Three relational triggers

We all need esteem, safety and care. We are triggered by others’ behaviour when we hear disapproval, threats and neglect. Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

We have at least three basic relational needs:

  1. Esteem (to feel OK about ourselves)
  2. Safety (to feel safe)
  3. Care (to feel attended to, wanted, included, looked after)

However, in the melee of relationships,  we all get wound up by other people.  Humans have invented the beautiful art of conversation, but sometimes that conversation can get a little ugly.  Here are three of the most common triggers we can face, and some suggestions as to how to disarm them.

Each trigger represents a message we hear in our minds.  The message may not be consciously intended by the sender.  But we hear an implication which raises our alarm.  In particular, you will notice that each basic trigger relates to one of the three basic needs above.

These are not messages that are necessarily explicit.  They can be conveyed bodily, by action or gesture, by commission or omission.  They may not even be intended that way, but can still be interpreted by us that way, since we are always on the defensive lookout.


This has an effect on our pride or self-esteem.  Conversely, if our self-esteem is low, then we can be more likely to distort signals to this interpretation, whether others mean it or not.


This makes us fearful, and either makes us combative, or want to run away.  Again, if we are already feeling threatened in another context, we are likely to see more threat messages where they don’t necessarily exist.


This can make us frustrated, despairing or angry.  As with the others, if we are already feeling neglected by the world, then we can easily overinterpret particular additional situations as symptomatic of neglect.

These trigger messages amount to:

  1. Disapproval
  2. Threat
  3. Neglect

What is the best way to process them and avoid suffering?


Disapproval needs two factors: a standard to judge by, and an action to judge.  If we want to engage mentally, then we can clarify what standard is being evoked, and what action is being judged against it.  It will then be easier for us to decide for ourselves whether or not we agree with the disapproval.

We can process disapproval relationally, asking these questions of others; or we can process it internally, relying on our own assessment.


Threat needs two factors: an outcome, and a probability.  We can clarify in our minds what outcome is possible; we can then try to apply a degree of probability to that outcome.

Again, we can process possible outcomes relationally, investigating what others have the power to do to us, and the likelihood of it happening.  Or we can process them internally, making our own assessments.


Neglect needs two factors: an expectation or right of care and attention; and a level of care or attention that falls short.  We can clarify in our minds what attention we expect; and then assess the level of care we are receiving in relation to that expectation.

Yet again, we can either do this relationally, assessing expectations and actions alongside others; or we can do this exercise in our own heads.

How do we decide whether to process the three triggers externally or internally?

  • If there is no one we can trust, then we will tend to choose internal processing.  This has the advantage of avoiding the additional threat of confrontation.  But a disadvantage is that we have only our own mind to reply on.
  • If there is a third party we can trust, then we may choose to confide in them (assuming that person is likely to give us esteem , safety and care).  This has the advantage of bringing an additional perspective. However, if that third party has a bias, it can further distort our own view.  And if they are untrustworthy, it can expose us to further threat.
  • If we trust the person messaging us, then we may choose to process the trigger directly with them.  Where there is a firm alliance and a solid relationship, this can result in a clearer mutual understanding.  However, if the relationship and/or the person is unstable, then things can escalate quickly – particularly if they interpret our being triggered in a triggering way to themselves (i.e. if they see the discussion as compromising their own esteem, safety or sense of being cared for). This is the cause of most fierce arguments.


If we don’t process disapproval, threat or neglect at all, then we can become socially disadvantaged.  We become unable to position ourselves advantageously, or to manage our own reputation, safety, or self-care.

If we suffer from extreme anxiety, we can freeze and block out the problem entirely.  While this gives us some relief initially, it builds up problems for the future, as we are not managing our esteem, safety and self-care needs.


We have three big relational needs:

  1. Esteem
  2. Safety
  3. Care

Related to this, three big triggers we experience in human relations are:

  1. Disapproval (negative judgement)
  2. Threat (negative action)
  3. Neglect (negative inaction)

It’s wise to process these triggers to assess and accept what basis they have in reality.  We can do this ourselves, or with trusted others.

Once we have done that, we are in a better position to manage our mental health, balance our behaviour, and to communicate and act proportionately.