Serious Stuff Blocking Gratitude’s Flow


The Intention Coach – our very own “Grateful Psychologist” Donald Officer – has chosen an important area we could stand to all improve upon, by powerfully linking emotional triggers and Gratitude. In this month’s Gratitude Connection article, Officer “connects” gratitude with David Richo’s 2019 book, “Triggers: How We Can Stop Reacting and Start Healing“.  This book explores the science of triggers and our emotional responses of fear, anger, and sadness. Gratitude is one of the compensating ways that healing can be achieved.  Also, being patient rather than immediately reactive, keeps emotional and potentially dangerous “triggers” in check.   Officer  points out how acknowledgment and gratitude can work effectively to enhance and improve how we control emotional triggers.


The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past. 

                                              ~ William Faulkner


Former President Obama quoted those dramatic words as he made his first run for office. Obama was all about a better future while Faulkner, the Southern novelist, was a student of the lingering past. Both had reasons to think of what had been, what it is to come, and how entangled they remain. Heady stuff, not easily dismissed, haunting as far as the mind’s eye can delve, the past endures both as a continuation, and also as a continuing challenge. Sometimes the past can even ambush us with overwhelming alarm.

Imagine drilling down into someone’s past experiences, watching individual recall barge unbidden into the present, sabotaging a life the way history lays the nation’s low. How many forms of harsh repetitive reaction are people unable to successfully confront, habits which are more than habits?  What irrational barriers pose real threats to gratitude in every form, barriers capable of stymying the most grateful of leaders unless or until they’re better understood?

At their worst, such rogue intrusions suggest mental illness. Yet even in the far subtler form, they undermine careers and organizations. Let’s look at these triggers squarely that haunt families and workplaces everywhere. Triggers are roadblocks to positive emotions starting with gratitude. Nobody is totally immune to them yet few leaders are prepared to cope with triggered workforce episodes. Nevertheless, how well they are dealt with often distinguishes success from failure.

Triggers are frequently the offspring of trauma. David Richo’s 2019 book Triggers: How We Can Stop Reacting and Start Healing is a solid piece of sensitive writing that recognizes the multiple origins of triggers and offers strategies to confront them. We are all potentially triggered by something. How to prevent, overcome or handle reactions to our own and others’ triggers is an important fork in what could become a rocky road.

For example, ask anyone what they say best describes Richard X. and you’ll hear how resilient or persistent he is in sticking with the crummy job he has held for years to provide for his family. Then yesterday, a guy on the line made an offhand remark that grabbed his attention. So much so, that on break, Richard went out to his car to return with a loaded assault rifle. The rest of this story rapidly becomes breaking news. Something from his apparently uneventful past triggered this otherwise “quiet loner.” Will we ever know what? What could have been that provocative?

Triggers shape how we see the world. We may not be aware of our own until by rare dumb luck we run into them. We might deliberately pursue avoidant paths – paths we may still live to look back on with regret for opportunities lost. Triggers can come quickly or build stealthily to climax. Many are unforeseeable before the presenting stimulus appears. The spur may be jarring, vaguely disturbing, or scarcely noticed. To triggers, reactions feel uncontrolled. Low key disquietude may be disguised by social decorum. Yet stifling triggers in any shape remains a challenging struggle. To the outside world, another’s triggers are invisible – until they aren’t.

The classic headline that frames the public triggering quickly diverts attention to surrounding details which may or may not have been the source of the incident. Reporters, unable to pinpoint the internal source of a dramatic trigger acted out, instead search among the surrounding details of the event for visible evidence. Trauma is likely the distant source of most triggers although the proximate one may be the most trivial of associations. Knowing all of us are susceptible to at least some forms of micro-aggression is a challenge for leaders and colleagues alike.

Here the understanding grateful leader who believes in the person behind the tranquil mask can play an enormously important role. A culture where gratitude and acknowledgment are normal and anxiety is minimized make a huge difference. In more stressful circumstances, missing the cues may trigger a worker to meltdown or further repress the triggering associations. Either of these choices could be gravely counterproductive to the unfortunate colleague while jeopardizing a shared gratitude mindset. Even the confidence of the grateful leader may be shaken.

