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May 13, 2015

Triggers and Triggering

A popular and growing idea in the 90's and early 00's was that people should strive to "own their feelings." It seemed like a movement in psychology or counseling at the time. It meant that the individual was in control of their feelings and that they should take responsibility for them—that they should take responsibility for how they felt. "You made me feel X" was on the verge of becoming taboo. The response would be "No, you chose to feel X (whatever: offended, angry, hurt, offended, sad, offended, or offended, for example)." People were starting to understand they didn't have to feel negative emotions when someone said or did something nasty—they didn't have to "make the decision" to feel bad and react negatively. To respond negatively to someone's provocation was to hand control of yourself over to them, to let them decide how you felt. Maybe I'm wrong, and it was just my bubble of experience, but it seemed like people were starting grasp this idea generally. And that was a good thing. Owning one's feelings is healthy, much healthier than handing over control of them along with your well-being to others.

Lately, there has been some kind of social movement in the direction of taking no responsibility whatsoever for one's emotions: a total hand off, and it's done openly and without a hint of recognition an individual might actually be responsible for his or her own feelings. It seems people have come to accept this is the new normal.

The movement appears to be attached to latest iteration of feminism, third-wave feminism, and it has worked its way from college campuses into popular culture. The constant refrain from those who have no responsibility for their feelings is "trigger" and "triggering." Triggering is when someone does or says something that "causes" another's negative emotions, and a trigger is a particular word or act that "causes" negative emotions. And apparently anything can be a trigger. Christina Hoff Sommers recently triggered many people simply by making a speech at Oberlin College, for example. Those who had no responsibility for their emotions were forced to create "safe rooms" where they could seek reassurance from others who had no responsibility for their emotions.

The thing is, triggering is a valid concept in psychology and counseling. But it has been swiped and used inappropriately.


The area I'm familiar with is Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), but it's a useful concept in other areas, like PTSD. DID is what used to be called "multiple personality disorder." Years ago I married a woman with DID. She was high functioning, but under stress, she started switching alters (terms of art). In other words, she started changing personalities. I didn't know it at the time, so the behavior appeared either deliberate and purely evil, or it was some form of extreme psychosis. I didn't know. I couldn't tell. This is where a little knowledge on my part would have gone a long way.* It turns out I was triggering her. I know this in retrospect, having put the pieces together in the time since. I'm the one who increased her stress. My stark reactions to her behavior made her switching worse. I was, frankly, scared out of my wits, and my honest what the hell? responses were damaging. I was a machine gun of triggers. Worst of all, I eventually brought out her protection alters. These personalities will defend the ego at any cost. They lack empathy and, indeed, appear sociopathic. They have to. They have a job to do.

*She didn't tell me. Knowing what was going on—knowing about DID and triggering—would have allowed me to respond properly. The right way is to a) be attuned to the possibility of a switch and b) be polite and respectful when one arises and kindly explain to the "new personality" things like where you are, how you got there and, most importantly, that everything is okay. Here's an example of when this would have been helpful: she switched in a grocery store checkout line once. She suddenly appeared surprised and bewildered to be standing there. She seemed amazed at her clothes. I didn't know what was going on, but at least I didn't say anything that time. My private reaction: "What the hell was that?" The best reaction would have been something like, "Hi, hon. We stopped by here on the way home from work. So glad it's Friday. I'm looking forward to the cookout tonight."

Another thing caring family members and friends can do is develop a mental list of potential triggers and try to avoid them. The point is, this is what the the concept of "triggering" is all about. This is who triggering is for. It's for people who have serious medical issues. It's not about the New Victorians and things that make them uncomfy, even if they do get the vapours on occasion.

The concept of triggering is for those who are close to a person who is hurting: family members, close friends, and mental health professionals. It is for when you are knowingly dealing with someone who has a problem. If you know a topic, a word, or an image that might cause someone difficulty, you can avoid it. Accordingly, trigger warnings are for known situations where sufferers might encounter common triggers, like if you're conducting a seminar for people with PTSD or writing a book for people with DID. Triggering is not a concern for the general public. You and I do not have to worry about triggering some unknown person. There is no way to trigger-proof our entire culture on the chance you might affect a stranger with an emotional or mental problem. And there is absolutely no need to worry about triggering Social Justice Warrior snowflakes and prudes. No one has to walk on eggshells around them. They need to learn to own their feelings.

Speech police types who use triggering improperly to shut down speech are misguided. Opposing political views should be discussed. Comedy does not have to be anodyne. Stories and movies need not be bland, and we do not need to live in a way that kowtows to those with aggressively delicate sensibilities. Unless you're dealing with a family member or a friend who has a real problem, say what you want to say. Don't allow the speech police to make fun, free expression taboo.

Maybe owning our feelings should become a thing again.


(If you have any questions or comments you want me to address, use Twitter, or write them in comments and point them out to me on Twitter. Pixy still hasn't unblocked my IP address. I'm at @rdbrewer4.)

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posted by rdbrewer at 09:34 AM

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