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How to Deal with Painful Emotional Triggers in Your Relationships

Sideways portrait of couple in disappointed pose in white studio. Caucasian girl resting her head on her hand as if thinking and solving the problem, African man also looking puzzled and stressed.

A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.” ~Unknown

I’ve been looking for a new job, so I recently decided to update my resume.

“Hun, can you please help me with that?”

“Of course, my love.”

“Thanks, babe.”

Not only did my wife help me revamp my resume, she drafted me a killer cover letter as well.

“You’re the best, babe!”

“Happy to help, sweetie.”

I opened the cover letter the other day and found a discrepancy, something that immediately touched my deepest core wound.

There, at the bottom of the page, where my name, email address, and phone number are supposed to go, was someone else’s phone number, not mine. It wasn’t even remotely close to being mine.

Within a matter of seconds my panic alarm went off. Abandonment alert! Abandonment alert!

Is my wife is cheating on me? Where did she meet this guy, and how long have they been talking to each other?

No exaggeration. That’s right where my irrational thoughts went.

I Googled the number and found that it belonged to a John Smith from Los Angeles. (That’s not his real name.) It was like pouring gasoline on an already burning fire. Who the heck is John Smith?

As if that wasn’t bad enough, I went to Google images and saw that John Smith is a tall, slender, good-looking guy. WTF?! She’s sleeping with this guy. I just know it!

Stop, Zach! Stop!

I couldn’t. The part of me that’s afraid of being abandoned was in charge and driving the bus straight down to crazy town. What should have been contained (my fear of abandonment) leaked into our relationship.  

I text my wife to ask if she was available for a quick phone call.

“As long as it’s quick,” she replied.

I had no intention of actually accusing my wife. I just wanted to ask if she knew whose number was at the bottom of my cover letter. At least that’s what I kept telling myself.

“I’m not sure what you’re getting at,” she said.

“I don’t know who John Smith is, nor have I ever seen that number before.”

“I was just using a template that a friend gave me.”

A template? Yeah right. Who the heck is this guy?

I kept telling her that I wasn’t accusing her of anything, which was a complete joke. News flash, Zach: Anyone could’ve seen that I was accusing her even if I didn’t say the actual words. It was total covert manipulation on my part.

And it gets worse.

Talking to my wife wasn’t enough to ease my panicked mind, so I picked up my phone, blocked my number, and called John Smith. I’m gonna get to the bottom of this!

Ladies and gentleman, we have a full blown blazing inferno.

Turns out his name isn’t John Smith. It’s Bob Smith. (Again, not his real name.) After getting his voicemail I did one more Google search and found out that he works at the same company that my wife’s friend works at. The same friend that gave my wife the cover letter template that she used for me.

I let out a deep sigh of relief because it finally all made sense. There was no other guy. It was just a larger than life story that I made up in my head.

With the fire finally out, I took the steering wheel away from the part of me that lives in fear, called a friend, and told him what I did. In hindsight, it’s something I should’ve done right from the get go, but we have to make mistakes to learn and grow.

Look, I get it, I was freaking out that day. Not because of something my wife did but because I was emotionally triggered and in a fearful place. I assumed she was cheating on me—“assumed” being the keyword—and then I reacted by blaming her for how I was feeling.

But why?

Emotional triggers stem from our past, and they can be very painful. When touched upon, we become hypersensitive and we make up stories like I did. We react and blame someone else because we don’t want to re-experience a painful childhood feeling.

It’s a way for us to remain in control rather than feeling out of control like we felt when we were little. It’s a coping mechanism. An unhealthy one, but one nonetheless.

When I was little, my mom died of cancer. It was painful and scary, and deep down that little boy, me, is positive that someone will leave him again. When that part of me gets triggered, it’s the scariest feeling in the world.

Containing something that scary is difficult to do, but I believe necessary for our personal growth.

I’ve put together a list of what I believe are healthy alternatives for dealing with thought patterns that can sabotage relationships in all areas of our lives. Remember, it’s not the fear destroys relationships; it’s how we handle them.

Practice Healthy Boundaries

My therapist and I talk a lot about healthy boundaries. A good boundary acts as a block for all that wants to come out, and it also acts as a filter for all incoming and outgoing information.

For example, a healthy emotional boundary for me would’ve been to see the incoming information—the wrong number at the bottom of the cover letter—for what it really was: just a random wrong number.

My wife has never given me a single reason to doubt her, ever, and this is where my fears should have come to an end, but instead I allowed the false information to seep in and affect me. That’s me having a bad personal boundary.

Next, a healthy boundary would have prevented me from blaming my wife because boundaries help to regulate how reactive we are. They help us contain everything that so desperately wants to come out.

