trigger warnings

Hat tip to Susie Bright on Facebook for posting this New Republic article on trigger warnings. The short version of the article: “Issuing caution on the basis of potential harm or insult doesn’t help us negotiate our reactions; it makes our dealings with others more fraught.”

Which shows us that the article misses the point of what trigger warnings are for.

What trigger warnings are, when they’re used well, is part of a trauma-informed, survivor centered approach to talking about difficult topics. They’re a way of saying, “This thing here? This is difficult. If it feels difficult, that’s because it’s difficult. You’re not broken or sick or ‘weak’ if it makes you feel uncomfortable.”

Trigger warnings are not “Structuring public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities.” They are a component in creating an environment in which everyone has an opportunity to feel safe, and where the world recognizes that sometimes people have good reason to feel unsafe.

Is it a perfect paradigm? Heck no. I have experienced people asking for trigger warning on anything that might make them feel uncomfortable – and feeling uncomfortable is not the same as feeling unsafe. That’s one difficulty with the trigger warning paradigm – sometimes people use it to enact their sense of entitlement to a world that is always comfortable for them.

There’s another difficulty with it too: often missing from the trigger warning paradigm is education about how to take care of yourself when you’re triggered. TW’s say, “This might activate your stuff,” but it does nothing to provide support for what to do when your stuff gets activated.

But there’s a third, more complicated difficulty, and that’s that trigger warnings are just not going to help those who need them the most. And this is specifically because of the very nature of trauma survivorship. Sexual assault survivors have had control of their bodies stolen from them, often with deliberate intent, and the process of recovery is about (among other things) learning that you can take that control back. When you’re still in the process of recovery, there will be times when you feel hijacked. Yup.

In short, a trigger warning can’t persuade a person that they have control over their body, when their body is sure that they don’t have control.

But still I use them. In my class, in my talks, on my blog, in my book, and in life. Because what a trigger warning CAN do is

(1) create an environment that reminds survivors that control is POSSIBLE; and

(2) create an environment that reminds us that there are survivors in the room.

Life is difficult and uncomfortable. For survivors of violence, their central nervous systems are extra sensitive to that difficulty and that discomfort, and so they require extra skill in managing those feelings. And sometimes it’s too much and you just need to go somewhere else.

I use trigger warnings as a form of scaffolding for the central nervous systems of survivors – a little boost in support for them to recognize that this is a moment when they can practice choice and control over their bodies.

It doesn’t always work. But I will always provide as much explicit choice as I can.