How do you respond when you hear the words: Knock, knock?

Other than an eye roll and the momentary dread of suffering through another silly old joke, I suspect your brain, like mine, automatically answers: Who’s there? (Banana)

It’s an almost Pavlovian response created by hundreds of similar experiences scattered across your lifetime. At this point, you hear the phrase and respond instinctively.

Marshall Goldsmith might call that phrase a trigger. In his book by the same name, he defines a trigger as any stimulus that impacts our behavior.  Triggers come in almost any form and if we are unaware, they have the power to evoke all sorts of responses.

The smell of bacon, your grandmother’s perfume, or a freshly opened can of tennis balls, the sight of your old dorm, the tune of a long forgotten song, or a phrase your dad often used can all trigger an emotion or behavior without any conscious thought. You may find yourself hungry even though you just ate, angry for no good reason, or suddenly nostalgic.

Troublesome Triggers

Usually, these gut-level responses don’t cause much trouble. But occasionally they wreak havoc with our relationships or emotions.

Consider the husband or wife who has no clue why their spouse seems offended, the co-worker who becomes defensive at even a hint of criticism, the friend that suddenly rejects you, or the evening that was going so well inexplicably turning sour.

Automatic reactions are rooted in the subconscious. Confusing for the innocent bystander who unknowingly pulled the trigger, these unexpected responses can be equally surprising to the one trapped by the onslaught of their own emotions.

Whether you’re the trigger or the victim in one of these situations, you may wonder if it’s possible to stop or rewire that unexpected gut-level response, without years of therapy. Good question.

The short answer: maybe. It depends on the depth of the issue and the original cause, but in many situations and for many people, the answer is yes and the secret sauce that makes overcoming your auto-response possible is to recognize and explore its trigger.

Becoming Aware

Do you always act rationally, choose wisely, or understand your motives? Do you ever get hooked by a surge of emotion that comes out of nowhere? Have you avoided opportunities due to fear or insecurity?

What’s behind that? Where do those thoughts come from?

Being willing to explore your triggers is a step in the direction of self-awareness, a foundational element of emotional intelligence, which focuses on four central skills:

  • Understanding yourself
  • Managing yourself
  • Understanding others
  • Managing relationships

Which of those skills do you find the most challenging?

In a recent informal survey, a significant majority of the people (76%) identified self-management or relationships as their biggest challenges. Self-awareness received the fewest votes (10%). Does that surprise you?

We assume that we know ourselves, but for many of us, it’s just not true. Why is that?

Understanding yourself involves introspection. Spending time and energy looking inward is natural for some people, but foreign and uncomfortable for many others. Is it a natural part of your life?

If it seems like a waste of time, it’s not. If it seems complicated, it doesn’t have to be. Here are three simple steps to help you find the heart of your gut response.

  1. Begin noticing: When you experience sudden or strong emotions, when something instinctively repels or draws you, or when that old issue rises to the surface again, look for patterns.

When I began looking, I found some long standing personal patterns. First, my extraordinary love for books and exploring massive bookstores, like The Strand in New York City.

On the darker side, I noticed a habit of putting off tasks that need attention, especially if they are slightly overwhelming. Those are the ones I should begin quickly, but I tend to freeze and find a million other things to do. My second pattern: procrastination.

Notice your triggers or patterns. What do you love or dread? What makes you happy or nervous? When are you most sensitive?

  1. Practice asking: What’s behind that? Pull the patterns you find up by the roots and take a good long look. Mysteries are like roaches, disappearing when the lights come on. The mystery behind your patterns may disappear if you spend a little time investigating.

Why do I love books? On the surface it may simply be for their educational value, but when I looked at the roots of my fascination I found more.

Books have always been important in my family. Since childhood I have associated reading with cuddling, comfort, and love. When my kids were young, each night we snuggled in the coziest chair with a stack of storybooks. With those memories, how could I not love to read? Today when I enter a bookstore, those feelings of comfort return. Suddenly it all makes sense.

What’s behind my procrastination? Hmm. Am I just lazy and unmotivated? That’s an easy label, but it’s self-defeating. It also stays on the surface of the issue without exploring its root.

After a little sleuthing, I saw that my slow start was linked to a habit of pleasing people or seeking approval. I have high standards and hate to disappoint. When taking on big responsibilities, I often doubt my abilities, triggering a sense of fear. So I avoid those uncomfortable feelings and the work I need to do as long as possible.

Wow. Finally understanding the root of my procrastination was life changing. Having that level of self-awareness allowed me to approach my challenges differently… but I’m getting ahead of myself. (The power of self-awareness is what we’ll look at next month.)

Once you find your patterns, do a little exploring. Dig as if you’re expecting valuable insight. When you find the heart of your gut response, you may be surprised, empowered, or disappointed, but you will know yourself like never before.

  1. Resist judging: At this point you are building a helpful new habit of self-awareness. Even if you don’t like what you find, resist the tendency to condemn or label. Begin noticing and practice asking. For now, that’s plenty and for many of us, that’s progress.

This may be a tough journey to take alone. If your emotional triggers are hard to recognize or interpret, take a friend along as you explore. For the best results, choose someone who is not connected to your triggers or part of your past.

Knock, Knock.

Who’s there?


Stay tuned for the next entry:  Knowledge is Power.

About the Author: Jeannie Murphy is an emotional intelligence coach equipping adults with the people skills they need for personal and professional success. Happily married for 28 years, mother of three adventurous young adults, she is refilling her empty nest with four-legged friends.