Many people have an adverse reaction to the phrase “trigger warning.” They see it as a kind of coddling as if it is proof that people are getting too sensitive. After all, do you really need to warn people before you speak about sensitive topics? Doesn’t that place another barrier in the way of open communication?
Recently, I recommended a book to an acquaintance. I told him, as a trigger warning, that it contained themes of sexual assault. He questioned the need for a trigger warning, saying that he’s perfectly capable of deciding for himself whether to read something. I pointed out that I’d recently considered recommending this book to a friend who had been sexually assaulted, before realizing how it might affect him.
This made my use of a “trigger warning” more understandable. It is not that sexual assault is too taboo to talk about. Rather, I want to avoid potentially upsetting someone whose personal circumstances I don’t know.
In fact, this is something we do all the time.
There are many topics people have strong opinions about. The war in Iraq, for example, is a topic of debate for just about every American. There is nothing wrong with expressing your opinion about it.
But what if you are speaking to a veteran of the war? Someone you know went through tremendous trauma in Iraq, losing friends and coming close to death. In all likelihood, you would be a little more cautious in the way you express your opinions, if you decide to confront the topic at all.
The term “trigger warning” is primarily a kind of catch-all for sharing stories or posts on the internet. There are those who consider it unnecessary to be that sensitive. They are not totally wrong. Most people who have experienced trauma have had to face much bigger challenges than being reminded of their trauma by something they happen to read online.
However, in using trigger warnings, you are making a choice to be sensitive. You are reminding yourself that you do not know what people have gone through. You are reminding yourself that many experiences are more common than we like to think.
This sensitivity is not preventing you from speaking freely about a topic. On the contrary, you are simply ensuring that when you do so, you are less likely to cause distress to another person. You are acknowledging that the topic is not just theoretical and that your opinions make a difference.
When it comes to mental illness, we should remember that the pain is usually hidden. You do not usually know if someone is suffering from a mental illness. Increased sensitivity in how you speak is not strictly necessary, but it is important to build that sensitivity in yourself. In this way, you become more self-aware and more empathetic to others.