I have been told that I trigger people with my writing and speaking. And let’s make something clear: that is never my intent. I never stand up in front of people or sit behind the keyboard and think about how to trigger someone. In fact, I soften my language quite frequently so people aren’t triggered. Nonetheless, people say I trigger them. Well, this is incorrect. They’re placing blame on me for their triggers. I didn’t trigger you, your brain and trauma did. It’s not my fault you were triggered.
What Is ‘Getting Triggered?’
The idea of “getting triggered” has morphed from a psychological construct to something people say quite commonly. So let’s look at what it actually means and what some people mean when they say it.
“Trigger” used to primarily be used in conjunction with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It was defined as something like this:
“A trigger is a reminder of a past trauma. This reminder can cause a person to feel overwhelming sadness, anxiety, or panic. It may also cause someone to have flashbacks. A flashback is a vivid, often negative memory that may appear without warning. It can cause someone to lose track of their surroundings and “relive” a traumatic event.”
In that context, triggers are very powerful, indeed. They are not merely uncomfortable, they are actually a reliving of the feelings and thoughts of a traumatic event. In some cases, it’s a reliving of the entire event in the form of a flashback. Flashbacks are often beyond the control of the person experiencing them and can be extremely frightening.
However, nowadays, people tend to use the word “trigger” to mean anything that causes an uncomfortable emotional response. A “trigger” is something that makes you feel bad. “Trigger” now just has the rather bland definition of a stimulus that causes a reaction.
A trigger can be something you read, watch, hear, smell, and so on. A trigger can be absolutely anything in your environment.
What Is a Trigger Warning?
Trigger warnings, then, are warning that people put before content to warn that their content may trigger a person.
A trigger warning is:
“a statement cautioning that content (as in a text, video, or class) may be disturbing or upsetting”
I tend to find these ridiculous and unnecessary as there is just no way to determine what will trigger a person. I also think that trigger warnings can frighten off people that would be perfectly capable of handling the content.
And let’s not forget, trigger warnings don’t work.
How Bad Is a Trigger?
As I’ve noted above, triggers do fall into one of the two categories: a stimulus that causes a reliving as a traumatic event and one that makes you feel bad. In other words, triggers can range from devastating to (with current word use) inconsequential.
And please understand, I feel genuinely bad for people who are genuinely triggered through anything I write. That is never my intent. I never intend to harm anyone.
I Don’t Trigger People
But, as I’ve said, anything in an environment can trigger a person. And most things in your environment don’t come with a trigger warning. Smell, for example, can be a very powerful trigger and may, indeed, cause a severe reliving of trauma for some people. Does this mean, though, that a woman wearing a particular perfume is to blame? No, of course it doesn’t. She doesn’t walk around with a trigger warning sign and nor should she.
It is the same with writing. I have absolutely no way of knowing what will trigger a person. Some things I write may be triggering for some people. I realize that. But I’m not going to walk around with a trigger warning any more than I would expect a woman wearing a perfume to do so.
There was once a book I was reading about bipolar disorder. And while I knew it would be good and I was looking forward to it, the opening scene was of the protagonist after she had brutally self-harmed. The descriptions of the extreme cutting and what had to be done to help her in the ER were highly disturbing to me because of my own history. So, I stopped reading the book. I didn’t write the author a nasty note saying she should have used a trigger warning. I didn’t write her and say that her work could create self-harm urges in others. I didn’t do anything except close the book and take some deep breaths. The author did not trigger me. I was triggered because of my own past. That was not her fault.
And understand this: some of the great literature in history can be very, very triggering. Some literature depicts rape. Other literature depicts war. Some literature details incest. All of these things can contain extremely powerful images that can be triggering for people. These books do not have trigger warnings.
Art is an amazing and beautiful thing, but sometimes it can also be disturbing. Sometimes, indeed, that is the point. If you don’t like it, you are free not to partake of it.
Taking Responsibility for Triggers and Your Mental Health
I believe what it comes down to is people not taking responsibility for their mental health and their own triggers. They want to be spoon-fed safety. They want someone else to make the decision that these words or images are too scary and they should stay away. And what’s more, is I think people never want to feel even uncomfortable.
But, I’ve got news for you: discomfort is a part of life. Not everything is squeaky clean and shiny. Some things are dirty and gritty. Some things are painful. Some things are god-awful. That is life. And people who create art do it to talk about life, in all its facets.
And from that dirty, gritty, painful, god-awful reality, incredible art is born. Incredible words are written. Incredible colors are painted. Extraordinary things are achieved. And this doesn’t happen when we worry about triggering everyone all the time.
So, take responsibility for your mental health and your own triggers. Please. Do it.
Please realize that as an adult (and yes, all my writing is intended for adults), you get to make decisions about what may or may not be comfortable for you. You get to decide how strong you’re feeling on a given day and make decisions accordingly. You also get to stop reading at any time. If you’re halfway through an article and things start getting challenging, you are free not to read the rest. It’s your choice to do so or not.
Taking Responsibility for Your Triggers Is Empowering
And here’s the thing, taking responsibility for your triggers and your mental health is actually empowering. Once you realize that it’s not the writer’s, artist’s, etc. fault for triggering you, once you realize that it’s your brain’s fault, once you realize that it’s your trauma’s fault and that you have control over whether you interact with it on a given day, you take your power back.
Don’t give your power to a trigger warning. Don’t even give your power to a trigger. Protect yourself when need be. Stretch yourself when you can. And take your power for yourself. You are strong and you can do that.
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