What To Do When You're Emotionally Triggered

Do you ever experience situations where you suddenly feel really bad in response to something happening around you, and have a compelling urge to withdraw or shut down? If so, you've probably been emotionally triggered.

I've been doing some acting training lately with a local theatre company which does shows based on Forum Theatre. This style of theatre is highly interactive: The actors perform a play in which things end badly for one or more of the characters; but then instead of leaving it there they go back and replay some of the scenes using suggestions from the audience as to what the characters could do differently that might change the final outcome. We even get members of the audience up on stage to role play their suggestions while the other actors remain in character to see how the ideas from the audience play out in practice.

The role I was being trained for was to act as the Joker: a kind of cheeky M.C. whose role is to liaise between the actors and the audience, asking for suggestions from the audience and encouraging them to get up on stage to play those suggestions out. While the introduction to this part of the play was scripted, the audience interaction is all improvised based on the suggestions that the audience offer. Some suggestions will be worth running with while others may need to be modified or combined depending on everything from the values of the organisation presenting the show to the time constraints imposed by the venue.

That means I have to make quick judgement calls on-the-fly while attempting to keep the audience engaged in the discussion and maintain some kind of flow to the performance. Most of the audiences for the first run of the show I was involved with were school students, so keeping their attention was part of the challenge.

I had been trained for this role by a mentor, and had the support of the director and other actors in the play. We had even experimented with several possible scenarios during rehearsals, and I had been briefed on what sort of suggestions would be in line with the company's collective values and which certainly wouldn't be candidates for replaying with, such as any suggested intervention advocating violence.

So I wasn't unprepared for what I had to do on stage, but the very nature of what we were trying to do meant that it would be inherently unpredictable; and that tends to make me both excited and anxious.

Our first show went off without a hitch: we had some great suggestions from the audience for interventions to replay with, the actors played back hard so that the scenes played out realistically and we all had fun and learned something in the process. So I was quite looking forward to our second show...

Until I woke up the next day with a headache, discovered that my shower was broken and would need me to call a plumber, it was raining, I couldn't find an all-day parking space near the venue and I arrived late to rehearsal.

I walked straight into a meeting with the director and my mentor discussing what they would like to see improved about the jokering of the show. I entered the conversation feeling rather flustered and immediately heard what sounded to me like a stream of criticism about my performance the day before. They also said some encouraging words, but as is often the case what I heard mostly was the “suggestions for improvement” that the primitive child-like part of my brain still hears as criticism: that I'd done a bad job, in front of everyone.

I could feel the muscles in my head tense up, especially when I couldn't see any link between what the director wanted and what I was supposed to do. I also had a disagreement with my mentor about the best way to demonstrate that violence wasn't a good option: she was suggesting that we shouldn't do anything on stage that could lead to violence, which seemed overly sanitised to me. I suggested that if something led to violence I could stop the scene before there was any danger and it would be clearer to the audience that the intervention hadn't gone well.

Oddly enough we had rehearsed scenarios leading to violence so that I'd know how to handle them, and even primed the actors to become threatening in certain situations knowing that I'd be ready to step in and abort the scene at that point. I felt I was getting mixed messages from my mentor, and the more she explained her point of view to me, the more confused and anxious I became about what I was actually supposed to do.

By the end of this discussion when it was time to break for lunch, I was feeling overwhelmed with anxiety, my head was throbbing and I just wanted to get the hell out of there. The last thing I wanted to do was get up in front of an audience and do the show, not knowing how the interventions were going to pan out.

I knew I'd been emotionally triggered by the situation and when I thought about it, it was easy to see why: It's probably not just coincidence that both the director and my mentor were women.

Most of the early critics in my life were women. They started with my controlling mother, my older sisters and most of my primary school and sunday school teachers. All of them imposed their feminine point of view on me by way of criticism and punishment when I didn't do exactly what they wanted.

