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Why Some Things Trigger You Emotionally and Others Don’t

“If you’re hysterical, it’s historical.” ~Anonymous

I had been having problems with my email. I dreaded calling technical support, since my experience in the past involved sitting for a long time on hold and listening to someone reading from a script instead of thinking creatively about my problem. However, since I could not fix the problem myself and I felt I had no other options, I called my Internet service provider’s technical support line.

True to form, after thirty 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, after another hour on the phone while attempting to solve my problem, the technical support representative actually lost some of my emails.

I’m not going to sugarcoat this. I went ballistic.

Like most people, I’ve spent many hours of my life on the phone with technical support representatives, attempting to fix something that is very important to my life and my livelihood—my computer, my Internet connection, my phone, etc. When they can’t fix the problem, I become completely hateful toward them. For some reason, it’s this one area that just turns me into the ugliest version of myself.

I’m not proud, but I have said some of the most vile things to these people on the phone because I want them to feel as bad as they are making me feel with their robotic repetition of “I’m so sorry for the inconvenience” or their insistence that their software isn’t the source of the problem; it must be my hardware.

I used to hide the fact that I went ballistic. It felt like an ugly secret that I would occasionally lose it with someone on the phone. I think it’s healthy to be embarrassed about completely losing your cool, but it’s also healthy to learn from the situation so you don’t lose your cool so easily the next time.

I have always assumed that my level of anger during these situations is much greater than the general population’s, although recent recordings of profanity-laced customer service calls around the Internet is making me question this.

When I mentioned to a friend that I was fighting with Comcast, she quickly replied, “That’s enraging.” Even my therapist described her own experiences with technical support calls as “crazymaking.” Hey, it’s from a therapist. That makes it official.

I still knew that my particular reaction was overblown. How do I know this? I look to the people around me as a gauge. I pick those people who have a generally positive outlook on life, who are stable, content and able to meet life’s challenges with resilience. I observe their example. I don’t look to those people who have a generally negative outlook on life. Grumpalumps are not a good gauge for what is normal behavior.

I wondered aloud to a friend one day about my overblown reaction to these situations. She knows me well and offered this piece of wise advice. She said, “When you’re hysterical, it’s historical.”

Growing up, I had a pervasive sense that I was surrounded by incompetent people who could not help me when I clearly needed it. I sensed this because it was true. Trust me. That sense of frustration was something that sat, ever so close to the surface, ready to be triggered, well into my adulthood.

Enter the incompetent technical support representative who knows less about my iPhone than I do. In that situation I am, in fact, surrounded by people who cannot help my when I clearly need it.

Trigger. I flash back to feeling like that frustrated little kid who felt that my clear requests for help went unheeded. I wound up figuring everything out by myself, since the people around me were unable to recognize the needs of others and to be of help. That made me furious—and exhausted. It’s that part of me who freaks out at the technical support representative.

We are all carrying around that kind of old, outdated baggage in our present-day lives. This is why what triggers one person is absolutely no big deal to another.

I found it such a relief to connect the dots between my specific type of childhood angst and my extreme reaction to an ordinary technical support nightmare. Making that connection immediately diffused my emotions around it. I was still frustrated—may I remind you it was a technical support call—but I wasn’t “ballistic-frustrated.”

Why does something attached to childhood carry so much force? Remember that children have very little control over their lives. They have limited ability to have experiences that test the worldview presented to them. They have little ability to communicate their needs. They have little power to resist the authority around them. Problems seem so big when children are so small.

Not anymore! As adults, we have power, resources, experience, and a much broader perspective than we ever did as children. We’ve learned a thing or two.

I’ve been around long enough to know that even if there isn’t an immediately obvious solution, I’ll probably figure it out, or find someone else who can. I’m no longer helpless, powerless, or incapable. The kid in me forgets that sometimes and throws a tantrum.

Think about a situation that makes you crazy. What part of you is reacting to the situation? Is it the five year old in you that felt ignored and taken for granted? Is it the angry teenager who felt oppressed and smothered? Is it the scared ten year old who feels insecure and incapable?

Am I ultimately saying that our negative emotions around those things that trigger us all are unjustified? Not at all. I’m saying our reactions to them can be overblown.

When we are triggered emotionally it’s a signal that something from our past is surfacing. Once I was able to disconnect my past from my present, my emotions diffused and I was no longer able to be triggered. I had a clear enough head to be able to handle the problem with out all of the angst.

