Whether at work or elsewhere, we all have emotional triggers of one kind or another. This is the story of “Marge”, a woman I know who can’t stand her boss. In fact, bosses of any kind drive her buggy.
She’s been working for over 30 years and feels she knows her job as well as anyone. Every time her boss tells her to do something, she feels her temper rise up and wants to bite someone — preferably her boss.
You talkin’ to me?!
Each day, anything her boss says to her that conveys even the slightest reminder that she actually has to listen to this person, makes her blood boil. Oh those emotional triggers!
And so, even though Marge likes the work she does, she is miserable in her job. And she is also very angry a lot of the time. Which, despite a job she otherwise enjoys, ruins her work life and becomes a topic of complaints the rest of the day.
And yet she does have the power to make herself happier … just by making a few changes in how she handles the situation. And how she reacts to emotional triggers.
Change comes from within you
Now I don’t expect any of you to change who you really are. At the core, “Marge” is a good person who loves being helpful to her clients.
Unfortunately, she also has deep-seated resentment of anyone in a position to tell her what to do. She always has. And her emotional triggers have gotten her into trouble many times. (Probably related to early family roots, but that’s another story.)
The sad part is that she can do something to help herself since she is so self-aware of her triggers and how she reacts to them. But she thinks the answer, after all these years of doing the same thing, is for her boss to change HIS behavior and never again tell her what to do or even hint at being her boss. (I believe one definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results!)
Suffering is not “handling” things
In an ideal world, a good boss is a leader who makes you feel supported and part of a team. Although employees know who’s in charge, reminding them of the “I am the boss” hierarchy all the time is not a great way to handle things.
In reality, Marge’s boss may or may not be a good boss. But Marge’s way of handling things — feeding her emotional triggers all the time and seething in righteous victimhood (while waiting for that ideal world as she sees it) — isn’t going to work either. Not for anyone.
In addition, she rejects any suggestions from co-workers, friends, or even her husband about trying to change HER attitude/actions. Makes sense. Anyone offering her advice translates into her brain as “telling me what to do” and to her, that is forbidden. A frustrating Catch 22 since I’m sure at some level she wishes she could be happier.
What could she do instead? Well, she’s already learned one of the most important steps — becoming aware of her emotional triggers. Once you’re aware, you can choose to change the way you react. But in this case, Marge would have to actually acknowledge her emotional triggers when they happen … and then commit herself to changing the way she reacts to them.
Better way to handle emotional triggers
Let’s assume she’s tired of the same-old same-old and wants to try something new. Here are some steps to help her get past these types of emotional triggers:
- First, decide you really want to make some changes.
- Remember also that you chose the role you’re in, no matter what the reason. You accepted a job reporting to someone. That’s part of the agreement. Ask yourself how likely it is that your boss will change to suit you.
- Recognize you can make a difference, even if you’re the only one who knows it. (Trust me, if you really manage this, others will get it too – even the people you work with. A person’s sour attitude rubs off on everyone.)
- Become aware of triggers and how you react to them.
- Accept that this trigger is YOUR thing and not your boss’s problem.* (Although you may be making it his problem.)
- Commit to changing your attitude. You are the only one who can do this. Although you can’t change another person’s words, YOU are now in charge of how you handle what’s being said!
- Practice changing your attitude by seeing each use of a trigger word or action as an opportunity for you to change. See how quickly you can catch yourself in your own disproportional reactions.
- When you notice your temper rising, just tell yourself “Stop!” Then breathe in and out, gently and slowly a few times.
- Now it’s time for the “trick”. Tell yourself the words/actions are not a meaningful attack or in any way harmful. They are just words. Remind yourself you are attaching huge meaning to these mere words, and it’s not helping you feel good about your job or your boss. But simply changing your reactions will help you start to feel a whole lot better!
So what if your boss is telling you to do something? He’s your boss after all. And maybe – just maybe – if you brought your attitude down a notch or two and gave your boss some respect, your boss might cut you more slack. (I don’t care how much more you know than they do — the only thing you’re proving is you know how to keep yourself unhappy by trying to “win”. Let it go already! You’re not winning. You’re not even playing the right game.)
- Congratulate yourself when you’ve managed to get past these long-held triggers (even some of the time) and realize you feel ok about it. You might even learn to smile at your own propensity to create added drama – and at your new ability to break old habits that aren’t working for you. It’s just a conditioned response at this point. But even after all these years, you can break the old habit and change how you handle things!
- Continue practicing as long as needed until it becomes easier and easier. Some get this right away, others takes weeks or months. How long it takes doesn’t matter. But if you don’t give up, you’ll get there. Actually, just being aware and telling yourself to stop is the beginning of huge change in your brain’s neural networks.
- One day, you’ll hear words that used to drive you crazy and finally recognize them as nothing more than words — something someone with all your experience and talent need not be concerned with ever again. And you’ll even wonder why you wasted so much time letting an old memory-trigger control you. (Now who’s in charge!)
Let go of the old, welcome the new
At this point, you’ll finally be able to let go of an old behavior that never did you any real good anyway. It only helped make you miserable for no worthwhile reason. Honestly, what do you get from being angry all the time? It’s an old habit that you can decide to kick to the curb.
Just imagine. Marge actually likes her work. The only thing that bothers her – and it eats at her day after day – is that her boss insists on reminding her that he’s the boss. Which he is. And odds are he isn’t doing it all that much. These are Marge’s emotional triggers after all.
But even if he is — let’s even say he does it to bug Marge because of her attitude toward him. The way to take her power back is by not by letting her emotional triggers take hold, but by instead letting the moment go.
And if Marge eases up, her boss might just do so too! But even if he doesn’t, when she finally lets those emotional triggers go, she’s back in charge – of her emotions and her life.
*Important note: Marge’s case is pretty clear. She’s been adding to her own misery. But if you truly believe you’re being singled out by your boss or treated in a way that is totally unacceptable, you need to do something about it — starting with a discussion with your boss and/or any other people in the organization who might be able to help you.
And if it’s really something you can’t take, for whatever reason, well … it just may be time for a change. But that’s a whole other set of topics.
And by the way … even if you do meet with your boss and get some positive feedback on your concerns, be prepared to compromise anyway. Unless his (or her) actions are egregious, your boss can’t be expected to change his entire way of being just to please you. Although it would be nice. 🙂
~ Ronnie Ann
[NOTE: Post updated in 2020]
About the author…
Ronnie Ann, founder of Work To the Wise and Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development, as well as her many adventures as a serial job seeker.
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