This treatment at the hands of critical women who saw masculine strength and self-determination as a threat was at the core of my wounding as a young boy learning how to be a man; and it was this early life wounding which was being triggered now deep down in my limbic system where I had no conscious control over it.

I just wanted to run away, the pain felt so unpleasant. No matter how hard I tried to rationalise that the feedback was well-intentioned and that these people cared about me, it had hit a raw nerve that hurt. Something bad.

I knew from what I had learned about healing emotional wounds that I had two choices:

  1. Suck it back down, run away and leave it to fester. In other words, keep on suffering.
  2. Express the emotion behind the pain so that I could heal it.

Fortunately for me, my mentor was quite empathic and we had a good relationship. I had already shared some quite personal things with her during my mentorship. One of the reasons she wanted to train me was because she was moving out of theatre work in order to become a counsellor, so it made sense that she would be receptive to hearing about what I was feeling. Although the pain was telling me to run away, I knew I had to face the raw emotions I felt when being criticised; especially by women.

So instead of making a B-line for the door like my head was telling me, I summoned up the courage to ask my mentor if we could have a quick heart-to-heart, which went something like this:

“I just want to tell you how I was feeling after our meeting this morning”

“Ok, sure”, she said.

“I felt overwhelmed with anxiety. All I could hear was that I had got it wrong and was doing a bad job. My head started to feel tense and my heart started racing. The longer we talked, the more confused and anxious I felt about what I'm supposed to do during the next performance.”

I even started to cry, releasing some of the sadness behind the pain of all the times in the past I felt I was being made wrong by other people when I was simply doing the best I could.

My mentor started to explain why they had asked me to change some of what I was doing, and I interrupted:

“I don't need more explanation; I just need to express how I'm feeling”

“Oh, Ok”, she said, “Well I'm glad you told me”.

We hugged, and I was back on track.

I can't say it felt good initially: in addition to the pain I was feeling, I also had a sense of shame about feeling this way. I knew that my reaction was an emotional triggering of old hurts from the past rather than a rational reaction to what was going on in the present. My old perfectionist streak would rather not reveal such buried vulnerabilities; yet I know that revealing them is the only effective way to heal them. Furthermore, revealing them in the moment to the person who has triggered them is better than dealing with it later with someone else.

After expressing my emotions though, I felt a whole lot better. The tense feeling in my head disappeared. I no longer felt like running away. I was keen to do the show again, and to face the inherent uncertainty that my role entailed along with the possibility that the judgement calls I make in front of an audience might be different from those that my mentor would make, or that the director might like me to make.

Not only that, but I also knew that future situations in which I'm facing criticism from women won't feel as painful and I'll be more able to act in accordance with my internal masculine values rather than being forced to tone everything down or adopt a feminine perspective for fear of criticism triggering my old core wound.

We live in a society where most of us have been trained to bottle our emotions up. This leaves us carrying a lifetime of emotional pain waiting to be triggered like land mines just outside our comfort zone. The price we pay for hanging onto this pain is our personal freedom.

When we do start to express the deep seated pain we've been carrying, often we'll trigger other people's pain in the process and they may not respond as empathetically as we would like. It's important to pick people to share with who will simply listen to how we're feeling without offering judgement or solutions. Sometimes we may need to remind them that the only solution required is to have our pain heard and acknowledged. They don't have to fix it, and we don't benefit when they try to help us by avoiding it.

Going to the pain in a safe environment is the way to heal it so we don't have to get triggered by it again in the future. The result is a true sense of freedom where you don't have to fake over or cover up these buried insecurities any more. This is the core of Part 2: Mastering Your Emotions in The Confident Man Program.

About Graham Stoney

I struggled for years with low self-esteem, anxiety and a lack of self-confidence before finding a solution that really worked. I created The Confident Man Program to help other men live the life of their dreams. I also offer 1-on-1 coaching via Skype so if you related to this article contact me about coaching.

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