“Trigger” Should Not Be a Security Blanket

Before entering eating disorder treatment for the first time, I’d never heard the word “trigger” used in the context it is there.

I didn’t have the faintest inkling what a “protein exchange” was, or what “CBT” stood for, and (here’s the kicker) any idea why the fuck I would think I was worth recovery, but boy, they definitely made sure I had that blasted seven-letter-word burned into my brain.

I learned that talking about my weight, my behaviors, especially in using particulars, the bad thoughts I had, my trauma, my negative perceptions of myself and others, and the like, were considered triggering. Well, okay, there wasn’t really much learning involved there; that’s essentially common sense. Evidently, if you speak about such things to someone who’s predisposed to be hurt or upset by them, you’re going to elicit feelings and actions that are nothing but detrimental. Even if you talk about it bluntly enough to people who haven’t experienced these sorts of things for themselves, it can be disturbing. 

Hell, I look back on my own damn story and the words I used and I am disturbed by it. And it’s my life; I can’t not know every detail about it.

It just took a little refining and being brought up to speed on where the boundaries with these topics are for me to grasp it. Okay, don’t mention how many pounds you lost. Don’t talk about how you used a behavior and begin adding elaborate, graphic details. Don’t talk about yourself in a way that makes others feel self-conscious because they possess similar traits.

Let me clear something up right here and now so that it’s not up for debate. I have no desire to say or do things that will upset people. And I’m not talking about the kind of “upset” that means you’re offended by my opinion or you feel sad for me. I’m talking about the kind of “upset” that means I have somehow caused you damage by sending your burdens and fears collapsing onto you.

And for even the best intentions, I can’t prevent this from ever happening. Because I don’t know everyone’s stories. There are obviously some things that just shouldn’t be discussed, and I think if you have at least a couple brain cells to rub together, you’ll more than understand that. And whenever I find out that I’ve crossed a line, I apologize sincerely and mark it down in my mind to avoid next time. All we can ask of anyone is the basic human decency to be considerate and sympathetic towards one another, after all. For my part, I simply try my best to refrain from upsetting people in the way that I described above.

Notice something?

I haven’t used the word “trigger” to describe the action of causing someone distress, nor have I used it as an adjective. 

I cannot count the number of times, during the year or so that I’ve been involved with some level of treatment, that I heard someone say something like, “That’s triggering to me,” or “I feel triggered,” or “_____ triggers me.”

There are two reasons why I take issue with these phrases.

But before I go into that, here’s another disclaimer-type thing: I know I’ve said this sort of stuff before, too. Sometimes I still do. It was how I was taught to communicate what I was feeling in this sort of… delicate way that was universally understood.

Which leads me right into my first qualm with the matter.

I was taught to use the word “trigger,” in whatever form grammatically suited the sentence, ubiquitously.

Someone said, “I feel fat today.” Thus: “That’s a triggering thing to say.”

Someone mentioned how they had trouble finishing their meal the other day. Thus: “Please don’t talk about that, it triggers me.”

Someone body checks as they walk past a window in front of me. Thus: “Can you not do that? I get triggered by that kind of stuff.”

Someone brings up a behavior a staff member corrected them for. Thus: “You shouldn’t do that. It’s triggering.”

Someone asks, “Why do they get to do that, but not me?” Thus: “Don’t compare yourself to them, it might trigger them.”

I mean, I get the sentiment. It’s a quick and easy way to convey to someone that they may have not been appropriate. It isn’t berating them and making them feel stupid; it’s relatively gentle.

Here’s the thing: telling someone they’ve “triggered” you or that something is “triggering” raises the red flag, but that’s it. There will be some situations where logic prevails and the other person understands what was wrong about what they said or did. But far more often, they’ll be left clueless as to what particularly bothered you, and more importantly, how to avoid doing the same in the future.

