TRIGGERED! How To Reverse-Engineer Your Reactivity

In the business world, triggers are what companies like Facebook and Instagram exploit in us to tailor content toward our interests and habits to keep us using their platforms. Triggers can also code for something negative, such as when someone or something pisses you off. 

Personally, a MASSIVE trigger for me is traffic and drivers who I identify as dumb. Anger to 1000 in half a second flat. Triggers are called triggers because they cause something to happen. Think about the trigger of a gun. It causes a major reaction. But the trigger is just a trigger. It is not positive or negative itself. Even though the trigger is the first step of causing the gun to shoot a bullet, the trigger itself can't be labeled as positive or negative even if the bullet does something we would deem negative. We assign the emotional meaning to the trigger event. We say whether it is good or bad. When Facebook or Instagram exploit mental triggers to get us to continue using their platform, whether or not it is a bad thing is subjective. 

I bring this up because last week I mentioned the dreaded experience of seeing family over the holidays and the difficulty therein about communication. Family triggers all of us in one way or another. So many kinds of strong reactions engrained in us since we started developing consciousness just simmer under the surface as a holiday draws nearer, ready to lash back at any comment.

"Hey, can you pass me the stuffing?"


It happens at work as well. I am guilty of not liking a certain coworker and so I let rage boil up in me when he / she literally says anything. Whether at home or at work, the problem is that our interpretation of the triggering event dramatically affects the relationship downstream between the two parties as well as your relationship with yourself. When I get angry at traffic, it feels natural to blame every driver around me. It is not their fault, though. In fact, I am equally to blame because I joined all of them in driving that main road at that moment during rush hour. But I still feel anger. Then the interpretation of every other driver's idiocy cements itself into a mindset I adopt whenever I get into the car, which puts me on edge and may potentially make me feel a lingering tension when I get to my destination. If the destination is a social event, that tension may then affect my countenance and sociability with other people and thus relationships are damaged.

Think about someone or something that really stokes that rage fire in you. Coworker? Ex love interest? Starbucks barista? What do they do that you would call the trigger? Keep in mind, their behavior isn't positive or negative. We label it as such. So, why does that super specific trigger cause such a reaction in you? Do other things elicit that same level of reaction?

Our reactions to triggers can be very different. For instance, the anger I feel well up in traffic is very different than the frustration I have felt when my siblings have pushed my buttons in the past. I do not think my siblings are dumb and should consider retaking a driving test like I do for the people I encounter in traffic, but things they have said or done in the past have triggered me to react with anger. Except for some occasions, the truth that is frustrating for many to accept is the fact that those who trigger you are not - at least most of the time - doing so on purpose. Maybe the way someone talks makes them really happy but sounds like nails on a chalkboard to you. That person unfortunately cannot be blamed for your reaction. It is how they talk. 

What to do about this hard truth is even harder. It is a form of radical acceptance. It is okay to feel angry and be triggered, but it is not okay to let it ruin the rest of your day or extensively affect your life going forward. That is completely on you. In my example, I do not want my current and potential social connections to be negatively impacted just because another driver did not use their turn signal, so I have to work backwards. Like in the design world, it is a matter of starting with the end in mind. 

If I want my relationships to be spared the flares of my previous anger, I must somehow check that anger in the car and leave it there. To do that, I must reword the story that my anger narrates.

That way, "Every driver in the entire world is an absolute waste of space" changes to "Wow, there is a lot of traffic right now. I bet I am not the only one stressed out."

Now that the story has changed about the situation, I understand that I am not actually angry that a ton of other people chose to go out driving right when I did, but instead that I get angry when something stops me from getting somewhere. My anger is no longer generalized to blame all others, but instead it is connected to something very personal about me.

See what I did there? It is a simple process of reverse engineering. By starting with my preferred outcome in mind, I was able to bring awareness to what was actually pissing me off in the moment and thus created a new choice when I get angry at traffic in the future. I still get angry at traffic, but I am much better able now to remind myself why and leave it at that. Radical acceptance. 

