Emotions are the jam in the scones of our life. Slathered in-between the bread of thought and circumstance, our emotions are the sticky deliciousness that holds everything together. Granted, they may not be held together all that well and you may very well get a tad messy during the eating or living, but at no point do emotions disappear or become anything less than the powerful bond that keeps us moving in life.
Unfortunately for emotions, they seem to have a rather poor PR budget. Slandered as being unhelpful in such statements as “I was too emotional” or “my emotions got away from me,” the emotional system of our life is often sought after to be diminished, controlled or done away with completely. The notion of “cold rationality” is unhelpful as it in no way pertains to the reality of how our brains work, but the fact that such a phrase is associated with clearer thinking should point to how emotions are often considered: burning fires waiting to singe the unwary.
Our emotional system is the immediate first light shining upon that which we care about. A common way of considering this is to use the word “triggered.” While the term has taken on a great many meanings in this time of identity politics and a hyper-awareness of social power dynamics, the idea of a switch being flipped by circumstance is fairly accurate. Our emotional system has to be fast, near instantaneous, because it provides the direction for our thoughts. Emotions declare with the subtlety of breaking waves upon a beach and the blaring of trumpets that we care about something, that what we are faced with has important meaning to us.
Notice here, emotions do not have an appraisal structure beyond “hey, look here! This is important!” Emotions and therefore the response called “trigger” is not something to judge in itself, they exist on a spectrum as wide as people’s capacity to associate meaning to events and things. If you care about something then you will be triggered because that is what emotions do, they react, instantly and constantly.
What provides the meaning, the structure shaping the contours for emotion to flesh out, is the worldview of the person. Unfortunately in the attempt at attacking “triggers,” we are conflating worldviews and their associated thoughts and collected meanings from a lifetime of experience, with the initial emotional reaction. The result is a dismissal not merely of the emotional response, as if emotions are unhelpful pieces of our lives that should find their proper place, but also of the depth and breadth of meaning that indicates why the event or object or person was important.
We will only stop being triggered when we cease to care about anything, a situation I hope never to see happen. We will only stop providing a structure of meaning for emotion when we cease feeling connected to the world around us, a result all too many are feeling pressured to achieve as their meaning is lumped together with their initial response and thrown out together. Reminding ourselves that there are two separate responses going on, an emotional trigger and the cognitive structure providing meaning, can help reclaim emotions as an important part of our lives and point us to a place where dialogue can develop.
David Teachout is a counselor and coach in the pacific northwest, working with a diverse clientele who are building lives of integrated healthy relationships. Read more about relational living at http://lifeweavings.org