How to Deal with Painful Emotional Triggers in Your Relationships

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 is a writer, a coach, and a heart-centered entrepreneur who loves helping others. His writing focuses on his experiences around holistic health, inner child work, addiction, recovery, spirituality, and fatherhood. His coaching is devoted to helping people experience deep fulfillment in relationships, career, and life.  You can connect with him at zacharygoodson.com.

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