Self-Awareness: Knowing Your Emotional Triggers Makes You a Better Leader

Self-awareness is critical for leaders because it has a significant impact on their ability to communicate clearly, build resilience, develop strong relationships, be authentic, empathetic, and compassionate. It even influences confidence and creativity.

According to a Harvard review of studies on the topic, self-awareness falls into the two categories of internal and external. Internal self-awareness refers to how clearly we see our own values, passions, triggers, strengths, weaknesses, feelings etc., and external self-awareness is how well we understand how other people view us. Statistically, there is no correlation between scoring high on internal or external self-awareness, and both are critical skills for leaders.

As with most things required for good leadership, self-awareness is a learning journey that never ends. Even if you are one of the 10-15% who actually are self-aware, there is still work to be done. Let’s focus on one element of the internal which is being triggered. In simple terms, triggered means that an external event or environment has activated our limbic system to start up the fight or flight mode. When this happens, our ability to reason is dramatically diminished and our response becomes reactive versus thoughtful.

Most triggers are related to something we perceive as compromising our values, our identity, or our needs. These are broad categories, but knowing what is important that fits in these three buckets can help you to anticipate when you might be triggered.

Our first reaction to a trigger is physical. Signs of being triggered include flushed face, tight shoulders or other muscles, sweating, furrowed brow, tight breathing, tears, shaking, change in voice, and the list goes on. The hidden symptom is that you have less blood flowing to the thinking part of the brain. Improving your self-awareness means that you learn to quickly identify the physical symptoms of being triggered. This allows you to take action to control your reaction, and ideally respond rather than react.

People use various tricks to re-ground themselves when they are triggered including counting, visualizing a happy place, visualizing an enjoyable experience, taking a break, and getting away from the trigger. There are as many tricks as there are people, so you can explore what best helps you to gain your thinking mind back. However, a scientifically proven method that works when you can’t exit the scene is to breathe deeply. Take a few slow deep breaths where you control the in-hold-out of your breath sequence. Science tells us that deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain to the abdomen and is in charge of turning off the “fight or flight” reflex. Once you’re settled, the blood will begin to flow normally, and you will be able to thoughtfully respond rather than emotionally react.

Self-awareness is a broad topic, so as a leader you owe it to yourself, and those you lead, to continue your self-awareness learning journey. This core skill set is no longer a nice to have, but is part of the price of entry to leadership.