Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Trigger warning: trigger warnings

It's only fair to warn you at the outset that this post may trigger... something or other. I'm not sure why trigger warnings have provoked such an intense response, but it's worth acknowledging that they have. If you don't think you can handle reading about trigger warnings, feel free to skip this post.  ;)

But now that I've warned you, I'm going to go right ahead and talk about them, because the point of trigger warnings isn't to avoid talking about painful subjects, but to talk about them with courtesy and intentionality.

The phrase "trigger warning" was popularized in those corners of the blogosphere where trauma survivors gather together to process. Those blogs exist precisely because it's important to talk about trauma, because you can't really heal if you always avoid the painful subjects.

Handling intense emotions is a learned skill, though, and sometimes it takes a lot of practice to get it right. Moreover, it takes the right kind of practice, and that's why trigger warnings matter.

As my wise flute teacher told me, and as I tell my own students now, practice doesn't actually make perfect. Practice makes permanent. Practicing scales at breakneck speed with sloppy technique does more harm than good. It's practicing, yes, but it's practicing playing badly.

In the same way, exposure to triggers can be an important part of recovery, but it's only helpful if we're prepared to practice well.

If you warn us first, then we can use it as an opportunity to practice all the awesome skills we learned in therapy. But you aren't doing us any favors by blindsiding us with unexpectedly graphic material, because without a warning, we might end up simply drowning in our memories all over again, or we might end up practicing whatever destructive coping mechanisms come automatically.

We don't need to avoid our pain, we need to channel it in productive and life-giving directions. We need to talk about hard things, and we need to read the great books that hurt. But we need to do it carefully, intentionally, and at the right time.

Which means we need trigger warnings.

It doesn't have to be disruptive. I remember my professors doing this sort of thing automatically, not because of any policy, but because they genuinely cared about their students. Far from sabotaging our education, their compassion helped us feel safe enough to engage with the material on a rigorous level.

A trigger warning policy is a poor substitute for that kind of real concern, but at least it's a step in the right direction.

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