When executed correctly, boundaries help us develop a better sense of self because we learn to hold ourselves accountable for our feelings and our behavior.

Share Our Fears with a Close Friend/Mentor

I called a trusted friend later that day, and he reminded me that I was reacting to a past experience. “Zach, the death of your mother was completely out of your control. She didn’t want to leave you. You’re not a bad person. She loved you.”

Tears streamed down my face as he reminded me of this. I was finally feeling my feelings. The tension that consumed my body earlier in the day was gone.

My friend encouraged me to write down all of the fearful thoughts that I had around this specific event. He reminded me that I’m powerless over a negative thought entering my mind but not over what I do with it.

Writing helps with this because the longer we stay in our heads with our fearful thoughts, the worse the problem usually gets.

Feel Our Feelings

I’ll never get over the loss of my mother if I don’t learn to sit through my painful feelings every time they come up, and I can’t sit through the painful feelings if I’m reacting and blaming someone else for how I feel. That’s not me living my truth, and that’s not me developing a sense of self.

Truth is, it’s scary when my abandonment wound gets triggered, but I’ll never get over the pain if I don’t learn to sit with it.

What I should’ve done that day was allow myself to feel the emotional pain that was coming up for me and let it pass. That’s me leaning into and working through the feeling rather than reacting to it. Remember, it’s not someone else’s job to take care of us emotionally; it’s our job.

I called my wife after talking to my friend and told her I was sorry. I told her that in the future I would do a better job containing the part of me that’s afraid of abandonment. She didn’t deserve to be blamed for a wrong number; that was all me.

Bottom line, blaming someone else for how we feel doesn’t solve our problems. Honesty, feeling our feelings, and ownership does. We miss an opportunity for personal growth when we react and blame other people for how we’re feeling.

It’s about progress, not perfection. Personal growth is a daily practice, and we’re all worth it. Even me. Namaste.

About Zachary Goodson

Zachary Goodson is inspired by intentional living. His writing focuses on his experiences around holistic health, inner child work, addiction, recovery and spirituality. He is currently writing his first book. You can connect with him more at zacharygoodson.com

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  • Rae Ritchie

    Thank you for sharing this story and your reflections. The event and your response really resonated with me as I too share these fears (I guess everyone does to an extent!) and I also have difficulty with healthy boundaries. It is always reassuring to hear someone else has similar struggles and they are managing to overcome them.

  • Ed (E.J.) Godwin

    Excellent article. Yes, negative thoughts distort reality, and the first step to defeating them is realizing that they’re almost always a lie. And even if they aren’t, you still have to set those healthy boundaries before you overreact and do something you’ll regret. Thanks for sharing!

  • Zachary Goodson

    Thanks Rae!

  • Zachary Goodson

    Thanks Ed. Love the feedback.

  • Sparrow

    I guess the hardest part for me is allowing myself to “feel my feelings.”

    Whenever anything bad bubbles up from my past I feel like wallowing in self pity is the wrong answer and that were I enlightened, I would just let it go. I feel as if I should allow myself to be happy and free and move on. I feel as if otherwise I am being selfish, immature and holding onto a grudge. Sometimes I think all the “positivity” I aim for can in a way be self destructive in that it declares war on my feelings and creates guilt alongside every episode of anger or sadness. I don’t know what to do anymore.

    If anyone has any wisdom they would like to share in this regard I would most appreciate it.

  • DrinkSomeTea

    I have also struggled with this aspect of mindfulness. I was constantly repressing feelings, thinking that “letting go” meant not feeling the hurtful emotions. Through a meditation practice, I am coming to realize that ignoring “bad” emotions, or forcing false positive emotions when they are not present, is not really recognizing your true self. You cannot let something go unless you know what it is, and ignoring that emotion will keep it in you. Your mind will unconsciously recycle the emotion when a similar triggering situation arises, because are habits become hardwired. Just like Zach’s example above, when he was confronted with a situation that touched on his fear of abandonment he reacted out of habit. Even though his conscious brain recognized it, he could not help himself from slipping into the rut and playing the situation out all the way.

    Observing what you are actually feeling is not the same as wallowing, which has a negative connotation. It is not wrong to have a “bad” emotion, to recognize it, to observe how it makes you feel physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. The more you observe it, the less it will be an unconscious reaction. Eventually, you can recognize the feeling for what it is, know what triggered it, know what your old habit routine is, and be able to consciously act in a different way. Then, after much practice in this, a new habit can form and your unconscious mind will be less inclined to slip into a negative spiral.