By teaching that the best way to handle a situation like this is to jump to use the word that I’ve typed so infernally many times already that I’m just gonna run-on about it here and you’ll know what I mean… to use it, and only it…

We lose our ability to effectively communicate our needs and desires when we do that. We cut off our chance to help our peers avoid repeating their error. We just slap a big “X” across the moment and turn our backs on it, saying, “Well, that’s off-limits now.”

How about, “I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t talk about yourself using those words. It makes me feel sad and it’s not helping me or you get better”? Or “Hey, I just wanted to let you know that when you talk about ____ it reminds me of my own behaviors, and if you could not go into as much detail, that would be really great”? Or “The part that bothered me was when you said _____. Some people might feel hurt hearing that because it sounds like you’re invalidating their opinion”? The list could go on and on.

The difference is that in each of those very generic and slapdash examples, there’s far more directness and explicitness when it comes to the issue at hand AND how to preclude it in the future. I don’t really see how any of those sentences would make someone feel attacked. And they might be a little bit longer, but good grief, they’re hardly paragraphs of explanation.

Instead of reducing ourselves to a vocabulary including one all-encompassing word, how about inviting more depth, directness, and, to be quite frank, genuineness, into our conversations? Sounds good to me.

My second problem with “trigger” used with these connotations is even more bothersome to me.

In treatment, especially in levels that weren’t quite as intensive and frightening, and where we got to spend a lot of time with one another, we’d commonly start saying “TRIGGER!” or “TRIGGERED!” whenever something came up that could, in some bizarre and convoluted way, be connected to something that might actually upset someone. It was all in the interest of humor, obviously. You gotta take what you can get when your life is round-the-clock combat of what you fear the most. Especially when there’s also countless rules and tears and anger and screaming and such things involved.

I participated in this; yes, I did. Because, naively enough, I found it harmless at the time. It was funny to me. The topic of clothes (literally, just the items themselves) was brought up? ‘TRIGGERED!” Someone did a little bounce of joy when they received mail? “TRIGGERED!” A song played where an item of food was mentioned? “TRIGGER!”

My favorite example, because it’s so glued into my brain, is when I was asked what the best part of my day had been during the evening group where we discussed what had happened. I smirked a little because it had been a pretty (okay, a complete and total) shit day, and replied with only a mild amount of seriousness, “Coffee.” Because yes, coffee will always be a good part of my day. My roasted, caffeinated savior.

Without skipping a beat, the RC (that’s the abbreviation for residential counselor… also known as someone hired to work with us and provide us with supervision and what we needed… yet another thing that was glossed over in my introduction to the treatment world, but hey) who was running the group, emphatically told me, “FOOD ITEM.”

I looked at her, completely baffled. “No, coffee. There’s nothing wrong with saying ‘coffee’. Mostly everyone here drinks it and loves it.” Then I glanced around the room and offered, “Is anyone ‘triggered’ by my saying the word ‘coffee’?” (Note that every time “coffee” left my mouth, this funny little echo kept repeating, “food item”… sigh.) Not a single hand went up; no one said yes; in fact, we all started to laugh. 

“No one is upset by it, and they shouldn’t be,” I continued. “Anyways, the best part of my day was coffee-“

“FOOD ITEM. We don’t want to TRIGGER anyone.”

At that point, I just labeled this a lost cause and continued on with my explanation of my day.

Granted, this staff member was relatively new to the job and as such was probably more inclined to tightly enforce rules like this that, honestly, weren’t necessary.

If the simple utterance of a word like “coffee” or “lettuce” or “pizza” or what have you sends you into that much distress, I seriously advise that you seek out help immediately. I’m not being rude or facetious at all. That requires intense intervention.

My eating disorder got pretty severely out of hand, to understate things exponentially. And hearing that I would have to eat certain things was very anxiety inducing. Looking at it could give me panic attacks. But never once did hearing people say the damn words just to say them bother me in the least.

Look. This world is full of people who are going to say some dumb shit; myself included sometimes. And oftentimes, it’ll be REALLY dumb shit.

