Triggered by Trigger Warnings

Five minutes after I sat down, I wanted to get out of there. "I feel so uncomfortable," I whispered to my friend, who just laughed at me in response.

Nobody told me this open mic for writers would be overrun by hippies. After each reading, and a round of finger-snapping, the writer or performer had to remain standing on stage to receive feedback, American Idol-style. Except the comments were all positive, gushing praise and platitudes that made it seem as if we were in a room amongst prodigies and geniuses producing Nobel Prize material.

I sat through poems about the transformative nature of fire; some earnest, closed-eyed singing from a ponytailed guitarist that made the girls swoon; and a sound bowl performance overlayed with self-love mantras. When the latter ended, the host held up her palms and remarked that she could feel the music in her hands. Out of politeness, I disguised my snorting laughter into a cough.

But my friend looked around and asked with horrifying sincerity: "I want a hug. Does anyone want a hug?"

"Get away from me," I said.

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Photo by Cristian Escobar

By definition, I should be categorized as a new-age hippie. I like astrology, Tarot, crystals, sage, incense, conscious consumerism, mindfulness, holistic health, and healing. Heck, I'm even a healer certified as a Master of Energy. So why didn't I fit in?

Because this felt fake. They wanted to skip the hard spiritual work and go straight to that elevated state of peace and love—spiritual bypassing.

Who can keep up this charade for a whole evening? I thought.

Well, it didn't take long for shit to hit the fan.

A barefooted man went up to talk about his traumas and how he was finally overcoming a lifetime of feeling unaccepted and unworthy. At one point during his lengthy speech, he briefly mentioned something fucked up he did as a kid that could be interpreted as sexual abuse, then went back to talking about his discovery of self-love.

When he finished, however, instead of enthusiastic finger-snapping, the woman who moments ago had played the sound bowls and purred words of love in a soft voice, now spoke up in outrage. "I wish you could've used a trigger warning," she said, then went on to chastise him about how traumatizing his piece was.

He looked bewildered but didn't apologize. "It's my story," he said.

The woman doubled down on her anger. "You're privileged," she spat, then stood up, grabbed her cardboard box of sound bowls, and stormed out of there. A few people left the room after her, maybe to see if she was okay.

Shock fell upon the rest of us. The guitarist tried to tame the awkwardness by complimenting the man's performance. So did someone else. To his credit, the barefooted man did not look ashamed. However, I was annoyed for him. Pissed off, actually. Here was someone who was being vulnerable and sharing his deepest, darkest secrets to a room full of strangers. The moment a portion of his truth became uncomfortable for one person in the audience, she demanded that he shut up. I could tell that the host was considering implementing trigger warnings.

I spoke up, "Trigger warnings don't work. The person who popularized the term just came out with an article basically saying she regrets it. Trigger warnings are actually more damaging because it doesn't allow people to build emotional resilience."

The article is from The Atlantic, called "I Was Wrong About Trigger Warnings" by Jill Filipovic, who questions the damage done to teen girls because we were inadvertently raising a generation that has fewer tools to manage hardship.

Study after study says that trigger warnings are useless, even harmful, yet I'm surprised that people still demand them because it "feels" like the right thing to do.

The New Yorker article says: "The results of around a dozen psychological studies, published between 2018 and 2021, are remarkably consistent, and they differ from conventional wisdom: they find that trigger warnings do not seem to lessen negative reactions to disturbing material in students, trauma survivors, or those diagnosed with P.T.S.D. Indeed, some studies suggest that the opposite may be true. The first one, conducted at Harvard by Benjamin Bellet, a Ph.D. candidate, Payton Jones, who completed his Ph.D. in 2021, and Richard McNally, a psychology professor and the author of “Remembering Trauma,” found that, among people who said they believe that words can cause harm, those who received trigger warnings reported greater anxiety in response to disturbing literary passages than those who did not. (The study found that, among those who do not strongly believe words can cause harm, trigger warnings did not significantly increase anxiety.) Most of the flurry of studies that followed found that trigger warnings had no meaningful effect, but two of them found that individuals who received trigger warnings experienced more distress than those who did not. Yet another study suggested that trigger warnings may prolong the distress of negative memories. A large study by Jones, Bellet, and McNally found that trigger warnings reinforced the belief on the part of trauma survivors that trauma was central (rather than incidental or peripheral) to their identity. The reason that effect may be concerning is that trauma researchers have previously established that a belief that trauma is central to one’s identity predicts more severe P.T.S.D.; Bellet called this 'one of the most well documented relationships in traumatology.' The perverse consequence of trigger warnings, then, may be to harm the people they are intended to protect."

