Facing Triggers from Your Past

SOMETIMES THE ABUSE OF YESTERDAY WANTS TO VISIT TODAY | It’s been years since Mocha Girl ended the relationship that was so hurtful for her. She’s married to a good man now and they’re happy. So what’s with the triggers?

In her own words:

“I had a seven year relationship that wasn’t romantic but was not healthy. I didn’t date him because he wasn’t Christian. But we did things couples do from grocery shopping to taking trips together. He was negative and didn’t believe in me. He said he loved me but his actions didn’t show it, I bent over backwards to make our friendship work for a few years. I finally started drawing boundaries and he lashed out,” says Mocha Girl. “I’ve been married 16 years now to a very different man who is kind and loving and encouraging. We are partners. But I still think about Paul and sometimes get defensive with Bruce. Bruce reminds me he’s not that guy. How do I let go of that and accept Bruce’s love and not get defensive and react to negativity from Paul?”

The answer is there, believe it or not, threaded between the lines of her story.

If MG couldn’t see that Bruce isn’t Paul, that he is kind, loving, and encouraging when Paul was not, her relationship with him wouldn’t have lasted at all, let alone almost two decades. All this time she’s been letting Bruce love her. Acceptance doesn’t have to be bigger or more profound than that.

But the triggers still exist because she’s human. She cannot change her past, or the people who shaped it, and so just like a certain song on the radio may bring a soaring nostalgia from yesteryear, moments with an uncomfortable familiarity will bring negative feelings. The human condition is raw, layered, and complicated. We aren’t perfect creatures. Mocha Girl isn’t doing anything wrong.

I also want to point out that it’s not wrong for MG to have less-than-rosy feelings about Paul. He was abusive. She deserved better, and is by no means obligated to change her memories or correct the way he made her feel.

On the other hand, MG is doing something right, and it’s recognizing that she’s reacting to the same old triggers. That’s big, and illustrates progress already made.

True, she wants to let the residue of Paul go, and that’s harder. But it’s possible. It takes practice and patience. Every abuse survivor CAN get to the bottom of a trigger, dig it up, and throw it out.



You start by catching yourself IN THE MOMENT of an emotional reaction. Upon every situational trigger—with your new partner, your boss, a coworker or friend, at the store, after a phone call with customer service—you ask yourself the following questions, and proceed accordingly.

*What do I feel? Name the emotion. (anger, defensiveness, smallness, etc.)
*What was my trigger? Identify it. (he was condescending, no one listened to me, she dismissed me, etc.)
*Why does this bother me so much? (because it’s what my abuser did, because I’m not wrong, etc.)
*Is this a rational or irrational response? Consider if what you feel is truly weighted in this new moment, or borrows from past (even distant) triggers.

Often just finding your awareness in these questions will give you power over your reaction, so that you can deescalate your anxiety, defensiveness, or negativity and move on after barely a blip.

If not, take the next step by determining if there’s something tangible you need to do to work toward repairing this moment that has triggered you.

Schedule a therapy session.
Call your best friend to vent.
Submit a complaint to management.
Confront your coworker about the mishap.
Leave your abuser’s last explosive text or email unanswered and choose silence. Or even delete the message!
Recognize that you overreacted and apologize.

You can train yourself—again, with practice and patience—to take control of your reactions.

Does this mean you’ll never be triggered again? Nope. Remember, we’re human. This is less about eliminating triggers and more about recognizing them for what they are then letting them go. It’s about understanding that we can learn how to address and heal from the history of trauma, and begin to experience our emotions in a healthier way.

Does this mean you’ll handle every trigger perfectly? Also no. Life factors, stressors, that have nothing to do with the abuse we endured can be stacked against us so that we don’t react as well as we want to every given moment. You don’t have to get it right all the time.

Mocha Girl doesn’t have to get it right all the time. Bruce loves her. He knows her triggers, probably as well as she does. And he sticks around, continuing to prove that he is not Paul, because she is worth it.

You’re worth it, too.

To submit your question for analysis and possible publication, email janna@womandetermined.com.

Image Credit to Min An from Pexels.

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