Warning: No trigger warnings
My Why audio version of this blog available here.
This is a subject I’ve been meaning to mention for a while now, just in case anyone was wondering about it.
Obviously on The Silent Why we deal with some pretty big, deep, complicated subjects. It’s not all sunshine and spring flowers (even though we do try to bring out the rainbows after each patch of rain).
And I understand why you might have to be in the right frame of mind to listen to certain episodes. I know at points when my hormones were bad I felt like I couldn't go another day with my own thoughts and baggage, let alone anyone else's. So I get that it’s important to protect yourself and what you see and hear at times. Therefore, some people might be questioning our decision to not offer trigger warnings or ‘listen with caution’ disclaimers.
Firstly, I want you to know that it is a conscious decision to not do this, it’s not that we just didn’t think of it. And secondly, I want to say that I’m not against the idea per se, it’s just not something I wanted to pursue with this podcast or my writing. And this isn’t an opinion on all trigger warnings, or why and where they are legitimately used and appreciated, this is just my opinion and experience of them personally, and why I’ve chosen not to use them in my space and content.
There is a time and place for some warnings, like when content might shock you unexpectedly, or if content varies from shocking to not shocking fairly frequently. For example, I listen to Ear Hustle, a podcast based in San Quentin prison in California. These episodes talk about life in prison but they also interview incarcerated people and sometimes particular episodes are talking about very violent or graphic crime, so they warn you to have discretion when listening. I could argue that if you’re listening to podcasts like this, you’re probably not going to fall off your chair if they mention murder or sexual assault, but the fact that not every episode deals with that side of prison life, means I can understand why it’s done.
The definition of ‘trigger’ can be either:
‘...a part of a gun that causes the gun to fire when pressed.’
‘...something that causes something else to happen.’
The trigger on a gun is what you have to pull to shoot, if the trigger isn’t activated the gun doesn’t shoot. Or in another context; it’s something that causes something else to occur. It’s the starting point, that sets into motion something happening.
Trigger warnings originated quite a few years ago and from my brief research they were used to help people who had been through trauma, to warn them of words, images, concepts ahead that might trigger traumatic events or memories etc. However, the spread of the internet has taken these far beyond their initial use and caused much debate on whether it’s gone too far. I'll be honest, in mainstream social media reading, I'm not a fan. I think we have taken it too far.
Now I’m all for words having multiple definitions and not throwing a word out because of one definition of it, but I’m actually surprised the word ‘trigger’ is so widely used for this. Especially when it’s one of only two things most people could name about a gun. ‘Barrel’ was the only other part that came to mind. Then I was left wondering if ‘handle’ was the right word for the other bit?
And ‘warning’. Since when has that word coming at you from nowhere ever given a human being a peaceful feeling?
And should there have been a trigger warning for my gun paragraph? One might ask.
The other thing that strikes me, is that if a trigger is what starts the process towards an unwanted outcome, isn’t the trigger warning in itself a trigger? It is supposed to protect you from information proceeding it that might cause you mental harm or anxiety or trauma, but even the wording of the trigger warning would need to be careful in this regard, surely?
If I’m a recovering cake addict and I’m happily reading something and then suddenly I’m faced with ‘Trigger Warning: Contains Detailed Description of Delicious Fattening Chocolate Cake’ - aren’t I already triggered into thinking about delicious fattening chocolate cake? Would it be easier if it just said ‘cake’? Or am I still thinking about cake anyway?!
(Can you tell my husband and I are on a bit of a health kick at the moment and I’m not allowed to bake for a while?! And I’ve probably now triggered him by mentioning cake!!)
So how helpful are trigger warnings? For me, I’ve found them to have the opposite effect than their intended meaning. I’ve been on many blogs and Facebook groups for childless people and some of them are filled with trigger warnings for pregnancy, miscarriage, children, parenting etc. A few times it’s said something like, ‘Trigger Warning: Contains P word’ and I’ve had to go and find out what that means, only to be faced with the word ‘pregnancy’ and wishing I hadn’t bothered to go to the extra effort. And if that word did trigger me, I’m sure I’d have been more triggered by the research to find out what the ‘p word’ was, than if I’d have just read the article to hear that someone was pregnant.
I don’t think I’m alone in the opinion that avoidance of things that trigger us into feeling anxiety, is not an ideal strategy. In my limited knowledge of therapy and coping strategies, I doubt many professionals (or good ones anyway) find out what you struggle with and then say; ‘Just stay away from it at all costs, just avoid it for the rest of your life.’ It’s not practical it’s not realistic, and that’s not how life is.
So, if you are going through a hard time, my belief is that the onus is on you to be careful around what you watch, read and interact with, to a point. If I’m feeling particularly sensitive that I won’t ever be able to know what it feels like to grow a baby inside me, it would be stupid to watch Call the Midwife, wander onto Mumsnet and just scroll down my social media feeds. There’s a level of personal responsibility, especially around the internet and television with so much being available to us now. There is no way every TV program, book or internet site can list the potential trigger warnings for everyone that might be triggered, it has to be on us, and I think the expectation that it’s on others is unfair really. There has to be a level of common sense around our own protection and growth, or we end up in the situation we’re in now, where milk companies have to stamp ‘contains milk’ on the side of the bottle.
Common sense is not so common. Voltaire
Similarly, if I place myself in a group of childless people sharing their pains and experiences, I need to expect people to be talking about pregnancies, miscarriages, infant loss, adoptions, IVF etc, and their experiences in this world. I’m there to share these experiences and learn from others, not be bombarded with trigger warnings when I already know what I’ve signed up for.
I already know there will be people that vehemently disagree with me here, but again, this is just the view of why I’m not doing these on my blog or podcast.
