What To Do When ‘Triggered’ At Work

“Sweet are the uses of adversity which like the toad ugly and venomous wears yet a precious jewel in his head.”

As You Like It, William Shakespeare

If you never feel upset at work—whether you show it or not—then you are either living in a utopia or bored out of your gourd.

I doubt either is true.

You care about your work, so obstacles arise to thwart you. This is always the case. And often those obstacles are other humans.

Two Choices

Having gotten yourself all bent out of shape about something (I know, no one would know it, you hide it that well) you have a couple of broad categories of action to consider.

  1. You could proceed as you usually—you do you, or
  2. You could pioneer something new for yourself

Just being your typical self is the easiest; after all, you’re good at that, having had lots of practice.

Doing something different is trickier.

Sure, we all fancy ourselves as creative and responsive so this option can look attractive, however, in practice, this path is going to feel a little (or a lot) like swimming upstream.

So what will it take for us not to be on autopilot when next we’re triggered at work?

Four skills help us make lemonade of any upset we are feeling, bringing us closer to our goal. That goal is to have a more solid sense of ourselves, confident in who we are and what we’re up to.

In this post, we are going to get there by leveraging the work of David Schnarch.

The Four Points of Balance*

We all have times when we depend on others for our sense of identity, self-worth, and security. That’s not us at our healthiest, but then we’re humans, not superheroes.

That dependent sense of ourselves is called our ‘reflected Self.’ It’s ourselves as we see reflected in the minds of others. It is the first Self we develop as children.

Later, we develop an internal sense of self that is more enduring and is our own creation. It’s true regardless of others, as no amount of praise and adulation will give us a truly solid sense of ourselves. Our adulthood is based in this later Self having been cultivated.

Now, typically, when we are upset we are not coming from that adult Self. We’ve regressed.

Our dependence on a reflected sense of self sets us up not to be able to handle being seen as anything less than perfect. If we are as others see us, then they had better see us as Good, otherwise, we’re going to feel miserable.

Schnarch points out: “When your flaws emerge, your picture of yourself cracks, and you crash emotionally. If you depend on a reflected sense of self, blaming someone else makes you feel better. (p. 47)” For a while.

Reestablishing ourselves as sovereign—re-centered in our own experience, our own knowing—develops from confronting ourselves, not others. Challenging ourselves to do what’s right earns us our own self-respect.

This process develops from within and has four aspects.

1. Ever Clearer

“Tell yourself who you would be. Then do what you need to do.”


First, you are able to remind yourself of what your current agenda is, what you want or need, and the kind of person you want to be while pursuing what you seek. This piece is critical when others exert pressure on you to adapt or conform.

We all know this. Being a leaf in the wind makes us susceptible to being influenced by the opinions of others. Having something to prove (meaning we’re not convinced ourselves) makes us similarly vulnerable.

When we really know ourselves, other peoples behavior towards us says more about them than it does about us. Even deliberate provocation will be experienced by us as tantamount to a case of mistaken identity.

In short, we need always to be in the process of getting clearer on who we are and what we’re about.

2. Soothe It

Next, you must work on getting better at being able to calm yourself down, soothe your own hurts, and regulate your own anxieties

“In other words, there’s more to developing your self than staying clear about (or changing) who you are and staying true to your values and goals. You may be a sweet person with fine values and good intent. But if your anxieties drive you to avoid things or act impulsively, you’ll do things that violate your integrity, ideals, and goals, and diminish your self-worth (p. 70)”

In the face of our upsets, we need to be better and better at getting ahold of ourselves and calming ourselves down. If we insist on having others change first in order for us to feel better then we’re making ourselves a leaf to be blown around by the moods and agendas of others. There is no peace to be had in that.

“People who can’t control themselves control the people around them. When you rely on someone for a positive reflected sense of self, you invariably try to control them (p. 66)”

3. Composure

I’m 55 years old and I stumbled across this capacity only in the past few years. It was a leap when prior progress had been incremental. It came about as a result of my valuing it.

There is a whole category of stuff that we can nurture merely by valuing those qualities. In fact, there may be no other way.

This approach works because at least part of the quality already exists. It’s innate. Composure is one of them, which is why I call it a Virtue.

So, the transmission is this: you already have the capacity to stay calm and not overact when someone you’re with is anxious, on edge, or just plain crazy. Detach, take a step back.

You can be grounded when those around you are losing it. You can do it.

You need not overact, create distance, avoid, obsess or argue. You needn’t if you choose not to.

There is a space between what others do and your actual response to them, and that space gets bigger the more we focus on it. We can cultivate it.

4. Going The Distance

Lastly, endurance.

We all absolutely need to continue to develop the ability to step up and straightforwardly face the issues, dynamics, and interactions that bedevil us at work.

The increasing capacity to tolerate discomfort for the sake of growth is crucial to the success of any endeavor, no less the one we find ourselves ensconced in right now. And our growth and the evolution of our relationships with others is an uncomfortable affair, it just is.

Yet as painful, as disquieting, as damned annoying as things can get at work, we compound that discomfort with a further laying of suffering by resisting what is.

Meaningful change takes time. Building team cohesion takes time. Training successors, training anyone—takes time.

You know that already, but I’ll bet you don’t apply that wisdom to every facet of your work equally. I don’t and it’s my undoing.

Whenever you hear yourself thinking, or saying, “but, I shouldn’t have to…”, an alarm can now go off. That aggravation is telling you: this is the place.

This is the place to tolerate your frustrations and put forth the sustained effort being required of you to achieve your goal of an increasingly solid, grounded, flexible sense of yourself in the face of your challenges.

Holding on to yourself doesn’t mean being distant or aloof. The more at-ease-in-yourself you are the more important you can let others be to you. You can then afford to let yourself be truly known. What have you got to lose other than your facade?

At-ease-in-ourselves is the foundation from which we can seek advice from others and allow ourselves to be influenced. We can be flexible and porous without losing our identity.

“The human self is a pretty miraculous thing. You are capable of developing an internalized solid self that does not hinge on validation from others. A self that remains resilient in the face of challenges from life and other people. But a more solid self is not a static, rigid self-image. It is stable and flexible at the same time. (That’s pretty amazing in itself.) You can stretch it and bring out new facets, and prune old aspects that no longer fit you. You can change a solid sense of self when you want to, but retain your shape when others try to make you into who or what they want you to be. Flexibility and resilience are two basic and important characteristics of a solid sense of self (pp. 69-70)”

All Together

“When we are working on ourselves, if we stay present to our discomfort, we will also feel something else arising, something more real, capable, sensitive, and exquisitely aware of ourselves and our surroundings.”

The Wisdom of the Enneagram

In summary, when triggered at work you have the opportunity to further cultivate the Four Points of Balance.

Start by getting increasingly clear on what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and your self-worth in the face of the adversity you encounter.

Regulate your own anxiety and self-soothe.

Commit and recommit to overreacting less when others seem crazy.

And be willing to endure discomfort for the sake of your growth, the growth of your team, and the growth of your organization.

Put these steps somewhere visible as a reminder. Decide over and over again that these are what you are wanting more of. Here they are in Schnarch’s words:

“You have to do four things: confront yourself and heed your own counsel, soothe your own heart, emotionally unhook from the Other, and stand up and face the music. These are your Four points of Balance.” (p. 149)

Good luck and let’s stay in touch on this one.

*See the source of David Schnarch’s The Four Points of Balance, in Intimacy and Desire. Beaufort Books (2009).

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