I eventually found someone to help me with my e-mail. He was, in fact, a rare find. Now I’m thinking about getting rid of cable and moving to Internet-based television. I’ll tackle that when I feel I’m in the right state of mind and have some extra time on my hands. In the meantime, maybe I’ll create a national network of Technical Support Support Groups.

About Paula M. Jones

Paula M. Jones is the creator of Small Epiphanies: Subtle Insights for Profound Change, a website dedicated to inspiring its followers to live better, more self-aware lives and to experience greater happiness. Her work has been featured on Lipstick&Politics, Positively Positive, and BlogHer. She previously authored Staying Connected, the Hoffman Institute Foundation’s newsletter. Learn more at www.smallepiphanies.co.

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  • beth jones

    I can relate because there have been times when I’ve just gone ballistic on people who I felt were not competent. The downside has been that afterwards I feel bad about doing it for a long, long time. My “history” is a father who would hold feelings in and then explode. To stop myself from exploding again, I’ve started to monitor when I begin to escalate and then start making up a story about the person I’m talking to; for instance, “This is a mother of two children. She’s trying to make ends meet in order to pay for child care but it’s hard and she misses them. She’s just had two really difficult calls and isn’t well trained because her boss doesn’t care to do it.” Once I start doing this, the person I’m talking to becomes more human and my anger drains away.

  • Susan Reed

    I could have written this, but I’m too sick (bipolar 1 disorder) to do much writing. Journaling is one of my therapeutic tasks. Been doing it for years until all my devices failed. Thank you for speaking for me.

  • DB Hoster

    This is me. I feel extremely out of control when this happens – however, for me, the hysterical only comes out when I realize that I am talking with someone who (yes – like the incompetent parents who frustrated me historically) – seem incompetent. It seems very easy for me to detect whether I am dealing with someone who is going to be able to help me, or who is only going to impede progress. i.e., the right person, who is calm, in control, respectful, leaves quiet spaces in between his/her words, does Not talk over me, and shows that he/she is clearly listening, will garner a totally different response from me, and the call will go well. My hysterical response comes out with those who are the opposite – the ones who talk over me (that’s #1), don’t listen, talk too fast with too many words crammed in and bulldoze over me, I can tell they don’t “recognize” me, and who ask my personal info too many times bc they haven’t been listening. Can you tell I’m getting anxious just thinking about it? Apologies.

  • Susan Reed

    Anxiety is worry about the future. What works For me is to do some deep breathing, and concentrate on on a positive affirmation. With practice, you can allay your anxiety to a point where you can ease your stinkin’ thinkin’. (Borrowed from Alanon). No apologies necessary.

  • Susan Reed

    And remember: What others think about you is none of your business. Just as their behavior is none of your business . Hard to learn, but effective. Believe me, I have failures using these coping skills. I just keep practicing.

  • Thank you for the advice. I understand that me going ballistic is in no way helping me or the other person, but your advice on the story. A tool to with which to interact with people and be more human, with them.

  • SmallEpiphanies

    That is a great coping mechanism. I find it takes practice to regulate my behavior to respond appropriately and always respectfully, even when I’m really angry. If everyone did this, the world would be a much less volatile place. Kudos!

  • SmallEpiphanies

    Yes, a tool to reach for even before getting into a situation is the best way to avoid being triggered.

  • SmallEpiphanies

    Amen. If you can do that prior to getting into a situation, the more effective it will be.

  • SmallEpiphanies

    Argh! I’ve noticed some people will just launch into a stream of talking and talking over a customer – its so maddening. It helps to recognize that it is important for you to be “heard” and “seen”. Think about way back when, when you feel unheard and unseen. The trigger comes from there.

  • SmallEpiphanies

    Glad to. I’m glad it resonated with you.

  • Celestine Keri-anne Fedley

    It’s so interesting how childhood stuff gets triggered in the now. Has anyone heard of the Hoffmann process which is about clearing childhood stuff. Really interested to hear about any experiences with it good or bad. Thanks

  • Susan Reed

    Like!

  • Susan Reed

    This seems to be a thoughtful group, unlike some of the bipolar websites I have been on. People there want someone to come in and fix things for them.

  • Susan Reed

    I haven’t heard of the Hoffman Process, but my therapist and I have done some “inner child” work that originated in the 80s. My what you will learn about yourself if you look at the negative messages your inner child gives you. On my 65th birthday, I discovered I am the only one responsible for my feelings. I have years of negative neural programming to reprogram. Building positive neural pathways.