I think it boils down to the situation where you navigating life in a healthy way, is not the responsibility of someone else.
I suspect some of these warnings were, and are needed, because there will always be people who are just unwise with how they share information. If you’re preparing a lecture on the importance of shoe laces and you think it’s appropriate to throw in a story about sexual assault or child abuse, then you have an issue in how you provide content in the first place, not necessarily the lack of warnings. If you have to prepare things for others to listen to or read, be sensitive to what they expect, and cautious about throwing in things that would catch people off guard. And if you need to veer off, then yes, a kind word of caution up front is a good idea.
I hope by now people who listen to my My Why’s and The Silent Why, have got a feel for us, and trust that it’s a safe space to listen. Yes, there will be hard things to hear, but you know that when you sign up to the podcast and listen to the trailer. And we never leave in content that we know is shocking beyond what a listener will expect, or if we do, we will give the appropriate warning. I won’t be yelling ‘TRIGGER WARNING’ though.
Life doesn’t have trigger warnings. And once you start down this road, where does it stop? Spiders? Heights? Images of nuts? Milk?!
I’ve found trigger warnings that have actually made me wonder if I should be triggered. When I read; ‘Trigger Warning: Mentions Pregnancy’, the ‘p word’ doesn’t trigger me, even though it’s something I feel sad I’ll never experience, but I’ve had the thought pass through my head; Should that trigger me? Maybe I’m not dealing with something that I should be? It does make me sad sometimes? Should I be more sensitive to that? Have I hardened myself? Is there something I'm not feeling that I should? Should I not read this?
You can’t tell me that’s a healthy reaction?! And it wasn’t a thought I would have had, without that warning popping up and triggering it.
Talking about a pregnancy doesn't trigger me - but a tiny moment between a parent and child can. Can you imagine if all of those had trigger warnings on them, in life, in TV, in books. The intro to films would read: Contains; pregnancy, child birth, happy parents, eating, sad father, no mother, reference to cancer, suicide alluded too, murder considered, dysfunctional relationship, alcohol, nuts, milk, cake!
I actually told a story once about something on a group referencing cancer and was told I had to add a cancer trigger warning. The group had nothing to do with cancer, my story didn’t have much to do with it, but someone had been triggered because they lost someone to cancer. Ultimately it just made me feel like I’d got something wrong, hurt someone, and less likely to share anything again in that space, for fear of hurting someone else.
Of course there will be things that come at you, out of nowhere, catching you off guard and forcing thoughts of something that causes you sadness or distress, but I’m afraid that’s life - it doesn’t offer you trigger warnings. I can't run from every person I see who's pregnant - well, I could, but I really shouldn't, and don’t want to. I should run away from more cake though.
The unpredictability of life sucks. One minute you’re riding high with the wind whipping through your hair and the next minute you’re flat on your ass with a face full of gravel. Alison G. Bailey
In my experience, avoidance is never the answer to dealing with something. It only means when you do come across it (and you will), your reaction might be that much worse, because you can’t avoid everything forever.
Achieving life is not the equivalent of avoiding death. Alice O’Connor
I believe the same can be said here. Achieving peace is not the equivalent of avoiding triggers.
So, we don’t use trigger warnings or statements of caution with our content because I’m very clear that our podcast is about loss. Heart-breaking, gut wrenching stories of people losing something they loved. Yes we will always try to see if/where the joy and hope can be found in their stories, but I don’t feel it’s right to slap a trigger warning on their life, because to me that has the same effect as people saying ‘I can’t imagine’ to those that are grieving (see ‘How to talk to the grieving’ blog). It doesn’t feel nice to know that your life is something other people are avoiding, whatever the reasons. Or that what you’ve been through is something people don’t want to listen to, so you have to warn people first. Can you imagine if we did that in person? Stamped trigger warnings on people and then you could decide to not talk to them. How many trigger warnings would be stamped on you? How many trigger warnings would be stamped on me?
If we do not have the depths, how do we have the heights? Yet you fear the depths, and do not want to confess that you are afraid of them. It is good, though, that you fear yourselves; say it out loud that you are afraid of yourselves. It is wisdom to fear oneself. C.G. Jung
I believe that there’s a level of healing in being around those that are in same boat as us, but the true healing happens when we can step into the lives of those in the other boats around us and not only learn to work with the triggered and triggers, but also learn from the pain of others too. I’m learning so much about my own grief, from those who have lost the very thing I can never have. If I avoided everyone with children, well, I wouldn’t be able to go out of the house.
That being said, I don’t want to, in any way diminish real trauma and PTSD and the triggering that can be caused in this area. And we actually have a Let’s Chat episode coming up soon where I speak to someone who specialises in PTSD to explore this subject further.
I’d like to introduce some happy warnings. Maybe a ‘snigger warning’, or ‘warning: content has the capacity to cause overwhelming joy’ or ‘laugh out loud’ or ‘weak bladders beware’. Except that I think we secretly like those things to sneak up on us, they’re all the more joyful when they come at us unexpected, like a surprise hug (for those that like them) or a sneaky chocolate bar that appears on your desk, or marzipan (anywhere, anytime).
Life will take you up, and it will take you down, no avoiding it, and sometimes it’s so unexpected it shakes our core and we hit the floor again, and it might only take a word or an image, but the key is to keep learning about why this happens and to take life one day at a time and work through it. Feel those feelings, whether on the floor or the mountain top. All we can do is learn to appreciate the ride and know that it rarely stays at one level for the whole journey.
Life is full of ups and downs, the only way to make the journey worthwhile is if you enjoy the good, and learn from the bad. Natasha Potter