Why We Respond the Way We Do When We Get Triggered by Someone Else

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Based on the model by neuroscientist David Rock

When we perceive a threat in a situation involving other people, we usually oversimplify the situation, attributing it to the other person being selfish or our being jealous, etc. In terms of what’s actually going on in our brains, we tend to see the threat through one or more of five domains. This applies to any situation involving a social context (more than one person). The domains are:

  1. Status: how we see our importance relative to others.
  2. Certainty: our capacity to envision the future with some level of confidence.
  3. Autonomy: the extent to which we believe we have agency and control.
  4. Relatedness: our sense of safety and connectedness with others.
  5. Fairness – our sense of the fairness of our interactions with others.

These threat domains lurk in the background of other, seemingly innocuous statements and transactions. This could be with a boss, spouse, friend, sibling, etc. Often, when we feel threatened, we are not aware ourselves that we are assessing the situation through one or more of the five domains. In effect we are subconsciously evaluating the extent to which one or more of those domains does or doesn’t meet our needs and expectations. For example, a comment about our lack of experience might be a threat to our sense of status, or a behavior we see as ambiguous may threaten our sense of certainty about what will be true at some point in the future. Sometimes, the “threat” is real in the sense that one’s autonomy, for example, might actually be threatened. An example would be a controlling spouse or micromanaging boss.

Questions we often ask ourselves internally, and possibly without conscious awareness—the answers to which result in us seeing a threat or not—are things like:

  • Am I valued by the other person?
  • What degree of certainty do I have about future outcomes related to this situation?
  • Is there room for my autonomy in this situation?
  • Is there a worthwhile place for me in this social construct?
  • Is this process/situation/negotiation fundamentally fair?

Of course, our capacity to assess the situation and respond effectively depends on the extent to which we’ve been triggered by the threat. If we are feeling highly stressed or our fight/flight/freeze response has been triggered, we may literally not be able to “think straight.” To the contrary, if we feel a strong sense of connectedness and being valued by another person, we may not be affected by what would otherwise be highly triggering comments or behaviors.

For our part, we want to avoid doing or saying things that trigger a feeling of threat in any of the five domains in those we care about. Although this can sometimes be complex and nuanced, some simple tools for avoiding threatening others are to first, pay attention to how other people are reacting. This can be facial expression, body language, proximity, tone of voice, etc. Secondly, imagine what words or actions would be threatening to you. If it would bother you, then don’t do it with other people. Basically, if someone your interacting with is behaving as if they’ve been triggered, then ask yourself what domain you might be threatening for them.

Another issue is related to the power dynamics between those involved in a given situation. For example, due to the influence a boss can have over our work lives, we are much more likely to see threats to our autonomy or status related to some statements or behaviors in that context, regardless of whether or not the threat is real. Similarly, if we are feeling insecure with a spouse or significant other, our sense of relatedness or certainty about the future may be threatened.

In short, the notion of domains of threat can be a really helpful way to process what’s behind the triggers we often feel with other people as well as things we might be doing to trigger others. Rock’s model allows us to move past our typical, superficial thinking about the nature of a trigger and it also helps to relieve some of the blame we put on ourselves and other. For tips on how to work more effectively with the five domains in the workplace, check out this Mind Tools article.

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