We’ve all been there. Something goes wrong, or someone triggers us, and in the moment it feels good to let out your frustration. But then, instead of getting results, the situation escalates. People push back or shut down. You may get feedback that you are not a team player or that you have an abusive leadership style. You may get shut out of further conversations or find that your peers don’t want to work with you. Ultimately, you realize that the long-term damage to your reputation significantly outweighs the temporary relief you gained from your reaction.
Even when you don’t react with frustration, others will pick up on your energy in your moments of high stress. You may quietly withdraw when you are upset and hope that nobody notices. But it feels like sulking to those around you. You may keep your voice level and calm, but others still accuse you of yelling because of your strained tone.
It’s nearly impossible to control the world around you and not experience triggering events. So, when you are triggered, what can you do to stop your reaction from causing too much damage? Here are five techniques that work well with practice:
1. Take A Break. If you have the ability to get outside near some type of nature and take several deep breaths, you’ll feel your body start calming down immediately. You may not think you can take a break in the middle of a meeting, but it might be possible to ask for a moment, and depending on who you are meeting with, you may even be able to point to the increasing tension in the group or your own stress as a reason for the pause. “This conversation is starting to get intense, and I’d like a few minutes to process – could we take a five-minute break?” Or “I know what you are saying is important, but I’m finding myself reacting, and I’d like to take a break to get myself grounded and then come back and listen better.”
2. Challenge Your Story. When we get triggered, it’s not the situation itself that causes our reaction, but our inner story about the situation. If Ellen interrupting me in the meeting means she doesn’t respect me, I’ll get triggered. If Ellen interrupting me in the meeting means she can’t contain herself when she gets excited, I won’t get triggered. As you feel yourself reacting, ask yourself “What is the story I’m making up about this?” The story might be true, but it’s most likely not the only possible interpretation of the situation, and just the act of opening yourself up to the possibility that your immediate conclusion might be wrong can calm you down.
3. Detach Yourself from the Outcome. When we begin to react, it’s usually because we suddenly see a potentially negative outcome that we don’t want to face and that we can’t completely control. Instead of intensely working to prevent that outcome, you can completely switch gears and remind yourself that you’ll be fine even in the worst case. For example, suppose that you are doing a presentation, and the technology breaks. You suddenly face the possibility of not having slides or media available to you! This can lead you quickly into a frantic, embarrassed effort to try to fix things… OR you can remind yourself that you know the material so well that you can engage your audience without visual aids.
4. Apologize with Confidence. Apologizing with confidence is about claiming the right to be a flawed human and owning your flaw in the moment so it isn’t misinterpreted as an attack. If you start to react to something and your tone gets sharp or impatient, normally people will feel attacked. But if, in that same moment, you can say, “Okay, I hear my tone, and I’m obviously struggling with stress today, but this is not about you – let me take a breath and start over”, you immediately mitigate the potential for others taking your stress personally.
5. Take Back Your Power. All reactions, at a deep level, are about self-protection. That means if you are feeling a reaction, then you are feeling threatened, and if you are feeling threatened, you are highly likely to have lost some of your power. Reactions happen so quickly that we rarely have time to slow things down and analyze our thought patterns, but you don’t need to know the specifics to remind yourself of your strengths. How have you effectively managed situations like this in the past? Everyone is different. I have a client who takes his power back by reminding himself of all the ways he’s successfully stood up for himself and weathered tough situations in the past. I tend to rely on my ideas and creativity by reminding myself that no matter how bad anything gets, I always come up with a new idea. If you are especially good at relationships or have a customer service background, you might remind yourself how good you are at strengthening relationships, and how whatever challenge you are experiencing in the moment could actually bring you closer.
All these techniques work better if you consciously put effort into improving your mental fitness. In the short term, you can use willpower to control your reactions and talk yourself through triggering situations. Practicing mental fitness has you improving your overall level of calm and confidence on an ongoing basis, and you’ll find yourself feeling less triggered over time. The less triggered you are, the less energy it takes to catch and control your reactions. It’s a win-win!
If you’d like to dive deeper, we run several mental fitness bootcamps throughout the year. Don’t hesitate to reach out to learn more!