Isn’t This Asking Me to Be Psychic? Knowing When and What to Trigger Warn


CN: Rape, eating disorders, self harm

In a surprising turn of events, I’ve had two remarkably similar conversations in the last day in which kind, empathetic, earnest people expressed some confusion about things like trigger warnings/requests that certain types of information aren’t public. In one case, someone brought up the question of personal responsibility for emotions: each of us can’t be expected to anticipate the needs of the people around us. Isn’t it asking for just that when we recommend content notices or discretion around certain topics? Isn’t it foisting emotional labor on others to ask that they know these boundaries? Aren’t people just kind of sensitive and we should all learn a bit better how to look past upsetting comments?

In another case, someone expressed confusion about how to be consistent in anticipating others’ needs while still preserving the ability to have difficult conversations and real dialogue.

If these hadn’t been my friends I would have started out with a lot of frustration with these people, because to me the principles at play here are quite obvious: if you can do less harm without much effort, then do it! It’s fairly easy to anticipate that certain things will hurt others (for example we all anticipate that yelling at others will tend to elicit negative emotions and we don’t have to be psychic to figure that out). You don’t have to know every trigger in the world, you just have to do a little bit of looking to find some common ones.

So it’s come to my attention that maybe social justice advocates have not done a good enough job of basic education about 1. what we think good rules of discourse are, 2. the underlying principles that someone can use to decide when or if to TW/CN or avoid a topic, and 3. common triggers or areas that are highly likely to cause harm.

With that in mind, I want to lay down some really basic principles for why people who come from a social justice background advocate changing language and discourse in certain ways, how that is still compatible with difficult discussions between people of opposing viewpoints, and how we can use those principles to balance our own needs and limits with the needs of others. No biggie.

What Are Some Good Underlying Rules of Discourse?

So I’m not the kind of person who really thinks that topics are Off Limits or who believes in limiting language for the sake of limiting language. I’ll talk about nearly anything, I swear a lot, whatever. I don’t really love the rules that most people have about conversation, like ask the other person about themselves a lot. I’m bad at socializing. So what is it that leads me to adjust my speech and dialogue to not include certain words or to avoid certain conversations?

My basic underlying rules are that we should be honest, we should be kind, it’s good to talk through hard things, and everyone gets to set their own boundaries: no one is ever obligated to have a conversation with you or host your conversations. All of the things I advocate for are to give everyone the appropriate amount of information to follow these suggestions, or to adjust phrasing to maximize kindness and allow everyone to actually participate.

So You Care About Other People But Also About Open Dialogues: How Do You Decide When to Self-Censor and When To Expect Others to Deal With Their Own Emotions?

Well that was a lot of a title, but here we go:

The underlying principle that I use is actually fairly utilitarian. If I choose not to say this thing/use this word/add a content notice, how much will it curtail the discourse or impact me vs. how much harm does this action have the potential to cause?

I find that more often than you would expect, it costs me very little to adjust my language and it actually opens the discourse quite a bit to different viewpoints. Let’s use an example that came up recently:

Asking someone when/if they’re going to have kids.

There are very few important and meaningful discussions that I can think of that are truly curtailed by the general principle “it’s rude and kind of invasive to ask someone about their future offspring plans if they haven’t indicated they’d like to talk about it/you don’t have the level of openness where you’d talk about their body openly.”

Sure, you might be curious but fulfilling your curiosity is not really a strong reason in my opinion. You might want to have a conversation about your thoughts and opinions about child rearing or how you think parents should have more time off after a baby or the way women are pressured to have babies, or whatever. None of those conversations rests on the ability to ask someone else about their personal choice.

Or perhaps we could be talking about rape. This is a sensitive subject, and it’s one of the places where many SJ advocates suggest that you shouldn’t make jokes/bring it up without a CN/etc. Isn’t that explicitly saying we shouldn’t talk about it?

Well not so fast. It’s asking people to be a little bit more responsible with how you talk about it. Is it really stopping you from having a conversation if you have to say to your conversational partner first “Hey, I’m going to bring up something sensitive, is that cool?” Probably not.

On the flip side, just another (ANOTHER) reminder that being triggered is a major harm. It’s not discomfort. It’s not feeling weird. It’s flashbacks and panic attacks and dissociation and self harm and actual dangerous behaviors that push you back in your recovery.

