therapists can do with clients or readers before we’re infantilizing them and actively deterring them from growth. If people want to be made comfortable all the time, they will never mature and grow healthier. The ideal is for clinicians and writers to allow someone to feel triggered and then help them deal with their distress in order to provide them with a healing or growth experience. We only gain strength and resilience by facing what distresses us. 

We need to be careful not to cause harm by not allowing people to feel hurt. In the case of Francesca, when she expresses she's upset at me, I take responsibility for my poor timing or tactlessness, and we talk about how sensitive she is to criticism because of her fault-finding mother. Moreover, we explore other ways she could view my comments and react more constructively. The goal is to understand how the roots of emotional triggers unconsciously spark arousal, promote healing by defusing them, and explore how to respond to them in a rational, effective way.