How To Handle Folks Who "Trigger" You

We all have triggers. We all can overcome them too.

Life & Travel

The GIF that's the feature image for today? Aside from it being signature Moniece Slaughter and also pure comedy, I have another reason for going with it. It's tied into a fun fact for the day. Back in the day, my mother used to manage a group called Take 6. At the time, one of the members of the group had a stepdaughter that he was raising as his own. When I knew her, she was an itty bitty thing that used to sit in a car seat of her mom's ride. That little girl is all grown up now. Her name is Moniece Slaughter.

Because of the far-less-than-six-degrees-of-separation between us, the speed of time that has transpired and the pure quirkiness of Moniece, while I don't watch any of the Love & Hop Hip shows, you'd have to live under a rock to miss her name in the headlines, seemingly on a weekly basis. Yet no matter what you may think of her, I think you would find it… "helpful" is the word that I am going to go with, to check out the interview that she did with Hollywood Unlocked not too long ago (you can check out Part One here and Part Two here). Sometimes, all we see is someone's reaction to her triggers. But there are real gems in Moniece's interview about where her triggers originated from in the first place.

After watching her share her story, it got me to thinking about triggers, in general. How so much drama and mayhem could be avoided if we took the time to figure out what our own triggers are, where they derived from, and what we can do to take power over them. Because you know what? Just because someone triggers us, that doesn't mean we have to react to them. Self-awareness and inner peace (and perhaps watching the original The Karate Kid every once in a while) are great teachers of this very fact.

What Is a Trigger? How Do We Get Triggered?


Before getting into how to handle folks who trigger you, let's first look at what a trigger actually is and how one is able to affect us in the intense way that it can. From the reading and research that I've done on the topic, a trigger—when it comes to this article, what I'm basically referring to is an emotional trigger—is something that touches on an unresolved issue or an unhealed wound; one that oftentimes stems from our childhood. Maybe you grew up in a physically abusive environment. Maybe someone teased you about your skin tone, your body type, or your weight. Perhaps your family didn't have a lot of money. Maybe you witnessed something traumatizing. Maybe you were sexually abused. Perhaps you were abandoned by a parent. Because we come into this earth as such innocent and also resilient souls, no matter what we go through as children, a lot of us have an uncanny ability to forgive those who have harmed us. Because children are such miraculous vessels of unconditional love, as kids, we tend to be more interested in if our "victimizer" or "offender" is OK rather than if we are.

Here's the thing, though. As we get older and we grasp the magnitude of what happened to us, that can cause more complex emotions to settle in. I'll give you an example of what I mean. My parents have been divorced since I was three, but I would fly to see my father every summer. One time, while I was with him, my mother's mom died and so I had to stay longer. Here's what's crazy about that. There was a flight that I was supposed to be on that actually went down. I missed it because my mom had me stay longer. As a child, it didn't affect me all that much. Oh, but now that I've grown up and grasped how truly devastating a plane crash is, although I travel when I need to, folks who know me know that I am not the best traveler in the world. Due to my childhood, flying? It is a straight-up trigger.

Here's another one. I am a survivor of sexual abuse. There are layers to how that has infected and affected me over the years, but what I will say today is, when someone who is supposed to protect you is the one who uncovers you, it sends your self-esteem through all kinds of shifts and changes. Anyway, my molester (a male relative) used to call me "GC" (it stood for "great curves"—ugh) and would sing "Brick House" to me on a regular basis. During many of those same years, I was teased—by relatives and non-relatives alike—for having an overbite and full lips. As an adult, when guys would call me "sexy", sometimes my immediate response would be, "What?! So, I'm not pretty? You don't think I'm beautiful? All I am is 'sexy' to you?" Triggered. As far as the teeth and lips go, I remember one of my male friends—someone who I know loves me and affirms me, both in and out of his presence—once asked, "Did you ever think about getting braces when you were growing up?" He was asking because I was telling him that one of my front teeth irks me sometimes. But when he said that, I was pissed. I snapped at him and sat in silence for a while. His question triggered me. In my 20s, when someone merely commented on my lips, I received it as ridicule. Again, a trigger.

One more example. I have a friend who, while he is more like the middle child of his family, he's been treated like a patriarch for all of his life; even when he was a kid. His mother relied on him as if he were her husband; she still does. So, to this day, if you text him something more than once, he gets really agitated. When I finally asked him why, he said that it was because that's what his mother does; that it makes him feel nagged and pressured. It's a trigger.

