What do the unpleasant colleague at work, a critical parent, or a power-cutting storm have in common? You cannot control what they do. Still, they manage to impact us. Hurt and disappointment are normal reactions but negative emotions can overwhelm us into losing sight of what we do control: our response.
When we describe a situation or a person as “triggering” our pain, we go from being agents of our own experience to victims of external forces. Taking on the role of victim can damage not only our morale and productivity but also relationships and trust. The more frequently we assume victimhood, the more ingrained the mindset becomes that we operate entirely under external forces outside of our control – fate, luck, or mercy – shifting power away from ourselves and limiting our capacity to learn through organic lived experiences. By taking ownership of our feelings and responses, on the other hand, we resolve those external challenges and grow.
You Hurt My Feelings!
Everyone experiences their own trauma, but how we manage the painful emotions that come when they rise to the surface is within our control. Accepting responsibility is less about taking blame and more about taking action to move through painful feelings so healing can start to take place. With an ownership approach to emotions, even when other people “trigger” our pain, we can at least assume full responsibility over the internal factors that produce that feeling. Apologize for a mistake and explain how you plan to prevent it next time. Seek to improve relationships after an interpersonal conflict. Understand your own role and agency in how you let negative emotions define your experiences and do everything in your power to move past them.
When you recognize what it is about an interaction that “triggers” your discomfort, you can control whether and how it happens again. I’ve been trying to get pregnant for going on two years now, so far unsuccessfully. I’ve even experienced an early miscarriage which left my husband and I excited for a period of three days after the initial positive test — before becoming devastated for much longer. During this time period, I’ve dealt with my own feelings of sadness, frustration, and helplessness, and these feelings have not always been improved by the people around me. Whether it was an insensitive Instagram reel or extended family member, there have been things said and done that have made an already upsetting situation still worse. Particularly thoughtless comments made me feel bogged down in it all. It didn’t feel like a situation I could fight back against. But that only made me feel worse. So, I paused and thought — what could I do to take even some small measure of control? I made a list: chiropractic, vitamins, diet, exercise, hormone tests, counseling, and even acupuncture and Chinese herbs. Spotting the source of the insensitivity coupled with doing everything I could to solve the problem for myself helped me reclaim my status of causative agent instead of helpless victim.
Life Is Unfair!
Life can be hard, but as hard as it is, we have two choices: feel powerless to stop external forces outside of our control, or take responsibility for what we can control and do our best at it. As Mark Twain put it, “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” Stuck in a mindset where we believe situations are out of our hands, it can feel easier to stay angry with everyone and lose a sense of our own control, but feeling upset, angry, or frustrated usually does little to change or improve anything. When we blame external factors for our life’s problems, they become impossible for us to confront and handle.
Unexpected health issues, inclement weather, accidents, and other misfortune – sometimes situations are genuinely out of our hands, but we can still take steps to mitigate the damage of the unexpected. Instead of rushing to a reaction in the heat of an unfair moment, which can often come with heightened emotions, pause and find a way to switch your viewpoint to asking: “What can I possibly do to change this situation?” It takes work and awareness to create the habit, and – not gonna lie – it can be very hard to confront and commit to following through on our best effort, but doing our best leaves us more empowered. Even when life gets hard, we can stay out of the mire of helplessness by assuming control wherever we can.
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But It’s Not My Fault!
Instead of finding fault when things go wrong, take responsibility and ownership to get yourself through those challenging situations. If someone brings up a sensitive subject, the first thing in my power to do is pause and reflect before reacting with emotion. Then, I can speak up if needed — explain how the behavior or words elicit challenging feelings. It can be a hard pill to swallow, but when I look back at the most upsetting things said to me regarding trying to conceive, I never clearly stated, “Hey, please don’t say things like that to me, you know we’ve been trying for a long time and it’s upsetting.” Instead, I pretended everything was all right, when it wasn’t. And that’s on me! But now I can learn from it — by saying something from the outset, I not only do something about it, but if that other person’s behavior continues unchanged, I don’t have to like it, but I can at least recognize it as part of who they are and laugh about it (or roll my eyes) instead of letting it get me down.
In the workplace, a culture of accountability reveals mistakes and solves them faster. It also helps us become better at our jobs in the long run. After several back-to-back client cancellations threw everyone off track, my boss turned to me and made it clear that we had to stop this from happening again. Apathy overwhelmed me, and I suddenly felt like I was failing utterly. My attention was stuck on that heavy feeling for days until I identified the real problem: I had never asked for more guidance as my responsibilities had changed and evolved. Instead of staying silently upset, I requested a performance review to find out what I was doing well at and where I needed to improve. What exactly was needed and wanted from my new role and how could I provide that? By proactively owning my uncertainties and initiating a dialogue around them, I immediately got the guidance I needed, refocused my efforts, and felt more in control.
We always say “people can change, but it has to come from them,” so it should make sense to embrace that same logic for ourselves: we are the only ones who can change how we view a situation. When problems feel totally external, the world becomes a hurricane, but by recognizing the ways we can do more, we feel better. And here’s the thing — we can always do something. We just have to figure out what that something is. Instead of yielding to triggered emotions, push yourself to find the solutions and feel the sheer exhilaration of taking back control.