There you go again.
Getting upset by something that triggered your emotions. Even though you vowed not to do this anymore.
And what’s up with your buttons getting pushed — and NOT those of your spouse, friends or family members?
Are you overreacting?
Here’s a perfect example from attorney Paula Jones, author of “Practical People Skills,” about the way she “lost it” with a technical support representative on the phone.
“I’d been having problems with my email,” explains Jones. “I dreaded calling technical support since my experience in the past involved sitting for a long time on hold.
“True to form, after 30 minutes on the phone we had barely moved past the point where I had repeated my name and account number to four different people. Then another hour went by. I’m not going to sugarcoat this. I went ballistic!”
“For some reason, this one area just turns me into the ugliest version of myself,” Jones says.
History repeating itself
Do you have a similar hot button? When you get hysterical, the source is likely historical — with a pattern that developed long ago.
Thinking back on her history, Jones realized — even in childhood — she was surrounded by incompetent people who could not help her when she needed it most. That sense of frustration stayed with her into adulthood — simmering under the surface, ready to be triggered.
“I flash back to feeling like that frustrated little kid,” relays Jones, “who felt her requests for help went unheeded. It makes me furious. It’s that part of me who freaks out at technical support reps.”
If you find yourself having similar outbursts, you may be carrying around similar baggage — and not even be aware of it. It’s helpful to take stock after such an episode to see what pattern may be lurking beneath the surface. In the earlier example, Jones was able to relate her overblown reaction to the childhood pattern of feeling like nobody could help her.
“I found it such a relief to connect the dots between my childhood angst and my extreme reaction to an unpleasant technical support experience,” Jones explains. “Making that connection immediately diffused my emotions around it. I was still frustrated, but I wasn’t ‘ballistic frustrated.’”
Why does something attached to our childhood carry so much weight? Think about it. Children have very little control over their lives, and they can’t readily communicate their needs. They have little power to resist the authority around them.
Fast-forward to adulthood. As adults, we have power, wisdom and much broader perspectives that have come from our life experiences.
“I’ve been around long enough to know that, even if there isn’t an obvious solution to a problem, I’ll probably figure it out — or find someone who can,” says Jones. “I’m no longer helpless or powerless. The kid in me forgets that sometimes, though, and throws a tantrum.”
Who is reacting?
If you have a situation that makes you crazy, ask yourself which part of you is reacting to the situation.
Is it the five-year-old in you that felt ignored or taken for granted? Jones asks. Is it the angry teenager who felt oppressed? Or might it be the scared 10-year-old who feels insecure?
When you’re able to disconnect from your past and bring yourself into your present life, your emotions can be diffused. And you won’t be triggered as easily.
Our brains are very adept at rationalizing our behaviors. For example, you may get very angry because you can’t find a report you’ve been working on. Then you start to blame everyone — and everything — around you.
Here are a few tips from psychologist Marcia Reynolds, as relayed in Psychology Today, for coping with situations like these:
- Recognize you’re having an emotional reaction as soon as it shows up in your body. When you find you’re breathing rapidly or your muscles are tensing up, stop and ask yourself what you’re feeling — and why. Don’t judge or fear your emotions. If you don’t recognize your feelings, you can’t change them.
- If the emotion is fear, anger or sadness, determine what triggered it. What do you think you lost, or what did you not get that you expected to have?
- Look at the list of common emotional triggers. Choose three items from the list that most often set off your emotions when you don’t get these needs met.
be in control
be treated fairly
Needs are not bad, explains Reynolds. At some point in your life, these needs served you. As an example, your experiences may have taught you that success in life depends on maintaining control and having people around you who appreciate your intelligence.
However, the more you’re attached to having control — and being seen as smart — relays Reynolds, the more your brain will be on the lookout for circumstances that deny your needs. This unmet need or threat then becomes an emotional trigger.
Ask yourself: Is the person in your situation actively denying your need, or are you taking things too personally? If someone is blocking you, could you ask for what you need? Or, if it isn’t that important, could you let it go for now?
With practice — and over time — you’ll be able to recognize these triggers and have more control over your emotions before you overreact.
Then your history won’t have to lead to hysteria.