  • Celestine Keri-anne Fedley

    Hi Susan.
    Yes I have done some, not a lot of, inner child work and it was quite powerful. But to actually jump those hurdles or really get past those messages we received when we were young that so effect our interactions with life today would be nothing short of life changing. This is what the Hoffmann process promises. What better people to ask for advice than the enlightened community that is Tiny Buddha! I understand that everyone is different and what may work for one person won’t work for another, just fishing for advice!

  • Sandra

    Wow! Thank you so much. It’s very inspiring
    I’m curious to know where you get your images from.i will really find it helpful

  • M

    Thank you for shedding light on a question I have been struggling with for YEARS! I always had to find a meeting room to make my calls in case… you know… I went ballistic. So great to know im not alone and theres a solution (or at lesst an explanation)! Thanks for a great read 🙂

  • SmallEpiphanies

    Celestine, I am a graduate of the Hoffman Process. I did it in 2007 and head up the graduate group in my area. Funny you should ask that question on the article written by a Hoffman grad. I found it very helpful (I have experience with many different approaches to personal growth) because it incorporates cognitive, emotional, physical and a spiritual approach to your negative patterns learned in childhood. It is worth it – I can recommend!

  • SmallEpiphanies

    I’m glad it helped. I usually ask the question, “Why am I reacting this way?” to most situations – positive or negative. But the going ballistic thing was one I had trouble identifying. Once I went back to childhood and connected the feeling of “I am surrounded by incompetent people” it resonated with me so much. Now I know!

  • Susan Reed

    Indeed. Celestine. May I call you that, or do you prefer me to use your entire name? I know you are familiar with neuroplasticity. We have developed negative neural pathways by all the crap our inner child has been telling us over our lifetimes.

    However, I am building positive neural pathways through using affirmations, meditation, yoga, reading, and a lot of journaling. I have 66 years of negative programming to overcome, and I find I occasionally have the feeling of “the peace that passeth understanding,” that encourages me to continue searching for self-care tools that can help me be centered. Right now, I am way off center because it is the 1st anniversary of the estrangement by my daughter. But, I keep practicing my self-care tools because I believe in neuroplasticity. Buddhists knew this 2500 years ago. (I am not Buddhist, nor am I Christian). Peace, my friend. Susan

  • Love this. When I realized this a few years ago it made such a big difference in my life 🙂

  • LadyBonser

    I love the way you explain this, but I’m not fully convinced that is what my issue stems from. Childhood for sure, but more because I was spoiled. But I definitely see how the dots can also be connected in that manner. Thank you for the insight!
    Be Blessed
    LB

  • Susan Reed

    I am unsubscribing from this site because I don’t know who is communicating with who.

  • Shari Broder

    I was triggered earlier today because someone who played up to my husband for years (and he encouraged it) was purposely acting dumb to get his attention. He’s cleaned up his act and doesn’t behave that way anymore, and I was surprised at how easily I was triggered. I definitely don’t want to give her control over my emotions! Detach! Thanks for writing this.

  • Celestine Keri-anne Fedley

    Thank you for your reply and don’t you just love it when things like that happen. It’s Serendipity isn’t it. Anyway it makes me feel good and confirms that I am on my correct path towards being the most enlightened I can be!

  • Celestine Keri-anne Fedley

    I’m sorry about your estrangement from your daughter that must be extremely difficult. I hope that the reason is revealed led to you soon.
    About brain plasticity, it’s fascinating isn’t it! I’m attending a Happiness Seminar soon and I can’t wait to hear about all the latest research on the subject. Knowledge is power! As it leads to understanding of the Why????

  • Whatever part of us gets triggered emotionally is exactly what we need to learn to deal with and grow at that point in our life. Think of it as a test, a challenge and opportunity to practice and grow. Just a shift in mindset in this way sometimes can quickly diffuse the emotional charge.

  • SmallEpiphanies

    Amen!

  • SmallEpiphanies

    Glad it was helpful!

  • SmallEpiphanies

    Each of us has many messages we received in childhood that trigger us, so you have your own unique list. It sounds like “being spoiled” is one of them that may not be serving you now. Welcome to the tribe of humans!

  • SmallEpiphanies

    Glad this resonated with you. Doesn’t it make a huge difference? The more triggers I identify the calmer I become. So many things just don’t bother me anymore.

