The English language is constantly changing and our lexicon evolves as phrases come and go. I remember when “think outside the box” felt refreshing until Taco Bell tweaked it into “think outside the bun” for their marketing campaign. It then felt tired and stale. Then there are those phrases that are simply overused to the point where its meaning is depreciated. One such phrase that I’m blasted with right now is “trigger warning”. There was a time when trigger warnings carried weight, but it has lost its significance due to excessive use.
I was reading through an intuitive eating Facebook group page recently and it seemed like trigger warnings were everywhere.1 Immediately, I wondered how people can be so easily upset that trigger warnings are needed on that many posts. Yes, when I was peeking out from behind the curtain of my eating disorder certain topics did draw my thinking towards dieting again, but I never felt like I would have had a full-out mental breakdown if I didn’t have advance warning of a post’s content.
Numbers were my sensitive spot and were a big pull for me when it came to fueling my eating disorder. My obsession with tenths of a pound on the scale dominated my world for years. If I saw an actress’s weight and height printed, I would immediately calculate what the equivalent would be for someone of my height and determined if I weighed more or less. Learning how to let go of those numbers was daunting and I often had a mental tug-of-war between eating disorder hell and freedom.
Despite my nagging thoughts, I realized that I was the one steering the course. It was my responsibility to choose a path that would lead me to recovery. If I had insisted on trigger warnings at every turn, I would have put my recovery in the hands of others. I’d be letting their words dictate my thoughts and actions. I was not a victim and would not let myself be vulnerable to relapse just because someone uttered a particular word or phrase. If I didn’t feel comfortable with the content, I took it upon myself to leave that situation.
Whether it’s due to a lack of money or time or the social stigma of seeking professional help, people turn to social media as a way to manage their recovery. But if people are so mentally fragile that a word or description produces a flood of tears, then they need more than a Facebook group. Facebook is not a replacement for therapy. As Jill Filipovic from The Guardian so simply stated, “Trauma survivors need tools to manage their triggers and cope with every day life”.2 Facebook may provide ideas for coping skills, but the support needed to implement these skills should be found on a therapist’s couch.
The reason for starting a post with a trigger warning varies. Many are content with adding trigger warnings because they feel that it’s a courtesy to others, that it gives them the choice of whether or not to continue reading. Some people choose to insert trigger warnings because they believe that they are saving someone from further trauma. Some may even worry that they could be seen as uncaring or heartless if they don’t include one. Either way, I see trigger warnings as counterproductive. Not only does it take away a sense of empowerment from the person in recovery, it impedes ideas and discussions. How are we to get past the horrors of an eating disorder if we can’t even openly talk about it?
The other aspect of trigger warnings that makes it a muddled mess is knowing what could trigger someone. Triggers are so individual and often irrational that anything could be considered a trigger. Sure, there are some obvious ones like rape, but there is no way for the world to know that the mention of a camping trip or some other seemingly innocuous topic would conjure up a disturbing memory. Asking loved ones to provide a safe space3 is one thing, but expecting strangers to walk on eggshells4 in a public and unfettered forum such as the internet is unrealistic, entitled, and, dare I say, selfish.
The desire for trigger warnings is a symptom of something deeper going on and can actually provide an opportunity for self-reflection. If I felt triggered, I’d acknowledge that, but I would not put the burden of supplying a trigger warning on someone else. I would take it as a sign that I need to do some hard work and get to the bottom of why a certain subject can cause such an intense response in the first place.
What are your thoughts on trigger warnings? Please share in the comment section below.
1This is also true for content warnings. It’s the same idea wrapped up in a different package.
2In case you’d like to check out the full article in The Guardian, it’s called “We’ve Gone Too Far With Trigger Warnings”.
3Yet another overused phrase that I hear nowadays.
4Ha! I just caught myself typing one of those overused phrases. It fits so perfectly though!
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