Suddenly the word “triggered” is everywhere. The Urban Dictionary defines it as “An emotional/psychological reaction caused by something that somehow relates to an unhappy time or happening in someone’s life.” I would add that the term may also refer to stimuli affecting some personal vulnerability that is not strictly related to a past time or happening. For example, my saying “You look like you’ve put on a few pounds” could be a trigger for someone who has a history of disordered eating (not that I would ever say such a thing to someone I wasn’t 100 percent sure wouldn’t be triggered by it!).
Ubiquitous on social media these days, “triggered” is most often used jokingly. Several times recently Twitter followers of mine have told me, tongue-in-cheek, that they were triggered by something I posted. But before it became a meme, “triggered” was almost always used in earnest, and it is still often employed in non-ironic ways. Indeed, not long ago a Facebook commenter claimed to have been triggered by my blog post titled, “Are You Uncoachable?”
Let’s be clear: Emotional triggers are a real phenomenon. That being said, it has been my observation that the people who use the word (in earnest) most often do so as a means of cultivating a victim identity and of exacting a sort of passive-aggressive revenge on people whose perceived strength threatens them. The present era of pop psychology and self-help has fostered a kind of cult of victimhood that is all too attractive to some who find it easier to weaponize their weaknesses than to overcome them.
If you have triggers, it’s certainly best to recognize them. But the proper use of recognizing your triggers is not to build a shrine to them, enjoying the fleeting sugar highs of offloading responsibility—and blaming others—for your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Rather, it is to gain greater control over your thoughts, feelings, and actions. You’ll be a much happier person in the long run if you choose the latter course.
You’ll also be a better endurance athlete. The phenomenon we’re really getting at here is what psychologists call locus of control, which Wikipedia (I know, I know) defines as “the degree to which people believe that they have control over the outcome of events in their lives, as opposed to external forces beyond their control.” Individuals who have an internal locus of control—that is, who believe they have the capacity to achieve desired outcomes—tend to be more successful in the world. It probably goes without saying that the triggered mentality is associated with an external locus of control and less worldly success.
Some interesting studies have been done on locus of control in athletes. In one such study, Canadian researchers found that, within a population of 145 injured athletes, those who scored high on a test of locus of control were more complaint with their treatment program. This particular study did not look at whether greater compliance was associated with better outcomes, but other research has shown that athletes who do as their doctors and physical therapists say do tend to return to play more quickly.
As an often-injured athlete, I take special note of this finding. For well over a year I have been dealing with a groin injury that impacts my run training, and I am very consciously endeavoring to maintain an internal locus of control in managing it. Whenever I catch myself fretting about the situation, I tell myself that overcoming the issue and achieving my goal for the marathon leg of Ironman Santa Rosa on May 11, 2019 is within my control. All I have to do is stay patient and not force things, taking every inch my body gives me and not an inch more.
It helps that this is actually true. My groin injury is not serious enough that overcoming it is beyond my control—requiring surgery or whatever. But given my historically brittle nature, I am aware that some other breakdown may occur between now and race day. It would be very easy for me to live in constant fear of the next injury and feel like a victim of a mutinous body, but I refuse to, because I understand it’s not helpful. I choose instead to believe that whatever happens, I can figure it out and get past it sooner or later, one way or another.
If you tend toward an external locus of control—whether or not you toss around the word “trigger”—try to make a similar shift in your thinking. It will take some work, but this work will be rewarded. Be the trigger, not the triggered!