I help clients with this quite often, actually, especially in their daily work life and in networking situations. Reactivity is RAMPANT. It becomes so patterned and rigid that it is very difficult to break. It becomes a reflex. Think about it for yourself. If you are going to see family for the holidays, I bet you can probably predict how you might react to each member regardless of what they say or do. Write that down. Start the process. I am not telling you to ever change the emotion because the emotion is not a bad thing. How you behave in response to the emotion can be. So as you think about your holiday triggers, ask yourself: "what is the outcome that I want?" and go from there. 


Andddddd suddenly it is December again. Even though Christmas music has been playing and Starbucks has been using the red cups for over a month, now is when we buckle down and freak out about gift-giving, snow tires, and, of course, even more time with the family.

I love my family and I am lucky to have a family that communicates through an endless group text message, but every family has their own version of pervasive challenges that never quite go away. Especially around the holidays, personalities clash, arguments happen, the house is suddenly THAT MUCH smaller as "grown up, mature" kids try to prove how grown up and mature they are. 

For the majority of families whom I have served in the mental health field, holiday time together is an impassible terrain of anger, sadness, and trauma. In every case, all of the tension is caused by the absence of a single tool: respectful communication. It is very difficult for a child to have a parent or sibling yell at them and relentlessly blame them for something they did not do and for that child to simply shrug it off with a "well, something is going on with them and they are projecting all over me. I wonder what is wrong."

When you are getting berated for no reason, it is human and normal to feel sad, angry, resentful, and defensive because you are being attacked and your self worth is threatened. I am one of the billions of people who have been bullied before, and I still get bullied to this day. Think about bullying, though. It is so sad that a bully is so insecure about him or herself in some way that they have to exert negative control over peers who they deem to be weaker in order to feel less powerless and more worthwhile in the world. What if that bully instead approached some of the "weaker" kids, asked to sit down at their lunch table, and be friends with them, and over time be able to talk about their anger and stressors to friends who would show him or her compassion?  Why does the bully not do that?

Because it is DIFFICULT.

It is difficult to express your feelings. It is difficult to trust others with your vulnerability. It is difficult to be authentic. It is difficult to take a deep breath and remind yourself that it is not your fault. 

Why do you think we had a section in high school health class when we were formally taught how to use "I" statements to express our feelings and have a respectful conversation? Because it is difficult to say "I felt hurt when you said ____  to me." It takes a lot of self-awareness to know how specifically your feelings are hurt, and even more self-assuredness to verbally express them.

And therein lies the big issue.

Not many children or adults know how to put words to their feelings and calmly discuss them. A lot of people know what they are feeling but, because they do not know how to verbalize it, they resolve to believe the only way to express them is through action or argument, leading to fights and resentment.  You cannot change others but you are always able to make change in yourself.

Last week I wrote about gratitude for the connections we make, and respectful communication is the fire that forges those connections into healthy relationships. You see, how you carry yourself day to day and communicate with those around you comprises the story you tell the world. We will never be done working on personal expression and respectful communication, myself included. But we cannot do it alone. I am proud of my own ability to openly express my thoughts and feelings and I had a lot of help along the way. Now I help people identify the stories that they are telling the world, how it is getting in the way of their goals or their relationships and, most importantly, what to do about it.

I have helped clients effectively present wedding toasts, strategize comfortable and authentic networking for their new startups, and hold a respectful conversation with HR about a boss that they absolutely hate.  Our presence is not enough to make a strong relationship. Healthy connections with others comes down to how you communicate. And let me be clear. We all need connections.

So now that we are riding fast toward the New Year, stop and think about the connections you have right now (family or otherwise) and ask:

  • How do I communicate with them?
  • What tone do I use or emotions do I feel during the interactions?
  • Can I feel that I want some kind of change?
  • Is something missing in the connections that I wish was there?
  • Can I put words to what it is?

