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Angry Vs. Triggered: Who Wins? Whoever Cares

Last week I had the pleasure of talking with three powerful women about emotionally charged conversations they'd recently had with their partners. Each wanted to explore in therapy how they could have handled things differently/better.

(Side note: Aren't they amazing?! I SO appreciate each and every one of you who take the time and initiative to pause & reflect on your actions, communication and intentions, checking to see where things don't line up, and earnestly exploring how to do better next time! This is one of the keys to a kinder world, IMHO 💛).

With permission and without identifying details (names have been changed), here are their stories in short:

Cecelia's interaction began at the end of a full day, as she was just getting ready to relax. Already tired and verging on burnout, her partner, unaware, started to plan their coming weekend. After sharing a steady flow of possibilities and ideas he asked, "How does that sound?" She replied simply, "That's all fine with me," hoping he would read in her brevity and tone that she wasn't up for the conversation. He missed this, and speculated, "You seem mad."


As for Claudia, she got caught in the crossfire of a family debate about privilege and politics. She'd been feeling vulnerable, unprotected and unseen, but couldn't slow things down enough to acknowledge this even to herself. In effort to avoid confrontation she declared, "I don't care!" when asked for her opinion. Later, in the privacy of their own couple bubble, her partner raised the issue again. Sensing her emotional state this time, he said, "Ok, you're mad."


Lastly Celeste, under the pressure of an impending, important deadline, experienced a sense of urgency, anxiety and powerlessness. When she attempted to communicate her preferences and needs to her partner, he mistook her effort as micro-managing. As their communication broke down, the common goal got lost...

As I listened to their stories, it became quickly apparent from my peripheral perspective (it's always easier when not directly involved) that despite how she'd been coming off or interpreted, not one of my clients was particularly upset with her partner,

Empathetic to their situations (been there!), I helped identify, name and validate their emotional experiences. Then we began to explore their partner's perspectives too, and examine possibilities for clearer communication in the future, to everyone's potential advantage.

In the aftermath of our sessions and early inklings of this piece, I decided to enlist and explore the perspective of my own partner. Why not?


Over coffee one morning, I mentioned to him two new blog topics, this one and another: Start Slow in the Morning. He meh'd the latter, saying, "That's not even a remote reality for so many people." True! (Though I may still write it, because I think there's something valuable there).

The thing with us, as with so many solid relationships, is that we value each others' perspective not in spite of our differences, but because of them. How dull would it be if we always agreed?

Choosing to avoid a debate first thing in the morning (and rather embodying the vibe of Start Slow...), we moved on to Angry vs. Triggered instead, which interested us both.

"So, what's the difference?" he asked.

I began to elaborate, explaining how being triggered usually involves a complex range of sensations and emotions, from overwhelm to vulnerability to despair; and that while anger is sometimes a part of the experience, to reduce a triggered state to being"mad" can be, well, triggering! 😅

"I get that," he said, pausing. "But I'm not sure it matters so much what the person is feeling – what's more important is the words being used and how it's said."

Hmmmph!! I thought. But since I'd already pretty much processed my own feelings on the matter, I was able to stay receptive as he continued:

"Whether someone is angry or triggered or whatever, if they feel 'bad' and express themselves in a way that displaces that feeling onto someone else, they're not communicating effectively, and they're not going to get what they want."

Now this got my attention.


As it so happened, one of my clients had just shared a similar perspective that she and her partner had recently heard, about the importance examining our communications to see if we're helping a situation or transferring emotional burdens.

I don't know about you, but for me, when messages start overlapping from different sources, I start to listen a bit closer.

Here's what I sussed out:

It's not so significant whether the chicken (the feelings) come first, or the egg (the needs arising out of them). What's matters is coming full circle. –Not by needing our partners to perfectly understand our emotional realities (which are actually rather complex!), nor by joining them in their simpler, more intellectual ones – but by doing our best to be present with the cycle itself, and allowing it to complete.

Then, what becomes possible is a shared reality in which there is just enough mutual understanding to keep moving forward, together.

Let's recap:

When any one of us gets triggered, our capacity for reason and intellectualism goes out the window, try as we might to engage on that level.

It might be useful to front-load any potentially challenging conversations with a reminder to ourselves and our loved ones: "If I get upset (or triggered), it would be best for us to pause... until I get my bearings again."

Once we've re-regulated our nervous systems, perhaps through mindfulness practice, intentional movement, time in nature, or a talk with a trusted friend, we can approach the situation again.

When we can accurately identify and acknowledge our feelings, they settle in a way that allows us to be clearer with our needs, requests, and desires – to ourselves, and to those who care.

Ideally we can do this in the moment, with our partners and loved ones, as the feelings arise. But in reality, this is often not possible, at least not right away, and especially when there's been emotional trauma.

That's where therapy often comes in, providing the support we need to make the shift from reactive to reflective to proactive.

We can learn to translate our feelings into words, speak in more neutral tones, and communicate more directly, with less emotional charge. And by easing the burden on others to listen, we improve our chances of having our needs met, requests honored and desires fulfilled.

Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?

If you're already there, you're on your way. If you'd like to learn more, I'll be here.





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