Sometimes I think I could have been a decent actress because I can cry on demand. All I need to do is conjure up a memory about my dad and the tears start to roll. Those memories are emotional triggers for me. 

During a recent divorce mediation, I used the word “appreciation” and, as it turned out, that word triggered an emotional response from my client. The thing is, most of the time we don’t actually know the emotional triggers of our friends and family, which begs the question: do we know our own emotional triggers?

According to Psychology Today, an emotional trigger can be any topic that makes us feel uncomfortable. Wow, that really narrows it down, doesn’t it? I can think of at least a dozen topics that make me feel uncomfortable, depending upon who’s doing the talking. The actual emotion triggered in my thought process is just as varied. To be clear, emotions aren’t always negative and they’re not always sad. My brother can say the word “the” and it instantly triggers my giggles.

I volunteer as an adult facilitator at Adam’s Place, a grief center for children who have lost a parent or a sibling. Without exaggeration, something I say triggers tears every single time I meet with the adults. The first time or two they apologize for crying, and then they understand that expressing their emotions in front of others who can empathize is healthy and cleansing. Someone simply hands over the box of tissues and the conversation continues.

In order to understand your own emotional triggers, try asking yourself these three questions:

Who tends to pull the trigger on you?  Maybe it’s your mother-in-law’s snide comments, or maybe it’s your pessimistic co-worker.

What words and tone trigger your emotional response? Maybe it’s when your sister asks how much you paid for your new running shoes, and you immediately feel her judgment.

Why are you reacting? Maybe it has more to do with an underlying issue that’s hard for you to recognize.

And while you’re doing all this asking and answering, please keep in mind that your sister’s intentions are most likely innocent. She probably doesn’t have a clue that she’s triggering some sort of raw emotion by asking about the price of your shoes.  Also, it might be a good time to acknowledge and validate the reality of your own pain by either talking out loud to yourself, or by venting to someone within your support system.

Please don’t rule out the direct communication approach. Tell your mother-in-law that your own insecurities are triggered by her innocent comments. In the future, she’ll probably think twice before she criticizes you in the form of a helpful suggestion. If not, remind her again.  Tell your sister that you appreciate her concern about your finances, and now that you have a good-paying job, you can afford a splurge once in a while.  

Words matter. Use them to educate others about your emotional triggers.