That is where you start. 

STOP AND SMELL THE TRYPTOPHAN: Gratitude for Every Connection

I attended Thanksgiving a few years ago at my sister's husband's family's home in Colorado with their close family and friends. In that household, it is a tradition to cook unbelievably delicious food, let everyone fill up a plate, sit down and smell the miraculous tryptophan and all of its filling companions, and then carpet sweep the group by asking everyone to take turns sharing something for which they are thankful. A group of, like, twenty people. Cruel and unusual does not cut it. 

Yes this was a compliment of my in-laws' culinary magic wrapped up in a massive complaint for having to stare at it in front of me with hands seemingly tied behind me. That aside, when it was my turn, I brought the house down expressing gratitude simply for connections, because it was through my sister I met her husband and through her husband I met his family and was lucky to be invited to that Thanksgiving meal, where I met other nice people and reconnected with old friends whom I met years prior through my brother. After all, it was by another of my sister's connections that provided me the opportunity to get a job in Colorado in the first place. 

Everything is about connections. If we are unable to recognize what we are connected to, we will not be able to express gratitude for it. People may be grateful for a loved one, a house over their heads, or a strong WiFi signal, all because they recognize the value of its presence. They admit their connection to it. 

I was lucky enough to attend a college student leadership event last week that featured keynote speakers, panelists, and flash-talk presenters from many fields related to innovation, entrepreneurship, and professional development who, through their very different specific lenses, distilled professional success to one single factor: building relationships. Making connections. Authentic networking. Whether for seniors who are starting to make specific connections in the job world or for freshman learning how to play the long game of fostering relationships that will pay off in a number of years, making connections is gold. 

There is not an effective alternative. Business, school, social relationships, everything is about connection. We are yet another community-based species in whose DNA it is imprinted to band together, find a tribe, and protect one another in that tribe against the harshness of the world. Sure, the whole survival-of-the-fittest competitive element of our DNA seeps through the cracks (Thanks, Darwin), but our need for connection is strong and everything and everyone around us continually feeds that impulse. 

I was relieved to learn in my own entrepreneurial journey that the best kind of marketing for my sort of business is networking because I enjoy networking and having conversations with people. I help clients with authentic storytelling and personal branding, and my work is a direct reflection of the importance of my own authenticity. I love what I do and the story I tell about my work and my business is authentic because I am uncomfortable with trying to present some kind of thin sales pitch just to lure someone toward my company. There are so many people who do not know that they need assistance like I provide, and that is FINE. It would never be my place to convince them in that moment that they do. That is why my own slice of our evolutionary connection habit is so strong. The authentic relationship is mutually beneficial. I learn something from everyone's stories, whether they become clients or not, and so I will never not benefit from the connections I am so lucky to form. 

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I will always be grateful for being taught the value of connection, how to honor it in my work, and how to continue seeking it in a healthy and humble way. I hope that you all may take a second this weekend to think of the connections you have made and are currently making and how beautifully they contribute to the dynamic Thanksgiving dinner of life. 

INNOCENT LITTLE DATA POINT: A new definition of Story in your daily life.

In a class I recently taught on storytelling and personal branding, I asked the group "What is a story?" I only heard crickets at first as everybody totally overthought the question. I did not want to assuage their anxiety so I let the silence continue. Eventually three answers were called out:

"Something that happens to a character."

"Has a beginning, middle, and end."

"A glimpse into somebody's life."

All of those are correct. But the definition could be distilled even further. I intentionally oversimplify the definition of a story to "a data point". That is all it is. Plain and simple. A data point. Sit with that for a second. Does it make sense to you? Does it confuse you? Or does its simplicity anger you?

It should not. Here is why.

