Trigger Happy

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“Ugh. That thing she said? It totally triggered me.”


How many times have you heard this or something like it in the last handful of months?

I’m beyond excited about the surge in awareness around the ubiquity of trauma in the human experience and in the massive explosion of education opportunities that are intended to support mental health clinicians and all humans in creating a “trauma-informed” world.


And? We’ve done what we do with words. We bend them to fit our needs. We make them unclear at best and meaningless at worst.


Lest you think I’m indulging in hyperbole, let me point to some other vocabulary victims of recent years. Remember when “mindfulness” meant something? How about the word “literally?” And one of my favorites, “irony.” It’s gotten so bad, that I would literally give someone on the street 5 dollars if they could use irony correctly in a sentence.


Ahem. I digress.


Our planet, our species, our society has big, big problems. The solutions to those problems don’t live in places of comfort. When we feel empowered to say that we feel “triggered” when something makes us feel uneasy, we’re not talking about tending to trauma. We’re talking about something akin to “Uh-oh. Somebody just said something I’d rather not think about and it’s making me feel things I’d rather not feel.” That’s not a trigger. That’s “self-threat.” When a reaction inspired by a sense of self-threat can shut down a conversation by being mislabeled as a trigger, we have an even bigger problem.


Self-threat is not the same as a trigger.


A “trigger” is something like a sound, smell or sight that elicits feelings of trauma. When a person is “triggered” they feel a sense of overwhelming sadness, anxiety, or panic. They may have flashbacks or even lose track of time and place as they are led, by something in their current environment or circumstances, to “relive” the traumatic event.


Trauma is what we experience when an event causes us to feel severely threatened emotionally, psychologically, or physically. It may also refer to an event that causes harm in any of these ways. Trauma, like pain and stress, is a multi-factorial, highly personal and highly subjective experience. Any experience has the potential to be traumatic for any individual human. I don’t get to decide if something experienced by someone else “qualifies” as trauma.


In fact, I make it a point to stay solidly out of the business of telling people how to understand their lives or how to live them. I do offer invitations. Maybe I offer a lot of invitations, but the beauty of invitations is that you can RSVP “I’ll be washing my hair.” The party will still happen. You’ll be missed, but the show will go on.


These days (see how I became my grandpa for a minute there?) people say they feel triggered when what they really feel is self-threat. The concept of self-threat points to the obvious, yet invisible truth that we all live in a constant state of “identity claiming” and “identity granting.” I have a way that I see myself and I try to project that into the world. You, in turn, “grant” me that identity by talking about me and the world in ways with which I agree. When you don’t do that, I feel self-threat. You might even call this feeling fragility. (Yes. It’s possible I just called you… and me… fragile.)


Let me be clear. Millions of humans live with trauma that can, indeed, lead to the experience of being triggered. Sensitivity to this reality is an important skill in being an effective and compassionate human. Calling people on their avoidance of reality is an equally important skill.


In their tool “Interrupting Bias,” Seed the Way offers two options; the “call in” and the “call out.”


It can be tempting and even immediately gratifying to “call someone out” when they try to hide behind this really important, but often-misused word “triggered.” Calling out is sometimes also downright powerful for a person who is a target of oppression to witness when an ally stands up and speaks up. Sometimes calling out can also be necessary to prevent real harm, to draw a clear and immediate line or to slow harmful momentum in a group dynamic. It takes discernment to know when those times are and restraint to understand that they may not happen as often as you think.


At those other times; those times when space can be made and time taken, it’s important to consider the shame and shut-down that can be inspired by the direct and immediate confrontation of a call out. When we want to reach across the sense of division and connect from a place of compassion to truly ease suffering, we can trade the call out for something kinder and more generative. Something that is less likely to come from our own sense of self-threat.


The “call in” can be an excellent tool to use in relationship when the person in front of us wants to shut down a potentially hard conversation by essentially saying, “I don’t want to feel this.” As much as we may want to proceed and go deeper in that moment, “I feel triggered/I don’t want to feel this,” may also be a way of saying, “I don’t feel safe enough to try this right now.” When we feel like we are in danger we are not interested in the vulnerability required for true connection.


The call in happens privately in a space where variables can be made somewhat less, well, variable and when the environment can be made safer. Less people. Less distraction. Less energetic charge and likely less need for image management and identity granting. A call in is offered as a possibility with options rather than a harsh redirect and public schooling. It comes from genuine (and only you can know if this is your true point of reference) curiosity about what the other person thinks or feels.


Make no mistake. It’s another inside job. Your body and your tone of voice can sink a call in before it begins. When what you really want is a private opportunity to tell the other person how wrong-headed they are, that’s not a call in. You have to want to bring connection and something more expansive than winning or proving your point. You have to come from vulnerability. The call in is not about understanding. You may not understand. One of the most common mistakes we make is to assume that understanding is key to connection. The commitment to invite sharing and to receive what’s shared gives us new information to shift and soften our point of reference, but only if we can remain open and vulnerable. And, perhaps most important, when we choose to engage in this way, we are reminded of the gift that lies in our nascent ability to sit the hell still when we feel things we don’t want to feel.


We can’t ask others to do something we are not willing or able to do ourselves.