So my general principle is “how bad do I need to talk about this topic or use this specific word that I’m willing to truly do harm to another human?”. It’s rare that I come down on the side of “yeah I really need to cause this person a panic attack because it’s SO important that I talk about my opinions regarding calories with them.” In the instances where I do really think it’s important to have the conversation and it’s a relatively public forum, I include a content warning or trigger warning.

You can see my thoughts on the usefulness of trigger warnings here, my personal experience with their use here, and an explanation of how calories in particular can be triggering see here.

I would suggest that avoiding language that sets off intense, overwhelming, irrationally painful emotional reactions is the BEST way to facilitate deep discussion, because when you start a discussion by triggering someone you’ve just shut down all of their higher level functioning and sent them into survival mode. If you think that’s going to happen when you bring something up and you do actually truly want to have a conversation, you might want to consider letting people know what you’re about to bring up so that everyone can prepare and come to the conversation thoughtfully.

Wait So Doesn’t This Mean I Have to Stop Talking About Politics Completely and Won’t That Destroy Discourse?

Ok this might be a bit of a strawman but I have seen some folks feel a lot of worry about voicing any political opinions because the current atmosphere is so divisive. Let’s try using the same kind of calculus for that!

Not being able to talk about politics at all has a fairly major impact. It really does curtail discussion, and could certainly cause some amount of harm (for example if you are worried about a certain issue and want to be able to educate others about it, you would think it’s super important to discuss it openly). In addition, most people are not triggered by political discourse: they might feel upset or stressed out, but that’s something else entirely. So I’d balance that out pretty differently.

I might suggest avoiding racist or sexist language in your politics, or attacking people personally in your political conversation, or maybe even noting that you’re gonna talk politics for a while so those who are burnt out can take care of themselves, or taking a break from politics sometimes because it can cause people to lose their damn minds to talk about nothing else because those are all smaller steps we can take. All of these are little steps that give everyone more info and allow each person to opt into or out of discussions that work for them, in the same way that a trigger warning might.

Obviously there aren’t any hard and fast rules to this kind of calculus. Some people might decide that using the word stupid does too much harm because of its ableist implications and choose not to use it since they don’t see it as super difficult to remove from their vocabulary. I personally haven’t come to that same conclusion. But I think discourse would improve if we all spent some time thinking about whether the right to voice your opinion should trump someone else’s need to not feel overwhelming, intense emotional distress that often comes with clinical implications and behaviors.

That’s All Well and Good but I’m Not Psychic, How Do I Know What Will Harm Others? Isn’t That an Unreasonable Amount of Emotional Labor on Me?

This is, I think, at the root of a lot of the anxiety about content notices: how do I know? Won’t I be screwing up all the time because I can’t guess what will truly cause harm to others? I don’t think I should be required to anticipate the needs of others without them telling me.

Good point! That is hard, and it is definitely anxiety provoking to feel unsure of what will set others off.

I think that there is some level of anticipating the needs of others that is reasonable, for example we all can anticipate that yelling at others will elicit a highly negative reaction (very obvious example). What I think we’re beginning to understand is that there is a grouping of common topics that are also highly likely to cause an intense reaction.

In my understanding of trigger warnings, we have to be aware that we can’t trigger warning every possible trigger because literally anything could be a trigger. Expecting someone to label your very specific trigger is asking someone to anticipate your needs. However there are many common triggers that we can generally expect, and it’s reasonable to expect care around them (sexual assault, eating disorders, etc.). I have seen examples of folks who don’t understand that you can’t warn for everything, but that is not my general experience with trigger warnings/content notices.

You can Google lists, or find some lists of common triggers here, and here. There isn’t 100% agreement on what should be considered a common trigger, but you can get a good idea based on these lists.

Oh and cause I didn’t write enough, as kind of an addendum, I try to listen to minority communities when they say “this type of conversation can easily cause us harm” and include that in my calculus. Generally I go off of stuff like lists of common triggers, because there are some things that enough people have come out and said “this one is really rough on me!” that I’d rather just be sensitive about bringing it up.

I hope that gives a reasonably clear explanation of how I figure out when I should add a note or avoid a phrase. It’s not failsafe, I’ve had folks make requests or get angry at me when my calculus has come out differently from theirs. But that’s how I preserve discourse (and trust me, I get into a lot of discourse on sensitive topics with all kinds of people) while also doing my best to make space for people with trauma and mental illness and oppression.