    As with creating or undoing any habit, this takes a lot of time. You will make mistakes and find yourself slipping into old habits. You will, at times, “wallow” and obsess regardless. When this happens, recognize it and do your best to return to mindfulness and awareness. Be kind to yourself, and forgive yourself whenever this happens. There is no need to feel guilty, this is a lifelong practice not a short fix it all and there will be ups and downs. If you find yourself feeling guilty anyway, recognize that and forgive yourself for that as well. We feel what we feel, there is no right or wrong way to feel. Emotions cannot be controlled, but our reactions to them, and actions despite them, can be. I hope this helps in some way, it actually helped me to write it out too.

  • Zachary Goodson

    Beautiful reply. Thank you for being of service.

  • Zachary Goodson

    Thank you for sharing Sparrow. For years the thought of feeling my feelings scared me.(sometimes still does) As such I learned to avoid them with process addictions such as sleeping with women, playing video games, and watching a lot of television. Stopping this behavior allowed said feelings to bubble up to the surface and up and out they came. It was my way of going through my personal darkness to find my light. It wasn’t wallowing. It was healing. It was me grieving my past which ultimately brought me closer to myself and the man I want to be today. I hope this helps.

  • sian e lewis

    Thanks I lost my mother when I was 6 ( I’m now 61 ) and believe it or not, it’s only NOW that I’ve come to realise the full impact of such a loss

  • Zachary Goodson

    That had to be difficult, Sian. I’m sorry for your loss.

  • Sparrow

    Thank you Zachary. I too have given up escapism based habits in recent years and now find myself saddled down by so many unexpected and unresolved feelings from my childhood. Thank you for your reply. It does help! 🙂

  • Sparrow

    Thank you for this reply. I like how you specify that one might observe a feeling rather than wallowing in it. The intellectual approach to any situation does help us to comfortably and objectively step aside for a moment doesn’t it? I’m happy to hear also that writing this out was helpful to you as well. 🙂

  • Kathy

    I’ve always had abandonment issues because my mom died when I was six. During a Reiki session, I sensed my late mother talking to me about how she’s always been with me. That healed more so much. But now my husband of twenty years is divorcing me because he’s found someone else. It’s so hard having to deal with the abandonment again. I’m struggling so much with the sense of despair and loneliness despite the amazing support from friends and family.

  • Zachary Goodson

    I’m sorry to hear that Kathy. I can relate to the struggle with despair and loneliness despite the continued support. It can feel like the loneliness place in the world when that is triggered. It will get better. I promise. Praying for you.

  • Kathy

    Thank you!

  • Michelle Taylor

    I lost my husband to suicide 9 years ago and didn’t address the abandonment. I found love again with someone so kind hearted and trustworthy, but often, the feelings of abandonment come back and are “driving the bus straight down to crazy town” I don’t know how to control it, it’s not fare to him and I fear I am driving him away. I know I didn’t process things the way I should have years ago and only now is it that I am trying to be more mindful but when the feelings come up, I am so destructive, my feelings are my own worst enemy.

  • Zachary Goodson

    Thank you for sharing Michelle. I’m sorry for your loss. I can’t imagine how difficult that had to be.

    When these type of feelings come up for me containing them is my number one priority. If I don’t contain them they leak out and contaminate my relationship with fear and neediness which ultimately pushes my wife away. Containing them can feel like the most difficult thing to do but it gives us a chance to grow as individuals. Every time I lean into the discomfort and sit with my thoughts and feeling I grow.

    I wish you all the best. You are not alone.

  • Michelle Taylor

    Contain…I am really going to try this! <3
    Thank you!

  • Rachel

    I’m so bad at this… the second my abandonment trigger is pulled – I feel like I can’t control myself. I just want to scream “if you love me why would you hurt me” … probably the worlds of a 5 year old to her mother. But instead I’m saying it to my boyfriend (who loves me very much). When I lose it he turns me away and that makes me even more upset/afraid/crazy. I don’t know how to regulate. I wish I could be one of those girls who just walks away and says – “I’ll talk to you later” but instead I’m frozen – if I walk away from this I’m alone and abandoned. This article is great – I will keep coming back and re-reading. I hope with practice I can regulate my emotions and be normal. Instead of feeling deeply afraid and alone and abandoned.

  • Zachary Goodson

    Thank you for sharing Rachel. Obviously I can relate.

    Reaching out to a close friend and sharing my fears always helps because left to my own thinking I somehow always blame the other person for how I’m feeling. It’s not my wife’s job to take care of me emotionally, that’s my job. I forget this from time to time.

    It’s about progress not perfection. So remember to go easy on yourself. Love yourself. The only one that can abandone us today is ourselves.

  • I think that in the relationships should always exist 1 person that slows down another person that can be triggered by tiniest accidents.