The sound bowl woman had grey streaks in her hair; she was middle-aged and too old to be coddled. Fortunately, in our discussion, most of the other writers could reason and seemed to be in agreement that trigger warnings were not conducive to artistic self-expression. Some, however, were not convinced, especially the host, who did not want people to get hurt. She will have to decide whether she wants this open mic to be a "safe space" or a place where artists and writers can be honest. Art can be inherently triggering. Can artists be open-hearted and also censor their own truths? Or should they bury everything disgustingly human about themselves so others can be comfortable?

"Safe spaces" aren't possible unless one locks themselves up in a room and speaks to no one, ever. Humans too are inherently triggering, especially those closest to us. Should we turn away from family, romantic partners, and friends because they are the ones who can see right into our true selves, both the good and terrible aspects, and at times poke at the latter?

I was not interested in being in such a trigger warning-happy "safe space" and I said so. One would have to fit into a mold of toxic positivity and cherry-pick the palatable parts of the self for social acceptance. No room for mess, no room for being human. Most importantly, no room for humor. I want to laugh about human foibles. Laughter is healing. Truth is healing.

Being triggered is actually a good thing because it shows us what we need to work on. Healing can only happen when know what we need to heal. In my healing practice, I basically try to talk potential new clients out of doing sessions with me during meet-and-greets. They might cry, I tell them. They will be triggered. Uncovering their truths and traumas at the core is the best way they will get good results fast.

Throughout my journey as a healer, I learned that some people don't really want to be helped or healed. Staying in victim mentality is more comfortable for them, maybe even preferable because they receive more attention. Going through that tunnel of transformation can be too much for some to handle. So it comes down to their own free will. They have all the tools, wisdom, and support needed should they want them enough to call upon them. They just have to want to do the work, and that may require some temporary discomfort or even pain and suffering.

At that open mic, I was confronted with my own triggers. I uncovered beliefs I had that being a writer meant not being accepted, which was why I took the side of the barefooted man over the sound bowl woman, instead of seeing things from both perspectives in a neutral, unaffected way. Another thing I realized when forced to be in a room of emotionally gushy people was that I equated emotional openness with weakness. I was happy to uncover these unhelpful beliefs because then I was able to go on and heal them.

Last week, I finished Sarah Polley's memoir and in the last chapter, she talks about suffering from a concussion before finding the right specialist who helped her fully recover:

“When I first met concussion specialist Dr. Michael Collins, after three and a half years of suffering from post-concussive syndrome, he said, 'If you remember only one thing from this meeting, remember this: run towards the danger.' In order for my brain to recover from a traumatic injury, I had to retrain it to strength by charging towards the very activities that triggered my symptoms. This was a paradigm shift for me—to greet and welcome the things I had previously avoided... I know now that I will become weaker at what I avoid, that what I run towards will strengthen in me. I know to listen to my body, but not so much that I convince myself I can’t do things or that I can’t push myself.”

Yesterday was Yom Kippur and I listened to a lecture from Michael Berg of The Kabbalah Centre where he talked about loving our mistakes and failures:

"There is light in darkness. We speak about this a lot; it's really the foundational teaching of Kabbalah. The reason we are in this world is not to be good people, but rather to live in the darkness, sometimes. Because in the darkness are the sparks of light that we need to elevate and transform in order to get to our ultimate purpose of removal of pain, suffering, and death. If you are a good person all the time, you would've done nothing in this life... What is the purpose of humanity? To delve into the darkness, and from the darkness elevate the sparks. So if you never made a mistake, if you never fell, if you never hurt another person or yourself, you've done nothing in your life... How do you go into the darkness? When you fall, when you fail, when you make a mistake, when you sin. Then what happens? Then you're in the mud, you're in the darkness. What's the purpose of life, of humanity? To get into the mud. Not all the time, we don't want to wallow in the mud all the time, right? But go there, get a spark, and elevate it. You've done something for your soul, you've done something for humanity... Our job as humanity is to elevate the sparks that are in the darkness. In order to do that, you have to touch the darkness. So when we fall, it's the first step in the purpose of our lives."

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