A Discussion About “Triggers.” I don’t have all the answers.

by Noise Pollution

Today a coworker accidentally said something insensitive to me.

I let it slide without saying anything. I’m maybe one of the only people on earth that comment would sting for. It was innocent! And I’m not mad! I just find it strange how little comments like that can hurt, even when I know there’s no context there that would make the statement have any actual bite to it.

She was casually complaining about needing a pedicure, and said something along the lines of, “My feet are getting so ugly. They’re starting to look like your feet!” Her intention was to mock “guy feet.” That’s fine! There’s literally no way she could have known that I have horrific scars on my feet from the fire I was in as a kid. There’s no way she could have known that that particular part of the human body is one that I have deeply-rooted insecurities about. And I’m not mad. I just feel shitty about myself. I feel shitty about my appearance. I feel shitty about my scars. And it’s all stemming from this one off-handed remark that was intended as a joke and meant nothing and wasn’t meant to be, you know, triggering.

And I wouldn’t exactly say I was triggered. I’m not 100% sure what that word actually means, and I also think that the phrase has become kind of tainted… or, maybe “tainted” isn’t the right word but… muddled. The word has become muddled. It’s a word that I actually don’t know my feelings on. On one hand, it’s a part of our reality that we all as a society need to learn to accept and deal with. We all need to be respectful of people’s boundaries and be willing to take a step back from whatever it is we’re doing that is invasive of other’s mental states. We need to acknowledge that everyone is different and has unique things that are hard for them to hear and see.

At the same time, the entire goddamn world can’t be put on hold for the sake of avoiding causing mild-to-moderate anxiety in people. This whole “respecting other people’s boundaries” thing is a two-way street. If I want to have some expectation of having my interpretation of the world respected and handled in an appropriate manner, then I need to be aware of where everyone else is mentally and respect their needs as well. In this particular case between me and my coworker, I don’t think it was appropriate to pull the, “hey, you just made fun of a burn victim” card. Sure, I felt shitty, and I still do.

But it’s not her fault. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s the nature of the universe’s fault for putting this baggage on my shoulders. Not hers for not realizing how heavy the pack I’m carrying was. I think the negativity I’d be putting out there into the world by opening my pack and showing her what’s inside is far more than the negativity that is stewing inside my own head. And it’s a lot of negativity in there! Y’know, stewing and stuff.

And maybe that’s the way to measure this. How much net negativity is going to exist when the situation is resolved? If it’s a situation where you feel comfortable addressing the issue and don’t think there will be hurt feelings involved, that’s a good time to bring up something that bothers you. If the amount of suffering you are going through outweighs the amount of suffering you’re going to put out there in the world by calling someone out, that’s also a good time to call someone out. If this conversation I had with my coworker had caused me problems to the point where I was actually functioning on a less-capable level, I would have said something. The net negativity would have gone down, then.

But things aren’t black and white. This “net negativity” idea is not only vague, but also impossible to apply to every person and every situation. I don’t have all the answers. I don’t have many at all, in fact. I guess the one thing that everyone can try to do is think. Think about when and where it is appropriate to expect a trigger warning. Maybe for you, if your case is severe enough, that’s everywhere! I’m not saying it’s not okay to expect careful behavior from others in all situations, if that’s the way you want to live. If that’s the way you have to live. I’m just saying that if you maybe don’t need that sort of thing, maybe save your confrontation for a better time. Maybe have a better, more important fight than that one. Because when someone tries to sue a professor for teaching a class and going over the material that is in the class because the professor didn’t give a proper trigger warning, it sours people on the entire concept. It makes people laugh at the expectation. And I guess I don’t know the answer there either. Maybe the person in the scenario I described is a severe sufferer. Maybe we do just need more trigger warnings, y’know, in general. But when you pick a hill to die on that has no relevance to the larger battle, you’re actually losing us the war. And the “respect mental health” war is a noble cause.

In the end, I didn’t actually start writing for the sake of opening up this touchy subject; I actually just wanted to talk about my day and analyze this shitty feeling that exists in spite of no one being at fault for causing it. In the end, I wound up here because this has been brewing in my head for a while. It’s such a sensitive topic. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I don’t want to be ignorant of other people’s issues. What I want is for everyone to respect each other, and that does require work from both sides. Yes, those of us who suffer from mental illness do in fact need to do more than complain and expect. We also need to respect. We need to respect so that we earn the respect of others. And maybe that’s not fair. In fact, it’s totally not fair. If you already suffer from this illness, why should you be expected to put all this work in, just to make people acknowledge the illness’s existence? The answer is that you shouldn’t have to, but reality calls for it anyway. That’s how I feel, at least. Feel free to discuss in a civil manner. I’d be happy to get more perspective on the subject.

[Editor’s note: I’d like the readers to be aware that all of these cases I’ve laid out in this post are kind of null and void when it comes to severe cases. Yes, the whole world can and should stop whatever it is they’re doing if it’s making you have a panic attack or a flashback. It’s in cases where the problems caused by the trigger are significantly less severe that I think the discussion can be had. And even then, there are still exceptions to every rule. I’m not accusing anyone of doing the wrong thing here. I just think it’s worth thinking about. It’s a topic worth dissecting.]