Managing Our Triggers

Casey is a nurse manager who enjoys and is fully committed to her profession. Like her peers, Casey has a lot of responsibility, and she does not take her duties or her career potential lightly. She has solid educational preparation and she is proficient with the clinical aspects of her job.

Casey knows that emotional skill and matu­rity are also important components of successful leadership. So, when a recent exchange with one of her peers greatly upset her, she was eager to understand and learn from this incident. By Casey’s account, the “triggering event” was serious enough to disturb her emotional equi­librium and peace of mind.

What happened seemed simple enough: one of Casey’s colleagues, Jennifer, made some per­sonal comments to Casey that she found disre­spectful and condescending.Technically, they weren’t human resources violations, but they were quite distressing for Casey.Although she wanted to “deal with it and move on,” she was having a hard time doing that.

Instead, Casey found herself in an emotional quagmire that she described this way:

• She spent too much time experiencing “instant replays” of what Jennifer said to her.

• She had worked up a lot of anger and blame toward Jennifer. She was ashamed to say that she had also told stories about Jennifer to a few peers. Her tales concen­trated on Jennifer’s faults as a manager and as a person. Of course, she knew she shouldn’t do this, but she did it anyway.

• She had persistent fantasies about what she would say to Jennifer if she “told her off.”

Casey was embarrassed as she shared her predicament, and she was eager to find a healthy and productive way forward. She saw that she was in the midst of a self-perpetuating emotional drama, and she was acutely aware of the conse­quences of remaining there. For example:

1. She was spending a lot of energy on these strong reactions, even though she was trying to act as if nothing was wrong. She was caught in an unpleasant cycle that was emotionally draining and distracting her from her work.

2. Although Casey thought she was doing a decent job of keeping her personal angst under wraps, she questioned whether some of her coworkers sensed that some­thing was wrong. If so, her colleagues would wonder what it was, and they would be curious and concerned. In the absence of hearing something from Casey, they would create their own “stories” about what was happening with her.

3.Casey knew that if she continued this behavior, her personal power and credibil­ity could erode, and there could be lasting damage to the trusting relationships that she had worked hard to build.

This “learning opportunity” was painful for Casey, so here’s what she did.

• She took a different approach to thinking about Jennifer, and she got curious about what it must be like to be her.To Casey, Jennifer seemed lonely and needy, not just with her, but with others, too.When Casey considered Jennifer from this per­spective, she felt some compassion for her. She also realized that Jennifer’s behavior toward her was similar to the way she treated others. So, while Jennifer’s conduct was not acceptable to Casey, she recog­nized that it was Jennifer’s way of being with everyone.

• These bits of compassion and insight were helpful, but they did not eliminate Casey’s anger. She still blamed Jennifer, and she still wasn’t able to move on. So, Casey turned her attention to herself. She looked hard at her part in this difficult situation, wanting to better understand her own responses. She soon recognized that Jennifer’s way of acting with Casey was evoking feelings that Casey had experienced before when she encountered condescending people.

• This discovery created even more motiva­tion for Casey to diminish the power of this repeating pattern.As an accomplished nurse manager with a bright future, Casey knew that this reactive pattern could nega­tively affect that future if she didn’t address it now.After all, even if she could let go of what happened with Jennifer, there could well be other people that would elicit this same response. She needed to defuse these triggers once and for all.

• So, Casey rededicated herself to her journey toward professional excel­lence, including possessing and displaying personal qualities that enhance, rather than detract from her effectiveness. She remembered that she always has the power to choose how she acts and reacts. She also reminded herself that most people in her life treat her with considerable respect.

• Finally, Casey recalled how she had handled personally difficult situations in the past. She reflected on choices she made then, remembering that she had always taken “the high road.”This meant that she elected to lead from her commitment to competence rather than from her lesser, more child-like self.As a result, even in challenging encounters, Casey had spoken and acted with courtesy and professionalism. In the end, she always felt good about making that choice, versus opting for the tempting lure of gossiping and holding onto grudges.

Casey eventually regained solid per­sonal and professional footing with Jennifer and her peers. She chose not to confront Jennifer because she decided that Jennifer was “being herself” and nothing Casey said would change that. To Casey, this was a freeing decision that allowed her to treat Jennifer with courtesy, albeit with some distance.

Casey knows that her triggers will probably appear again. If they do, her predictable reactions may reappear, too.

But Casey is confident that they won’t be as severe or as long-lasting in the future. She may need more practice, but Casey is well on her way to main­taining her hard-won, treasured equa­nimity, even in challenging times.

* This article was originally published in Nurse Leader.

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