IRRATIONAL REACTIONS!!!!!! How to Protect Your Career From Blasts from the Past


We all have emotional buttons – those areas of sensitivity that, when touched, set our teeth on edge, make us bite our tongue before we say something that we can’t take back, force us to count to 5 or 10 or 75…whatever it takes to make sure our response is measured and reasonable.

I’m not talking about those. What I’m talking about here are triggers – ignition points that, if we ASDPs, aren’t in total control of them, could derail our careers. What’s the difference?  Buttons keep us in the here and now. But triggers…well, it’s like they’re one of those circus cannons, and we’re the human cannonball. The trigger ignition sends us soaring high over the present moment and straight into our damaged past, often without even being aware of it. If we don’t know how to manage them, they put us at risk of damaging our present and our future at work.

One of my triggers has been being yelled at. Yes, I know, no one likes to be yelled at. But in my case, I was the daughter of an unpredictable, angry father. Before I got on top of this trigger, whenever I was yelled at as an adult, I would go right back there to my defenseless childhood. It was like I was falling down a dark well, getting smaller and smaller as I went, completely powerless. It was like emotional obliteration. There was suddenly a pit in my stomach; my heart started beating fast (getting me all pumped up and ready to run – the classic fight or flight reaction). And I immediately locked into stress, anxiety, and worry, which froze up my ability to offer creative solutions to whatever the problem might have been. Not an effective stress response for an executive in the C-Suite, or for any person at work for that matter.

The other day I asked my coauthor, Martha Finney, whose mother was an alcoholic, what one of her triggers might be. She said, “That moment when I hand in a finished project and my client immediately asks me what the status is of an unfinished project. It makes my elbows get hot. In my family, the only source of selfhood was pride in accomplishment. So, whenever a boss or client takes my finished work and then asks me about work still in progress, it makes me feel like I’m back to nothing again, never ever making it above the zero line. Now, intellectually, I know that it’s reasonable for someone to inquire about work in progress. But because of the meaning I’ve attached to the question, they have no idea how deeply it demoralizes me.”

Karen, another ASDP, says that she hates to hear the sound of her own name. The reason: Her mother was so neglectful and abusive that the only time Karen heard her name as a child was when her mother was loudly scolding her and telling her she was bad.

“Growing up, the only time I would hear my name was when the main person in my life was yelling it at me in a hateful way,” she says. “Today, I tense up even when I hear my name called at Starbucks. I know it’s irrational. My best hope is that no one can see the fear in my eyes.”

Triggers…well, it’s like they’re one of those circus cannons, and we’re the human cannonball. The trigger ignition sends us soaring high over the present moment and straight into our damaged past, often without even being aware of it. If we don’t know how to manage them, they put us at risk of damaging our present and our future at work.

I know my reaction to being yelled at was irrational. Martha knows that clients have every reasonable right to respectfully ask the status of pending work. Karen knows that the sound of her name is just that – the sound of her name. Happy, healthy people who love her enjoy saying “Karen.” In a work setting, who doesn’t hear their name now and then? Get asked the status of a project? Or even hear raised voices on rare occasion?

A Vast Array of Triggers at Our Fingertips

For all the power that triggers hold over us, to our coworkers, it’s just Tuesday. While for us, we’re time-traveling back to, say, 1978. Likewise, consider the triggers you might be inadvertently firing off in your coworkers:

  • Feeling out of control when someone else makes decisions that affect you without your input
  • Feeling disrespected or undervalued
  • Being interrupted
  • Being misunderstood
  • Being left out of an important meeting or valuable social event among colleagues
  • Being caught up in someone else’s political agenda
  • Being told to back off an initiative that’s personally and professionally important to you
  • Having your ideas overlooked – or worse, credited to someone else

“Well, yeah,” you might be thinking. “No one would like those feelings. And they happen all the time to all of us.” Granted. But for some of us, our reaction is so over the top that we act out in such a way that we might as well throw a lit match on our career right then and there. You’ve probably witnessed a trigger in action and were left wondering, “What on earth just happened here?”

It’s the meaning that ASDPs uniquely attach to those experiences – often subconsciously – that make them triggers. But we can take steps to defang those meanings so we can get on with our workdays without losing our equanimity.

It’s the meaning that ASDPs uniquely attach to those experiences – often subconsciously – that make them triggers. But we can take steps to defang those meanings so we can get on with our workdays without losing our equanimity.

Be the Master of Your Triggers

You don’t have to have these triggered responses to ordinary events and annoyances that everyone has to deal with. There are things you can do to be the boss of those bossy emotional reactions.

Susan David, PhD, author of Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, tells us, “Emotions are just data points, not directives.”