The three answers that the students shared were correct because a story is in fact an event that occurs with which someone interacts, it has a sequential structure to it, and the way in which someone reacts to the event says something about who they are. But these events can be huge (like a bomb going off) or teeny tiny, like me turning my head to look out the window a second ago. Interestingly, a lot of people I have taught and spoken to confuse story and narrative. I have found that they often think of story as a large grandiose recount of a period of time but, even though stories do involve an amount of time passing, they are not necessarily large.

What adds magnitude to them, however, is how events affect our lives. Very small things can dramatically affect people. A smile from a stranger on the street, hitting all green lights on the way home from work, catching that perfect sunrise at that perfect moment.

Now think even smaller than that. Me typing this post, me moving my fingers, my thoughts changing from one sentence to the next, what other thoughts come to mind and distract me. Even the act of telling you what a story is is a story. It gets super layered from there but every little thing that occurs, every way we look, every tiny action we make, is a story that contributes to our day and subsequently how we feel about that day and then how that day affects tomorrow, and so on and so on. This is why I call them data points. These miniscule-all-the-way-up-to-enormous events in a given day are bits of information that collect and impact a future.

Think about a classic scatter plot you learned how to make in grade school math class. You plot little dots on the graph and see what sort of trend it makes overall. This is a perfect example:

Each dot = a story

Ultimate trend and overall layout of the data = the narrative

On its own, a data point does not inform anything. It is simply a piece of innocent information. An event that occurs. It contributes to a narrative, though, because we react to it and apply our own meaning to the event based on emotional biases. That is how an event lingers with us longer than the event itself lasts. That is why someone's death affects one person so much more deeply than someone else (sorry for going dark). I alluded to this last week about how meaning that we assign to actions and events make them live on endlessly in the future. Our subjective assignment of meaning is just that, subjective. We have debates and arguments about events and stories that we experience, but our arguments are only ours. We each experience events in our own very unique ways only because we attach our own unique meanings to them. But without the meaning we attach, an event is just an event. 

Just a data point. 

Think about this for yourself. Think about every little teeny tiny thing that has happened for you and to you today and to which you have reacted. Really think about it. If you are doing it correctly, you ought to feel overwhelmed pretty quickly by how many things actually occur in a given day. 

Here is an example. A few minutes ago, I watched a gentleman on the sidewalk get out of a cab with six different pieces of luggage. One normal sized suitcase, a carry on rolling suitcase, a tiny rolling suitcase, and three messenger bag-like briefcases. The briefcases he piled on the large suitcase, looping their handles on the suitcase handle. Then he proceeded to stack the tiny suitcase on the small suitcase and methodically try to match up the handles so that one finger could hold the tiny suitcase in place while the majority of his hand could guide the small suitcase. The whole event lasted thirty seconds and was rather humorous at first (clown-car status) but two things made it less like a circus act and more of a seriously impressive endeavor: the man was impeccably dressed in suit, tie, and trench coat and the man's face conveyed nothing more than straight determination. No distress, no visible embarrassment.

Okay, scene set. Now story time. In that thirty seconds:

  • I stopped typing because I saw that this was no ordinary taxi exit,
  • I observed his dress and mannerisms,
  • I reacted with laughter first and then intrigue,
  • my eyes narrowed watching his hands dance around the suitcase handles,
  • I felt self-conscious that I was staring for too long,
  • I realized he could so easily look up and see me at the window eavesdropping on his adventure,
  • I consciously decided to keep watching,
  • I picked at a fingernail in anxiety for the man's struggle,
  • I felt surprise by his stalwart focus and composure,
  • I felt joy when he figured it out and started moving,
  • and I was left with immense curiosity for where he was heading...and why he owned so many small pieces of luggage...

See? A lot of stuff happened in a tiny amount of time. I have no idea where that man is but I am still curious about his journey and where he was going with so many bags. I want to know his story. And that event was significant enough for me to spontaneously decide to include it in this post, which took more time, which may have eliminated the possibility to do something else with that time, and the ripple effect continues from there for my day and week. 

