03/24/2013 10:34 am ET Updated May 24, 2013

How to Handle the Triggers That Drive Us Crazy

Triggers. We've all got them.

Triggers are certain people and situations that bring out our -- let's just say -- less-attractive sides. They are targeted little emotional barbs that cause us to react quickly, without thinking, and in ways we regret later.

  • Some of us can't handle being told what to do -- especially by someone we feel is less experienced or intelligent than we are.
  • Some of go absolutely crazy when we hit that long, drawn-out red light right by the office. Again.
  • Some of us see red when a particular family member asks us if we're working on losing that "extra padding" gained over the holidays.

Some of us even do it to ourselves. We wake up and see an extra gray hair or a new scratch on our car and let it ruin our day -- and the day of those around us.

Triggers -- and the way we react to them -- aren't fun for anyone. They make us miserable, make those around us miserable and, in the end, often hurt our reputation.

No matter how real the trigger, no matter how right we are in reacting, in the end it doesn't matter. In the end, the damage done is usually worse -- and lasts a whole lot longer than the trigger itself.

The good news? We can plan for them, deal with them and keep our cool when we need to.

The first step, of course, is first figuring out just what your triggers are. Notice what (and who!) really bugs you -- what causes you to fly off the handle, to get scared or defensive, to react or behave in a way that isn't true to who you are.

Then take on a new strategy -- perhaps the one I found myself adapting just last week, on the day we were to leave for a long-awaited trip to Panama.

We'd been counting down the days for months. When the day of our departure finally arrived I woke up early, ran a few errands, arrived back home with a blustery flair... and found hubby sitting in the living room, a pale look on his face, speaking to someone on the phone.

I don't remember his exact words to the person on the other end, but they were panicked and rushed and went something like this:

"Yes-I-need-your-help. It-looks-like-you-cancelled-our-flight-to-Panama-and-we-need-to-get-there-today-or-else-we-won't-make-our-tour." [Pause.] "No-we-need-to-get-there-today."

He didn't look at me as he said it all, probably because of what he was pretty sure he'd see: the rising temper of a woman who was about to go ballistic.

I can't lie. I was pretty close. After all, we'd been through this before and my reaction pretty much fit that description. (Don't believe me? Check out my post from two years ago: lessons learned from a major meltdown.)

This time, however, I took a different approach.

I walked away. Literally.

I learned this technique after a decidedly bad trigger led to a decidedly bad reaction... which led to a decidedly bad result.

Walk away.

Even if it's just a few steps or to another room down the hall (I admit it -- I actually find the bathroom to be a very handy venue for this purpose). I take a few breaths. I shut my eyes, give myself advice, remind myself about the person I want to be before I open my mouth.

I ask myself how I might truly get what I need from the situation, and acknowledge that losing my cool probably won't get me there.

Now, some of you may have some arguments with my seemingly simple and perhaps naïve solution. Let me address them now:

Walk Away Argument #1

But Deirdre, aren't there times when you can't just walk away because you need to handle the situation? And sometimes don't you need to be a bit more assertive anyway?


Sure there are. If hubby hadn't been there to handle the cancelled flight, I would've had to do it. But I still would've needed to take a walk before dialing the phone. I would've needed to chill out the frustration the trigger had caused -- and to think through the carefully balanced words (not too strong, not too weak) I'd use to get to the end result I wanted.

Walk Away Argument #2:

But Deirdre, aren't there times when you can't just walk away -- because you can't physically walk away?


Sure there are. But even if you're trapped in a room when your brother walks in and comments on your "hippie shoes" you can still take a mental walk. You can still shut your eyes, acknowledge that you've been triggered, take a few breaths and choose your own next words. A few physical steps are best, but sometimes we must improvise.

This is about being in control of your own life, of being the person you want to be, of refusing to let your triggers get the best of you.

The first step? Walk away. I promise, you'll be glad you did. Because you'll get to a better outcome -- and you'll be proud of how you did it.

I was. Especially when hubby arrived in the next room and told me he'd gotten us on a new flight... with better seats. Problem solved. And I didn't have to say a word.

This week...

Think about what (and who!) triggers you. Notice what causes you to react. Figure out how to handle them before they come.

And when they do, start by walking away.

Now go do good -- and do it well.

For more by Deirdre Maloney, click here.

For more on emotional intelligence, click here.