  • Agreed! It is not serving me & I appreciate the knowledge that I’m not alone!!

    Be Blessed!
    LB

  • Susan Reed

    Harry, I think you “get it.” I wouldn’t use the word “just.” Building new, positive neural pathways takes time, and for me, a lot of practice. Be well! Susan

  • Emma

    Hello. I try really hard to understand other’s perspectives because I think it’s very important to know where people are coming from; we should celebrate who we are as human beings. However, I feel myself getting triggered by this very article, as well as by the responses. I’m so sad and disappointed in what I’m hearing because I thought people who follow and support Tiny Buddha are supposed to be uplifting and enlightening. Unfortunately, what I’m feeling is individuals who are still upset at their experience and instead of growing from it, they are putting others down.

    I work in a call center and have to tell you it really is a tough job; if you haven’t worked in a call center, then I would hope you would have some real empathy, but I know that’s not always easy for some people to do unless they’ve actually experienced it. I have a college degree, but now choose to work in a call center because I was unhappy with management in my previous job and wanted to have a fresh start at a new company. I like helping people so I thought it would be a nice opportunity to work with customers and get to know good people.

    Well, six months later and it’s so hard to get up every morning just to go to work. There’s a reason why many people don’t want to stay in a call center; the job is nice when you speak with friendly and understanding customers, but it’s just awful when you speak with customers who are irrational and belligerent, or have the audacity to think you’re incompetent! If only you knew how much the reps dread speaking with those customers; it’s really sad because it has a bigger impact on the reps’ well-being than you know. We are taught to empathize and have compassion, but it’s really, really hard to when someone is yelling at you and nothing you do is good enough. I’m a customer too at this company and I’ll tell you that I would never treat call center reps the way some of these other customers do; taking out their frustrations on reps because they had a bad day knowing those reps can’t stand up for themselves.

    I just wish the people who believe in Tiny Buddha would also believe in the good in all people, even call center reps. Thank you

  • Actually I don’t feel bad at all about getting mad at technical support people. After all their job is to help you with technical support and if they can’t do that, they will face my ire. That said, I’m a pretty laid back person who hates conflict and does not lose their cool easily. However, at some points in life, I have realised that it’s better to lose your cool because it gets stuff done. If you let things slide every time, people will take you for granted. Sometimes, I force myself to get mad, just to get work done.

  • SmallEpiphanies

    Emma, I can imagine you have a very difficult job and it isn’t OK for people to lash out at you personally. I have learned to separate the person on the phone from the maddening policies of the company they work for but saying, “I’m not mad at you I’m mad at your company.” That actually seems to help. I feel that many call center reps have been put in the very difficult position of wanting to help people but being unable to, due to their company policies, etc. After all, when a cable company jacks up rates month after month for no reason, it is the call reps whose job it is to field the anger customers feel about that. That must be difficult. I’ve also had some wonderful people help me and I’ve told them how wonderful they are. On the other hand, when I get someone who loses my emails, I’m mad about that and rightfully so. Or, when the call center rep is rude to me and talks over me. It still is no excuse for rudeness from me, and yet the company has no resolution or restitution for their reps who make mistakes. So, again, its the company, either putting people they shouldn’t on the phone or having no policies in place to handle missteps – which everyone makes. The whole issue isn’t an “all or nothing” thing. I certainly believe in the goodness of the people themselves – always. :O)

  • Larissa

    I have just started working in a call center. I’m still on training, and haven’t take any calls yet. But the thought of dealing with an angry customer that I can’t help makes me terrified.

  • Larissa

    How would you feel if your boss took the same approach with you? If he screams with you everyday because it just gets you to work faster?

    I work in a call center. I’m new, but I already learned that ballistic customers are a routine. No matter how good you are, you can’t go through a week without someone losing their temper on you.

    Not because we can’t help them, but because they feel they have some power or authority over us. Also, the phone call makes it more impersonal, and it is easier to shout at someone who is not in front of you.

    The agents who receives the majority of the shouting are the women, especially the ones with any kind of accent in their English. Why do you think is that so?

  • Priya Florence Shah

    Never said it was right. Nor do I lose my temper with everyone. Only with those who are rude to me first. Or don’t bother to understand my problem. As a customer I have the right to expect a modicum of decency too and I have had my fair share of rude or uncaring agents.