It was just an innocent event that has now affected my day. And every bit of that story and my interaction with that event is its own story as well. Its own data point. Just like my students said, the Event of the Gentleman and the Suitcases had a beginning, middle, and end, it is something that happened to a character, and, most importantly, it presented the tiniest glimpse into his life. At the same time, my interaction with that event had a beginning, middle, and end, it happened to me - I experienced it - and it gives a little glimpse into my life by how I react to random moments.

SOME THINGS CHANGE, BUT MANY THINGS EVOLVE: the concept of Stable Evolution in Narrative.

I am currently home in Vermont for a couple of days visiting family, and my mom made a dentist's appointment for me. She made it last week before it was even confirmed that I was coming home. I am not sure if it is the evolutionary predisposition of a mother to care for the health of their child that it is still raging in my mother or if sending me to the punishment of having sharp metal objects scraped across my teeth like a dagger across a chalkboard is somehow sadistically enjoyable for her. 

It does not really matter which, but it suffices to say that she has not changed. And that is awesome. Some things really do not change in life. Childhood bullies still might be jerks, siblings will fight no matter how much "maturing" they have accomplished, and my mother will always stay on me about going to the dentist. If you recall from an earlier post that calling the dentist to make an appointment was a huge learning experience for me when I was younger, this time around is a good example of my mother's personal narrative. 

See, narrative evolves. There is no beginning, middle, or end to narrative. It simply evolves and reiterates infinitely. Even when someone dies, their legacy maintains characteristics of their narrative. Any long dead historical figure currently lives on well past the individual stories of their life because of how their stories are told now. 

Despite how one's narrative evolves, though, one does not fundamentally change. Yes, of course you can get plastic surgery or transition your gender, or suffer traumatic brain injury that alters your personality, but you as a human specimen have not changed. You are the same person that takes up space on this planet, but you have evolved into another version of yourself. 

Stick with me.

This is the concept of Stable Evolution that I teach clients and students about in the world of narrative. You remain the same person but you evolve over time. I share so much with the little child Taylor in the photographs here in my childhood house, but so much has happened to me in the years since then that has transformed the sense of who I am. My mother's care about my dental hygiene has not changed for my entire life while she has experienced so many things that have caused her to evolve. The things we experience are events and the events are stories that affect us, one way or another, because we are at the very least aware of them if not intimately involved in them. These stories affect us and contribute to our narratives, which is the neverending evolution of each of our lives. 

I reunited with my college soccer teammates last summer. It was fascinating to hear how each and every one of us had such a different career path and different set of goals for ourselves. Some guys were married, some were talking about buying houses, others about moving across the country for work, most about still playing soccer somehow. We were the same people I knew in college (myself included), the same personalities, but we had all evolved. We had all remained exactly who we were/are while remaining open to the events we experienced since college that have transformed our day-to-day activities and goals. 

"Stable" has a heavy connotation to it because so many in western culture associate it with mental health and use it as an idealized goal to become stable or maintain stability. The problem is that there is no such thing as true stability for a human being. Sorry. It is not possible. The countless things we look at, react to, feel, say, move toward, and think about make it impossible to sit down and say "Yep, all settled." People even think that meditation is the way to shut everything up in your head and turn everything off. Nope, not true. Instead, meditation presents the space to be accepting and aware of all the thoughts and chaos. To let them happen, not to suppress them, and be okay with them. This is why our existence remains stable but our identity is never defined. It continually evolves. The only stability we can achieve is the consistent openness to this evolution. Even ignoring some kind of thought or emotion is still an action that will inform future responses and thus evolve how you personally handle certain situations.

At first listen, a lot of people have trouble understanding this idea of Stable Evolution because the words are contraries. I like to tell them it is characterized by consistency. If you are open to accepting the fact that you are constantly evolving, then your sense of self will remain consistent. One is dependent on the other in that the stability of your sense of self depends on your openness to personal evolution. 

