June 28, 2005

Warning: May Trigger

The irony. The sheer, overwhelming irony: Trigger warnings trigger me more consistently than anything that ever follows them.

A trigger warning is a tool used by the survivor community to let the reader know that what follows may disturb them or bring up intense feelings, old memories, and flashbacks.

There are many ways to provide trigger warnings. Some people indicate potentially traumatizing content in the subject line of a post or email, and often add up to a page of blank space and a reminder to scroll down when ready. Some add words like "trigger," "might trigger," or "MT;" others simply use "trigger warning" with an explanation. One simple problem with trigger warnings is the use of splatting or blanking out problematic words, which is sometimes done with such care that w*rds b*c*me ***irely unr***abl*.

Rules about warnings vary: different communities require warnings for content as diverse as swearing; food and eating issues; descriptions of abuse; mention of abuse; words like abuse, incest, and rape; political topics; and religious ideas, figures, or communities.

The theory is that a system of categorization allows people to choose when to encounter material that they know is likely to be triggering to them. There's no way for it to be foolproof. Everyone has different reactions and experiences. Even people with very similar abuse experiences will often have extremely different triggers. And, of course, there are those who aren't bothered by written material at all.

The biggest problem with trigger warnings is the human factor. One effect of abuse is to erode boundaries, and many of us are still learning how to replace them. In some cases, survivors use a childlike logic to deal with triggers: "You said something that triggered me, so you are bad for making me feel this way." Or: "I feel just like I did when I was being abused, (and I'm not really sure I understand abuse), so you must be abusive."

When people make mistakes, it can result in attacks from others who don't yet know how to deal with feeling triggered. A lack of boundaries around triggers can create a high-pressure atmosphere where everyone is on tiptoe lest they accidentally trigger someone.

On a personal level, I dislike having to warn people about potential triggers because I dislike having to keep track of these things for them. I've had intense codependent relationships where it became my job to always know what might trigger my partner and avoid it at all costs. I also have problems trusting my perception of reality -- another effect of abuse. So when I participate in communities which use trigger warnings, I end up being hyperconscious of others' needs, checking my words over and over to make sure that I have warned everyone sufficiently about anything I might have said. The cumulative effect, for me, is that I feel like my words are "bad," and like the group has decided that protecting others must come before reaching out for help.

Of course, a lot of this comes from my own problems with boundaries and the effects of my own abuse. I come to resent the idea that things are always equally triggering; the fact that my own triggers are not on "the list"; the fact that we do not differentiate between different kinds of triggers. I feel like there's no discussion of what it means to be triggered and what different ways there are to be triggered, and instead there's this idea that certain subjects are always triggering and should only be mentioned with great care because they might, basically, freak people out.

Ultimately, though, I think that many communities would benefit far more from devoting that time and energy to discussing how to recognize different ways of being triggered and what to do about it. My favorite survivor community, Survivorship, has semi-voluntary trigger warnings and devotes far more space in their rules to how to react to triggering material. In part, they remind people to "Remember that your perpetrators used common words and phrases and twisted their meaning. Chances are the person who posted is using those words in the regular way, not the cult way."

The bottom line is that it doesn't matter whether I hate trigger warnings. I have total freedom to choose communities which use trigger warnings that are okay with me, or which use none at all. But I think that we need to own our triggers. We can get knowledge and wisdom from them. We can process a lot of difficult experiences. We can get tremendous power from knowing that we are taking care of ourselves. I dream of a world in which we replace even voluntary warnings with a wonderful, detailed dialogue about how to notice what might be triggering and how to turn it into joy.

comment on this piece. (c) 2005 catherine h.