We can’t walk down the street with our eyes shut, though, and avoid looking at the woman who seems unhealthily thin because it “triggers” us. We can’t refuse to eat our dinner because our cousin didn’t finish his meal and that is “triggering.” We can’t find out that a piece of clothing doesn’t fit and thus decide to only wear bathrobes or whatever because we’re “triggered” by this realization. We can’t live in a world where there’s incessant and pervasive talk about diets, weight loss, beauty standards, enabling and encouraging illnesses, poor self-image, judgment of others, people of all shapes and sizes, ignorance, stupidity, and hatred, and just wave our hands and magic “trigger” wand and make it all go away.

People can suck sometimes. Life can suck. Massively (insert any number of euphemisms here). And it is inevitable that sometimes, it will get under your skin. It will shake you. It will make you see red and cry until your nose is raw. Some of this is preventable. If you employ what I talked about earlier; use your words appropriately, succinctly, and well, you will save yourself a lot of pain.

But other times, there’s nothing that can be done. 

Well, except this. And it won’t always work, but it’s a pretty good place to start.

Put up your walls. Strengthen your skin. Develop your tolerance. Come up with reassurances to give yourself. Rely on family and friends. Speak out, if necessary. 

Tell yourself that, fuck it, you’re going to put on your armor and wade your way out into the daily battle that is every day on this earth, for whatever reasons you personally have.

Again, I realize that this only goes so far. However, you can’t just resign yourself to feeling victimized. You can’t throw your arms up and say, “Oh well, guess I’m doomed.”

Real life is REAL. 

This became alarmingly apparent to me when I began to tier down in treatment and return to regular life bit by bit. People had bodies I idolized. They asked for the “low-carb” option. They laughed about someone’s anxious reaction. They made comments about how my appearance had changed. They made rude comments about others. They had zero idea about what an eating disorder was. It was like a train to the face (something that I have no knowledge of but can only imagine).

You’re so protected in treatment. And that’s to facilitate your ability to do the hard work of starting to kick your disorder the fuck out of your life. The most difficult steps are the first ones you take. So we get treated with the safety gloves. We sit down to meals with each other at specific times of day. We all endure our difficulties and bond over them. We don’t comment on the food. We learn about how to be nice to one another. We talk about our problems, within limitations. We support one another. We become friends with one another. We have a routine. We are supposedly meant to refrain from social media (though this is clearly impossible to enforce). We can talk to staff whenever we feel upset, sad, angry, you name it. We get to watch movies and crochet and listen to music and make jokes. We have to earn being able to go outside by being compliant and preparing ourselves for the challenge of doing the same outside of treatment.

And then BOOM. Here comes reality, and it’s so much different. There’s only so much that can be done to soften the blow. Any time someone makes a dramatic transition, there’s bound to be some turbulence. 

There’s definitely no benefit in teaching people that they’re supposed to go through life censoring people or requesting things be done a certain way or, in general, retaining habits that are abnormative and maladaptive. 

I’m still learning how to roll with the punches. Life hits pretty hard sometimes. But guess what?

I can defend myself. And, as I gain the strength and power and courage to do so… I can fight back. 

And so can you. ❤

(image is my own)

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One thought on ““Trigger” Should Not Be a Security Blanket

  1. I never really got the meaning of this word either, until I was introduced to this exact context, while I do not have similar experiences like you have through therapy (my road to recovery is very different), the reality of the safety blanket, the warm bath you get slowly eased into and you start healing, only then to be exposed to the harsh cold of the outside world. That is something I have come to face ever since therapy stopped.

    Life is hard an unforgiving, especially when you are incapable of applying a filter for yourself. That is not to say that people or events should be censored in any way, but the perception thereof and how you deal with it are important. The voices inside your head that tell you you are wrong, bad or even far far worse things, those need to be edited out, or at the very least toned down to a more manageable level. I hope that we all can be more forgiving to ourselves and allow for some setbacks and not giving up on the first few hurdles.

    I am drawn in by the words you weave and the strength they possess, that you possess. I hope to be reading your words in progressively more powerful tones of recovery. Thanks for sharing,

    Liked by 1 person

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