Before I spin you down the rabbit hole any further, here is an activity:

Pick an age in childhood. Imagine what you were like at that age, what you looked like, and what you remember your personality traits to be. Write down everything that comes to mind. Does your current recall of yourself at that time seem very different than who you are now? If so, why? What personality traits are similar or different now?

Now think about all the events of your life that have occurred since that age. Okay, not ALL of them, but run through the timeline in your mind. Imagine how those events have affected you. What did they change about you, if anything? Hopefully, if you are human, you learned something from every event (whether consciously or subconsciously) that has made you evolve but who you are as a person has not actually ever been "changed".

Some things do not change, but a great many things evolve. My mother made dentist appointments for me when I was little until I learned how to do it not because she enjoyed calling them but because she cares about my wellbeing. Even with the multitude of events and situations from which she has evolved since my childhood, she still made an appointment for me to see the dentist today. 

ALL WE HAVE ARE STORIES: how our life paths have a lot to do with the stories we tell

I first connected with a friend in California who travels to new parts of the world apparently every week (FOMO much?) when I stumbled upon her beautiful Instagram account a couple years ago. Above her contact info, the only words were "We are just visitors, all we have are stories" - words that I totally fell in love with and about which I had to cold-message her.

Every day when I am not immersed in a client session or in restful solitude at home, I am constantly thinking about the overwhelming chaos of human movement. Strangers walking, driving, bussing, stuffing themselves into trains, they all have their own reason for being right there in that exact moment. People driving in traffic are distracted by their unique thoughts and emotions at that time when they nearly hit the car in front of them at a light or they are frustrated enough by their own unique triggers that they express themselves by honking at a pedestrian. 

You know what I see? I see stories. I see thousands of storybooks walking, driving, passing by every day. It overwhelms me because I am equally entranced by my ability to help people tell their stories and daunted by the sheer number of stories out there. So I take a deep breath and remember the quote: All we have are stories, and that is okay.  

It is so true. That is all it is. We are filled with stories and experiences and events and images that have affected the evolution of our personalities. That is great that we acknowledge what makes us unique, but then we have to share those stories in order to learn what to do with it. We build communities through stories, we make friends through them, find love through them. We start religions and businesses because of stories. 

In college, I took a 99% worthless anthropology class that consisted of three months of my professor bragging about her own research, but the 1% value I pulled from the semester was learning for the first time about Ethnography, which is defined as the scientific discipline that "describes the customs of individual peoples and cultures."  A powerfully broad concept I pulled from this section of the class was the way that ethnography studies how history is simply a process of storytelling. In the beginning of civilization in the middle east, tribal elders would gather round a campfire and tell their life stories and the stories of their tribe to the youth in order for the youth to know the significance of their own lives. Even the point of school is to catch us up on what has already happened or that others have learned. 

Stories are all that we have to offer one another. Explaining something at work, telling your spouse about your day, teaching your child how to wipe for the first time are all stories based on stories we have heard and expressed in ways that we have learned to express them. 

This is also true of stories we tell ourselves. You say you rock at cooking, you hate your job, you love your family first above all else, but what do these stories say about your personality? Why are these stories that you tell yourself? And how do they affect your daily life?

If we are only made up of stories, then we are extremely sensitive to them. Emotions underly the stories we tell ourselves. As soon as the stories become verbalized, they are then made real-er and presented to the world for feedback. The way that others react to those stories then close the feedback loop and affect the way we feel about ourselves in the world, new emotions are created, and the cycle starts again. 

Pick a story for yourself that you notice keeps replaying in your head and in conversations. For a lot of people, it is that they hate their job. Whatever that story is that you come up with, how do people react to it? If you keep telling the story and do nothing about it, what does that mean about your life right now? How can you adjust the wording of that story? Or do you not want to change the story?

Every story that comprises us has served a purpose and precedes the many more stories that have come and are still to come. Perhaps you are content with the stories you are telling, good or bad, but all I am saying is think not what your stories can do for you but instead what you can do for them.