Like so many associations that haunt us at work and in life, triggers are often rooted in childhood. Maybe we should say “seem to be rooted there” as later interpretation more than the “reality” of the early incident is what matters in creating a trigger. Acknowledging each person’s unique value as an individual makes an authentic expression of thankfulness therapeutic even as it supports the productive pursuit of worthy common goals. For the colleague unwittingly risking the embarrassment of another colleague’s triggered miscues, this backdrop can be vital.

Childhood wounds are mentioned above, but past episodes might not be as important as the shame, guilt, or identity disconnect that follows when recollections do not jibe with the grown person’s experiences. In a book I read recently the main villain finds himself in a position of undisputed local dominance. As a young child, he’d been defined by a humiliating public mishap. Now on top, he uses his power to degrade and humiliate everyone else in every way possible – a distorted dysfunctional way to mask a shame trigger through a corrupted leadership style.

Happily, not all triggers carry negative consequences. Many are essential to safety or survival. If we had to think through every response to every situation, familiar or unexpected, our days would be incredibly long and often unendurable. Frustrated athletes and other performers would really suffer! Some triggers fall between beneficial and inherently harmful. Unfortunately, these are least understood of all by others since the consequences are way harder to perceive.

Consider the following passage from Matt Haig’s Notes on a Nervous Planet regarding one of his own most troublesome triggers, namely grocery shopping. Yes, grocery shopping:

Panic is there to help us. As it is for many other animals, panic is our mind and body telling us to do something. Fight or flight. Run from the predator or fight the predator. But a supermarket is not a bear or a wolf or a cave-dwelling warrior. You can’t fight a supermarket. You can definitely run from one, but that will only increase your chance of having a panic attack the next time you have to go there. If you start playing the avoidance game, it might soon be all supermarkets become triggers. Then all shops. Then the outside world.

Triggers are emotional in impact, their strength obscuring alternative rational interpretations which could bring relief. Sadness, anger, and fear are the usual suspects which catch the vulnerable in their grip. As anyone who has dealt with a visibly triggered person knows, that grip is quite obstinate. Relationships can be a minefield for the easily triggered. Fear of intimacy in any context may paradoxically really be fear of rejection. A team member who shies away from responsibility to avoid the risk of closeness to coworkers may be in a trigger trap. Contributing to the team seems dangerous while failing to participate could be grounds for dismissal. What is a responsible leader to do? Any show of gratitude for a valued contribution might be wrongly interpreted unless well handled in context.

Awareness is the first step away from the thralldom of triggers. Sadly, many organizations are led by managers who walk about with poker faces to mask their intent or mood while holding back-room discussions away from the rank and file. Knowing what such behavior, embedded in risk-averse cultures, can prompt among the trigger-prone who crave understanding, would you have the moral courage and interpersonal skills to express your genuine gratitude? Would you trust your coworkers openly with the appropriate reassurances or frank truths they need to hear?

In today’s complex society it’s easy to imagine workplaces as shark tanks. And they can be for the targets of ill-intentioned or careless maneuvers. Knowing your own triggers is part of your personal survival kit, one which becomes infinitely more positive and powerful with the guidance of a caring, engaged leader who recognizes individual worth. David Richo’s well-considered steps leading through awareness to thoughtful strategy as described in this book could benefit anyone. Who couldn’t use some robust panic-proofing? Richo has his own choices for supporting theories that reflect his particular spiritual bent.  In the book, he advocates Buddhist practices, other forms of mindfulness, and meditation appending a long list of positive affirmations. Regardless of the reader’s own orientation, mindful, positive framing is helpful from every angle. If and however, Triggers mitigates needless suffering, it has the potential to be an invaluable read for grateful workers and leaders alike.

Preventing really unpleasant triggers requires upstream thinking. To start, leaders are not qualified to play therapists nor should they attempt to. Their roles can be more strategic, however, in shaping a responsive culture. Anticipation through relationship building and a policy of compassionate acknowledgment are as important as any professional intervention. In the event of a serious disturbance, forewarned is forearmed. We live in a high-stress world where triggers will sometimes be triggered despite every precaution. The choice of the leader with foresight is not to be passively avoidant but aware and ready. Nobody avoids reality by turning away.


What role does gratitude play in your life? Gratitude Connection columns and International Institute of Learning’s Senior Vice President, Judith Umlas in her acclaimed books, Grateful Leadership, Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results and The Power of Acknowledgment will help you see the possibilities.


Donald R. Officer MA
Principal and Proprietor
The Intention Coach

[email protected]