man in a deep thought representing How Difficult Emotions Lead to Growth

How Difficult Emotions Lead to Growth

Feeling “Triggered?” Lean In…

Emotional triggers open the door to growth: 2020 has really given us a run for our money, and if nothing else, has led many of us to take a good hard look at our lifestyles, relationships, and our country as a whole. 

From the COVID-19 pandemic to the focus on socio-political issues such as systemic racism and police brutality, we are all confronted daily with images and content that may make uncomfortable feelings arise. Many of us are feeling upset, and feeling emotionally triggered. You are then presented with a choice: to sit with and examine those feelings, or to avoid them and turn away. 

As a therapist and friend, I’d like to challenge you not to turn away. Embrace feeling triggered. Use it to facilitate your personal growth.

Emotions Reveal Your Beliefs and Values

When we have big feelings about something, it provides a clue as to the underlying values and core beliefs that just got challenged.

Why is it important to understand and sit with our feelings? Because feelings are the top layer of our belief system. When we have big feelings about something, it provides a clue as to the underlying values and core beliefs that just got challenged. By understanding where this emotional response is coming from, you get clarity about the values, belief systems, and attitudes you hold. 

This can happen in many aspects of life, often in your relationships or interactions with others. But lately, you may also have been confronted with new ideas or information (or even more conversations) related to equality, systemic racism, and social justice. As you think critically about socio-political issues, you may notice anger, pain, or even defensiveness arising within you or others around you — especially if you are feeling personally attacked, or that your core beliefs about the world are being attacked. 

All of these feelings can be hard to sit with, but it is extremely important to be able to explore and entertain a wide range of ideas. If you’re feeling attacked, offended, or triggered, it’s an opportunity to ask yourself, “why am I feeling this way?” It also gives you an opportunity to try to understand the perspective of the person or situation that feels triggering to you. This doesn’t mean you agree with them but is a valuable skill to master if you want your thoughts, values, and behaviors to align.

The Road to Alignment of Beliefs, Values, and Feelings

The first step in using your emotional triggers as a growth opportunity is figuring out what you are reluctant to consider or even entertain as an idea in your mind, and why it feels so painful for you. Taking a moment to examine our emotions around specific issues doesn’t mean you have to or should change them, it is about getting to the root of what you believe and what is important to you. 

You may find that you have deeply held beliefs about why things are the way they are and that those may not be compatible with the new information you’re being confronted with. For example, if you believe that the arc of people’s lives are determined exclusively by “how hard they work,” or whether they “make good choices” it may feel very threatening to be confronted with the realities of systemic racism, implicit racial bias, and white privilege. Any information about how difficult it can be for people of color to get ahead — regardless of their work ethic or lifestyle choices — can elicit feelings of anger and defensiveness, and voila, you’re feeling triggered.

It is exactly this uncomfortable feeling that we all need to pay attention to. 

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How to Use Your Feelings to Clarify Your Values

If you notice yourself feeling triggered, here are some skills that can help you begin to better understand your values and beliefs that are triggering your big emotions. 

  • Allow yourself to momentarily suspend judgment, and be curious about where this feeling is coming from. Is it tied to a value? Or a core belief? 
  • Curiosity is key here, as this will diffuse defensiveness and create a safe emotional space to explore why you hold certain beliefs and judgments. 
  • If you uncover a core belief, it’s worth thinking about where it came from. Who’s belief is this? Yours? Your families? Who taught you to believe this?
  • You might think about other aspects of this belief: Is it always true? Sometimes true? Do other people believe something different? If so, why? What changes if you look at the same situation through this different perspective? Stay curious, and open.
  • Remember that defensiveness is a response to a perceived threat, either physical or emotional. If you feel yourself starting to get defensive, it simply means that you’re feeling attacked, or persecuted, or threatened. We can use this as an invitation to explore ideas further and deepen your understanding of your emotional response to it.

These skills are also useful when having conversations with other people, as well as ourselves. 

Identifying Uncomfortable Feelings: Now What?

Explicitly identifying your values and what you hold as important to you will be critical in knowing what to do with those thoughts and emotions. There are multiple ways to do this, you can make a list and rank values based on how important they are to you or you can use a more structured activity using value sort cards. I like to use a value card sorting activity in my work with clients, and when you do this think about what each value means to you, and if it is important, not important, or very important to you. 

From there, do your values and your thoughts/beliefs/attitudes match up? For example, if you believe kindness is important when you engage with someone who holds different beliefs than you, do you treat them with kindness? To take it a step further, if you believe in helping others – are there times you turn a blind eye to injustice? This is where alignment in your values, thoughts, and actions is important.

You first need to be able to recognize where you have gaps in self-knowledge, and this is a clue of where personal growth is needed. If you don’t know where to start, implicit biases tests can help identify where your biases lie (and I say where on purpose, as all humans have biases). You can also purposefully and intentionally engage with various media sources or invite loved ones to share their views with you. This is also a great way to strengthen and deepen your interpersonal relationships!

[Personal growth] is not a destination we arrive at, but rather a journey where we challenge ourselves with love, kindness, and respect.

This kind of inner exploration and challenge isn’t easy work, but it is worthwhile to tolerate the discomfort as it allows you to feel more confident in your values and sense of self. If your values, thoughts, and actions do not align you may begin to feel the effects of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is when someone has inconsistent or contradictory beliefs, attitudes, or thoughts, especially as it relates to behavior. Cognitive dissonance may present as feeling uncomfortable, avoiding conflict, a “do as I say, not as I do” attitude, feeling irritable, or experiencing guilt or shame but not knowing why. 

One thing I really want to emphasize is that examining our emotions and beliefs is something everyone does or needs to do. This is just part of being human and living in an ever-changing world. Please be kind, patient, and compassionate with yourself as you do this work. It is not helpful to beat yourself up if there is some dissonance present, and the good news is these things are within your control and have the potential to change. It is okay to grow and change, even if that means changing your opinion or standpoint. It is okay to make changes and begin to cut out people, ideologies, and activities that do not support your new growth. 

If your thoughts, values, and actions do align, that doesn’t mean you’re done! Everyone is continually growing, changing, and learning. We are all lifelong students, and personal growth is not linear. It is not a destination we arrive at, but rather a journey where we challenge ourselves with love, kindness, and respect.

Wishing you the best, 


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