“Someone said something that really pushed my buttons. I was too upset to use my listening skills or respond in a positive way. What can I do to deal with my own feelings when I’m triggered?” This topic comes up often in my Authentic Communication workshops. Here’s a response based on tools that I have used in my own life and in coaching others.
If you are getting triggered you probably have a need that isn’t getting met. One way to get in touch with that need is to practice self-empathy, based on principles of Nonviolent Communication (NVC). Take some time alone, or with a trusted colleague or friend, to listen to your inner self. This will help prepare you to re-engage with the person who pushed your buttons. Self-empathy involves being willing to:
1. Believe and act as if your own needs are important. Many of us are conditioned to put our own needs last. When we work in caring professions, or supervise others, our work often demands that we put our needs on the back burner. But human beings aren’t machines. Attending to our own needs is important because we all matter. Attending to our needs also sustains our ability to do our best work. If you are someone who usually puts your own needs last, consider that your needs matter and make a commitment to getting them met.
For many of us, honoring our feelings is a big step – a step that requires going against what we’ve been taught and what others expect of us.
2. Honor your feelings without labeling them “good” or “bad.” Feelings are valuable messengers. When we have a strong emotional reaction, our body is giving us information. Most of us grow up learning to downplay and suppress feelings. At work, feelings other than those considered positive, are often seen as unprofessional. Gender also influences which feelings we feel free to express. For example, it’s not considered manly to be scared and women aren’t supposed to be angry. When we resist or suppress our feelings, they tend to fester and grow into something bigger. This can lead to more resentment, burnout, lack of trust, and even physical and mental health problems. For many of us, honoring our feelings is a big step – a step that requires going against what we’ve been taught and what others expect of us.
3. Own your feelings. When I get triggered by something someone says, my kneejerk reaction is to blame that person for how upset I am. In doing so, I not only deepen the rift between the two of us, I also rob myself of an opportunity to learn and grow. As tempting as it can be to play the blame game, it’s not helpful to get caught up in right/wrong thinking. Self-empathy allows me to look inward, to understand my own triggers and explore my own needs. This is much more powerful than believing that someone else has the power to control my moods.
Practicing Self-Empathy: Four Steps
To practice self-empathy, find some time alone or with a trusted colleague. I recommend about 20-30 minutes to start. As you get more skilled in using these tools, it will take less time. If you don’t think can make time, consider whether you can rearrange your priorities. Taking this time can ground you and give you perspective to make you more effective and productive in your work.
1. Allow yourself to have feelings, rather than pushing them away. Breathe and experience the feelings without judging or trying to fix them. This can help loosen the grip they have on you. Remember, what you resist, persists.
2. Identify your feelings. What is it that you are feeling? It may take some time for you to name your feelings, if you have been taught to suppress them. The following major feeling families are a good place to look:
sad – mad – scared – peaceful – powerful – joyful
3. Identify the needs behind the feelings. What is the universal human need that is calling for attention? For example, feelings of fear usually point to a need for safety or security. Here are a few universal human needs that often come up in my work with people.
Acknowledgement – Community or Connection – Understanding – Respect – Contribution – Competency – Being Seen or Heard
For a more comprehensive list of universal human needs, see the Center for Nonviolent Communication Needs Inventory. As you identify your needs, validate them and recognize that these needs matter. Think about how you will express these needs to others.
4. Identify ways to get your needs met. What can you do to meet your own needs? For example, if you have a need for respect, what would meet that need? What can you request from the person that pushed your buttons? What can you request from others? Remember, there is more than one way to meet a need. List out a few actions you will take and venture forth.
For more communication approaches and skills, see other posts on Authentic Communication.