  •  Resolve to not believe everything you think and feel. Recognize that a triggered reaction is just your past reality colliding with your present one. The result is a combination that has very little to do with what’s happening at the moment. And your colleagues are likely innocent bystanders.
  •  Know what your triggers are. List them. They might be one of the triggers I listed above. Or they might be something as seemingly benign as the sound of a coworker chewing ice. Or the smell of fishsticks in the breakroom microwave. Don’t judge the relative legitimacy of your triggers. Just write them down.
  •  Identify the meaning you attach to each trigger that fires up your emotional reaction. Does the trigger violate your sense of fairness? Make you feel obliterated? Worthless? Powerless? Does the trigger somehow validate your belief that everyone (by which I mean, everyone) is fundamentally selfish, irresponsible, untrustworthy, unsafe? Does it make you want to run? Cry? Quit? Fire someone?
  •  Recognize that your triggers are just artifacts left over from the time when you needed survival mechanisms to cope with circumstances far beyond your childhood ability to control.
  •  Select the ones that are still relevant to your present-day effectiveness. And gently dismiss the others, sincerely thanking them for the role they played in helping you become an adult.
  •  Of the triggers that remain, consider how you react to them and whether there might be healthier responses that will keep you and your career out of danger.

Calmly consider whether the trigger is your responsibility or the responsibility of the person who is making you react emotionally. In my growth and healing journey, for instance, a big breakthrough happened when I learned how to calmly assess whether the other person’s outburst was truly about me or really something more to do with the person doing the yelling. “Whose property is this?” is the question I learned to ask myself, thanks to Melody Beattie’s book, The Language of Letting Go and Carlos M at Onsite. With that clarity, I’m much better equipped to appropriately serve the person’s needs in my role as CHRO and stay detached from other peoples’ issues.

Question your own beliefs attached to the meaning that is associated with the trigger. For instance, are you really going to lose your job because your boss is yelling? Is the fact that you weren’t invited to attend that golf outing really indicative of your peers’ lack of respect for you? When your direct report blew off that important assignment, does that really mean that your request was unreasonable to the extreme? See my most recent blog: are you sure?

Make a plan to physically clear your triggered state of mind. Go for a walk. Get those endorphins pumping. Take a break to give yourself a gentle talking to in the restroom mirror. Even a few sips of fresh, cold water can disrupt the trigger.

Learn to apologize and accept apologies. We’re human, and we all lose our cool at times. That’s the way it is. A sincere apology – either given or received – can wipe the slate clean and save your career.

Understanding Others’ Triggers Will Help You Effectively Work With Them

It’s first essential to acknowledge that only we are responsible for our feelings, reactions, and triggers. No one else.  However, when we have the extremely valuable opportunity to understand what might be our colleagues’ triggers, we can use that insight to boost our effectiveness with them.

For instance, remember how Martha’s elbows get hot when she is asked the status of work in progress? Well, the flipside of that trigger is how much she values praise and acknowledgement. I make a point of sincerely expressing to her how much I appreciate our partnership in developing our Healing at Work material together. She has shared with me that appreciation helps her stay focused, motivated, respected and inspired.

Likewise, Martha knows to ratchet back her energy when expressing to me her passionate opinions.  She learned this way to communicate from her, let’s just say, emphatic family of origin. For her, it’s normal. For me, it can feel like yelling at times. And she knows that the force behind her enthusiasm – even when it’s with my best interests in mind – can be counterproductive.

We don’t change our behaviors to manipulate each other into doing things we wouldn’t otherwise do. We have each others’ best interests and our passion for Healing at Work always in the foreground. We just know how to use our knowledge of each other’s sensitivities as a tool to get the best from each other. In a way that feels really good.

Healthy growth and successful collaboration in an atmosphere of mutual respect, trust, and self-esteem. Isn’t that ultimately what healing at work is all about?

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© 2019 Susan J. Schmitt


Bio: Susan J. Schmitt Winchester is the Senior Vice President, Chief HR Officer for Applied Materials, in Santa Clara, CA. This article was written based on the principles from her forthcoming book, Healing at Work: The Adult Survivor’s Guide to Using Career Conflicts to Overcome Your Past and Build the Future You Deserve (with Martha I. Finney). Contact Susan here.

2 thoughts on “IRRATIONAL REACTIONS!!!!!! How to Protect Your Career From Blasts from the Past”

  1. This is wonderful. Thank you for all this insight. My trigger are what I call “controllers”. Someone who has to know and/or be in charge of every detail of what I am doing and they are not my manager, put in charge of me by my manager or have not asked me first if I need or want help. I have learned to go for a short walk and close my eyes and breath for a moment when this happens. Like your blog says, I am sure this is happening with the best of intensions in mind, it’s me learning how to not let it be a trigger anymore.

    • Dear Jessie,
      Thank you for your comment. I appreciate your kind words very much. I love your insight about your “controller” trigger. I personally think that the more we recognize our “hooks” (another word for triggers), we begin our healing process. Rather than going into our immediate response of fight, flight or freeze, we can begin to respond in healthier ways. And recognize that we own our triggers. When we become aware in this process, we can see that it is up to us to better manage those triggers Often others have no idea they have even hit a trigger, let alone that we are upset.

      I love that you go for a short walk to handle the moment. This is a beautiful way to show how we can actually begin healing at work.

      What triggers do you see in your coworkers? Do you ever try to diffuse their triggers? Check out the new blog post on “bumper car moments”
      I bet you can spot these everyday.
      Warm regards,


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