This morning a couple of articles about trigger warnings came across my social media radar
. The topic seems to be discussed a lot lately. Though today was the first time that I noticed that I am getting triggered by trigger warnings (or rather the idea that they are needed).
How did I notice? I heard myself think things like “How dare they tell me what triggers me! I don’t need protection!” Yupp. Anger. A lot. And I start reading the articles and hardly ever finish them. And I had that familiar sense of disappearing, of becoming helpless, of having to depend on another’s (purported) wisdom, which I sense isn’t all the filled with wisdom as that person might think. The same sense that I’ve had in a couple of abusive relationships where my experience was denied, where I was given help without being asked what would support me, where gratitude for such help was demanded denying that it was unhelpful. Even this post might reflect that I am still a bit triggered afraid that what I’ll say will be dismissed as crazy. This post might be a bit more disjointed, a little less coherent. It is hard to think clearly when triggered. That’s part of being triggered. (Depending on the magnitude of the trigger some or most of the bloodflow is redirected to the more instinctual parts of our brain, taking some or most of our rational thinking capacity offline).
Let’s start with differentiating help from support. I found this elaboration very eye-opening (page 33):
Thinking we know what is better for others becomes a subtle way we do violence. When we take it upon ourselves to “help” the other we whittle away at their sense of autonomy. Nonviolence asks us to trust the other’s ability to find the answer they are seeking. It asks us to have faith in the other, not feel sorry for them. Nonviolence asks us to trust the other’s journey and love and support others to their highest image of themselves, not our highest image of them. It asks that we stop managing ourselves, our experience, others, and others’ experiences of us. Leave the other person free of our needs, free to be themselves, and free to see us as they choose.
Don’t tell me what would help me. Ask me if I want support and, if I do, what would support me. If you’re trouble not helping, ask yourself why.
As someone who gets triggered on an almost daily basis, I also find the discussion about trigger warnings puzzling. Has anybody talked to those of us who are getting triggered? At least my experience seems contrary to the assumptions that lead to trigger warnings. Most of the triggers I experience are tiny and don’t require more than a little awareness (“oh, I got triggered”) and a deep breath. When I see a certain car make and color, I notice how my body tenses up, only relaxing when I see that the driver isn’t the person I expected. Deep breath. Moving on.
Some triggers are more massive. I remember a particularly big one after reading about the ethics of care. In the reading, a sentence triggered me: Something along the lines that a battered woman who kills her abuser will never be a woman who has not killed. I instantly realized in every cell of my body that no matter what I do I will never be a woman who has not been raped and who has not been abused. Enter flashbacks and a descent into depression. It took me a day and a half to dig myself back out. Fortunately, it was fairly soon after spraining my ankle. Somehow the analogy to a physical injury allowed me to make room for this psychic injury. I came out stronger, more healed, and empowered. I had been able to deal with a massive trigger – yes!
So, are we now going to put trigger warnings on every book that talks about abuse? What about those cars that trigger me on a daily basis? Both, in my opinion, would be silly. What was way more important for me than avoiding the trigger was to know how to deal with it. Part of being a woman who will never be a woman who has not been abused is precisely the fact that I get triggered! This is a part of me now as much as I still struggle to accept this. Instead of putting on gloves, I want to learn the tools that help me live with this reality. Trigger warnings tell me “you’re too weak, too messed up to deal with this. Here, let me protect you.” This is everything but empowering. It is DISempowering – and all too similar to my experience in abusive relationships, as I pointed out above. And it is the easy way out. It also suggests that all we have to do about the reality of oppression, violence, and abuse is slap trigger warnings all over the place. As if trigger warnings are enough to avoid the pain. That’s not how this works for those of us who actually do get triggered! We often cannot avoid triggers (unless we want to become hermits…).
It’s a song. It’s a sound. It’s a location. It’s a car. It’s a look. It’s a way someone’s hair flows.
Reading about rape is not triggering to me. It is very uncomfortable. Reading about domestic violence is not triggering to me. It can be uncomfortable. Mixing up discomfort with the natural reactions to the experience of past trauma is not helpful. And it falls along the same troubling lines of watering down the meaning of “trauma.”
To return to one of my recent big triggers… Ethics of care is the approach to ethics that resonates a lot with me. I would have been missing out on something very important intellectually if I hadn’t read this because of a trigger warning. And I would have missed out on some very deep healing, too, if I had not gotten triggered. Instead of being so worried about protecting us from getting triggered, how about empowering us to use the experience to heal more? Or even better, how about celebrating our resilience, our ability to deal with triggers? At least I would appreciate that. Some other survivors might want to approach triggers differently. Please ask. Don’t assume you (or I!) know what we need. It might turn out that most of us would appreciate more a list of sources of support than a trigger warning. After all, part of the challenge of getting triggered is that these triggers seem to come out of nowhere. What I do then, once I got triggered, is what I find most helpful. Not avoiding the trigger, which often isn’t even possible.