If you look at a common thread in all of this, it's that once we know that something really gets to us, it's important to make the time to look into why. What exactly is our response or reaction tied to? What is it that's causing us to get angry, pop-off, become fearful, lash out, cry or even experience physical symptoms like heart palpitations, shaking, sweating, hot flashes or dizziness? Why are we "getting out of ourselves" in direct response to something someone just said or did—even if, in the grand scheme of things, really isn't that big of a deal? Or, at the very least, doesn't warrant all of the intensity that we're experiencing?

How to “Deactivate” Your Triggers


I think I should put on record that it's one thing to be triggered; it's another to be flat-out attacked. How to handle the latter is another article for another time. But if what I'm talking about today is resonating with you, I'd be shocked if you didn't connect that healing the source of your trigger is a very powerful and necessary step.

What I mean by that is think about what really is causing you to feel the way that you do. Do you need to forgive someone from your past? Do you need to have a hard conversation, not with your current trigger-er, but with the person who reminds you of them? Maybe some therapy is necessary so that someone can help you to unpack all of your thoughts. I am a firm believer that there is no point in continuing to try and prune a tree that actually needs to be pulled up from the roots. In other words, if you're constantly getting triggered, trying to deal with the trigger at the moment isn't going to "fix the problem" nearly as much as getting down to the foundation of where the trigger came from in the first place.

I can speak from personal experience when I say that, the more the "inner child" is loved on, the more that the root is dealt with, the less triggered you will be.

Case in point. I grew up in a church that, not only didn't support me in my sexual abuse but actually said I was lying about it (wow, right?). Later up the road, I dated a guy whose mom used to call me "the preachin' heathen". It's not the nicest thing to call someone, but because of my past wounds, it just felt like more discrediting. So when she would say that, I would seethe. For about 10 years now, I'm in a good place with my calling and with church, in general. I just saw ole' boy's mom not too long ago and she said something slick to me, in jest more than anything else. I greeted her and moved on. The wound is a scar and a faint one, at that. She is no longer able to trigger me. So yes, in order to deactivate a trigger, first get down to the source of it and heal that place.

How to Handle Those Who Trigger You


And what should you do about the people who are actually triggering you? The ones who usually aren't the source, but are still getting on your last nerve? There are layers to that question, but here are a few approaches to consider:

Don't ignore or dismiss how you're feeling. Remember, a part of the reason why a lot of us have triggers is because we don't feel like our emotions were validated at the point of our wound. So, whatever emotion is rising up in you, listen to it. Take a moment to figure out what it needs. If it's space, give it that. If it's setting a boundary with an individual, allow it the dignity to do that. If it's an affirmation from you, honor it with that.

Think before you respond. Here's the thing that I've learned about trigger-ers. A lot of times, they are so clueless that, if you do pop-off, they are only going to trigger you some more as an act of retaliation. That said, I can't recall one time when taking 5-10 seconds to deep breathe while saying absolutely nothing made matters worse or backfired on me. Even if you want to "checkmate" someone, is it worth it? Ask yourself that before you do.

Be honest with yourself about someone's motive. Some folks are malicious; they just are. But sometimes, someone triggers us, and they absolutely did not mean to. Following through with the second thing that I just mentioned gives you a moment to process where the trigger-er is coming from. If you know they are unaware or just teasing, address them from that space. If you sense that it is direct or even passive aggressive disrespect, it's time to do the next thing that I'm about to mention.

Explain the trigger. Make a firm request. You will spare yourself a lot of miscommunication with folks if 1) you stop expecting them to know what's going on in your head and 2) you don't look for them to respond to something (or someone) in the way that you would. I remember someone once coming up to me and telling me how I needed to handle my relationship with an abusive member in my family. Their bold ignorance and arrogance? A trigger. When I said, "Umm, are you aware of the trauma that I experienced? I think you should have the facts before you speak on something like that." The surprise on their face showed me that they had no clue. I proceeded to say that that is something that we didn't need to talk about again. It hasn't come up again.

Reward choosing to respond rather than react. No doubt about it—it takes a lot of maturity, introspection and self-control to learn how to respond vs. react. Even more to master the fine line of when even a response is necessary at all. As I've worked more and more on my own trigger-management, the main thing that I try to keep in the forefront of my mind is that reacting to a trigger takes a lot out of me. Do I want to expend a lot of energy? Do I want to feel "outside of myself"? Is reacting to this person going to change anything for the better? When all of those answers are "no", I typically choose instead to calm down, state a boundary if needed and then reward myself for handling my own being with caution and care.

Triggers suck. All of us have them. But no matter how long you've been getting triggered, know that you have the power to no longer let them have power over you. Heal the wound. Process the trigger. Respond if necessary. Set a boundary. Move on.

And just like that, the trigger is deactivated. Well, looka there.

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ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
Sign up

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