  • Larissa

    If you have a boss who clearly don’t care about you and your work and is often rude, would you yell at him/her? Would force yourself to get mad just to get what you need from him?

    Most people wouldn’t. So why do we allow ourselves to yell on the phone with people we don’t know and never seen, just because they are tech support?

    I’m guilty too. I have yelled at tech support when they didn’t solve my problem. And I had my share of bad assistance, believe me. But I also had my share of terrible bosses, and wouldn’t dare go on a rage on them. I think this is true for most of us.

    I think my new job will teach me a lot of patience. We are definitely NOT allowed to yell back at customers who treat us wrong.

  • Kim Anderson

    I loved this article, Paula. With “triggered” being one of the words that’s all the rage these days (at least in my sociofamilial surroundings), I find myself explaining, often to young teenagers, why claiming someone is triggered is not funny.

    Being triggered isn’t just about the factual, literal aspects of the past, which can be horrible; it’s about difficult and unresolved emotions – fear, grief, loss, abandonment, frustration, etc. It’s about pain, and making fun of that, unless it’s your own (and even then…), is monumentally not okay. Brene Brown did a great talk on this subject. She aptly called it “the culture of cruelty”.

    At any rate, thanks for bringing this up so articulately and accessibility. And great quote!!!

  • helliongoddess

    Normally I’m triggered by very little- I’ve been through a lot, and at 60 years of age have had a lot of time and experiences to give me a pretty calm attitude about anything.

    Until November. I don’t want to get into a political argument with anyone, but just for me personally the current American president represents everything I oppose in human behavior and governmental conduct, and feels to me like he’s setting out to single-handedly undo all the social and environmental change we’ve made over the past 40 years. He’s endangering the entire planet, and all that matters to him is feathering his own nest. As I said, everyone is absolutely entitled to their own opinion- that’s mine.
    My problem- and question- lies in how to handle the hatred he provokes in me. I’ve only felt anything even slightly close to hatred for a few people in my life, and I’ve always forgiven them, and have actually mended fences with most of them. I realize hatred is toxic, and I do not like feeling this way. Health-wise, I really can’t afford the stress! I try to channel it into doing as much as I can to support resistance activities, and other creative activities such as art & writing to divert myself, and I even force myself to take days or even weeks when I detach from all news as much as possible & concentrate only on activities which give me peace.

    Yet there it is. His moves get bolder, more dangerous and damaging, and harder to ignore. (Talk about the “elephant in the living room!”) I feel like it’s eating me up inside, which almost makes it worse because I know it would probably feel like a victory to him to hear that!

    If anyone has any suggestions on ways to deal with this, I’d love to hear them. I live in a rural area, & the nearest sanghas are too far for me to drive to with any regularity, my health being what it is. Any ideas or insights are appreciated. Thank you!

  • As enraging as something like this might be, the best course of action is to keep calm. Calmness is a breeding ground for thinking clearly. If we become enraged, think of how the other person must feel. Even though employed and forced to remain calm, a destructive conversation can ruin their day for no reason at all.

    In the grand scheme of things, a little lost time is no big deal.

  • SmallEpiphanies

    So true. Taking a big step back and getting perspective is key. So hard to do when triggered, since the anger can rise up so suddenly. But, practice is key and anticipating the situation, as well and understanding the underlying reason can all help tremendously.

  • SmallEpiphanies

    I would definitely try and write out all the underlying fears and beliefs that the political situation has triggered for you. Remember a trigger doesn’t mean that the actual situation isn’t real or isn’t something to be concerned about. It just means that you don’t have to have so much energy around it. It means it can still be true but you can be at peace despite it all. Keep writing until you are really hitting home with those underlying beliefs and thoughts and then ask yourself where did you first experience those beliefs and thoughts? (Hint: probably when you were really little!)

  • SmallEpiphanies

    Thank you I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’m glad you are around young people!

  • Mersaul4

    Most technical support will try their best to help, but might not be able to solve the problem at hand. Does this entitle us to yell at them? In my view the answer is a clear “no”. Often I think when people yell at someone, it’s not about that someone, it’s about them. They might have tension stemming from unresolved (and unrelated) issues and are just looking for an excuse to put someone down and make themselves feel “bigger” in the process. If we are being yelled at and realise it’s not us, it’s them, it will help us keep a straight head. Finally, If we recognise and accept the other person’s tension and show caring and understanding, we might find the situation de-escalate quicker than we thought possible.