How a Culture of Excessive Trigger Warnings Hinders Spiritual Growth

A culture of excessive trigger warnings impedes spiritual growth in a number of ways, which this article will attempt to parse out. This doesn’t mean that trigger warnings are never necessary or appropriate. Of course they are, and there are situations where we must use them.

As philosophy professor Kate Manne states, “trigger warnings are nothing new. The practice originated in Internet communities, primarily for the benefit of people with post-traumatic stress disorder. The idea was to flag content that depicted or discussed common causes of trauma, like military combat, child abuse, incest, and sexual violence. People could then choose whether or not to engage with this material.” (1) This original use of trigger warnings is both common sensical and appropriate. However, my argument throughout this post is that excessive trigger warnings can actually be counterproductive by reinforcing the idea that people are fragile or in need of protection, which is of course misguided from a spiritual perspective.

Some background: I myself used trigger warnings back when I was teaching college, mostly when I showed video clips of Shakespeare productions and films in my Shakespeare courses. For instance, I used a trigger warning before playing a 2-minute trailer of a particularly gruesome production of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, perhaps his most violent and traumatizing play. Out of a class of 120 students, one student walked out during the clip and then apologized to me for doing so. She explained that images of violence (of any sort) made her physically ill. I told her no apology was necessary, and that she didn’t need to explain herself to me. This was precisely why I had used a trigger warning, and I supported her choice to walk out, just as I supported other students’ choices to stay and watch the clip.

As a former college instructor and as an empathic person, I believe that trigger warnings are helpful and necessary when we are dealing with sensitive issues/images/content regarding rape, sexual assault, suicide, eating disorders, or physical violence that could potentially trigger a PTSD response in someone who has experienced violence and/or trauma. I believe that we must be mindful of the vast spectrum of experiences that people have gone through in their lives, never assuming that everyone will respond in the same way to the same content.

However, I also don’t believe we must coddle each other. The (true) spiritual path requires us to use everything we experience, everything that arises in our lives, as fuel for deeper awakening, awareness, and empathy for others. In other words, spiritual traditions typically ask us to use our trauma and wounds as vehicles for awakening. It seems impossible to me that we’d be able to do this unless we are willing to investigate and heal our trauma, to speak our stories openly, and to do the work of building up spiritual resilience — in other words, the capacity to remain grounded, centered, and at peace regardless of external circumstances. Even if someone says something you consider offensive. Even if you accidentally see or hear something that reminds you of a negative past experience. Even if you read something that challenges your current thinking or makes you feel uncomfortable.

Of course, trigger warnings are necessary and beneficial in certain situations, as I stated above. Moreover, just because someone wants to avoid being triggered in a particular way or in a particular situation doesn’t mean they can’t still be committed to their own spiritual growth. As Scarlett M. Young has said, “Wanting to avoid reliving traumatic events does not make someone weak or sensitive.” (2) It just means that they are naturally and understandably trying to protect themselves from further harm and suffering, which is of course something we all try to do as human beings. Therefore, there is unequivocally a place for trigger warnings when we’re dealing with distressing content and when we try to foster a culture of mutual respect and consideration.

However, there’s also a point where trigger warnings become excessive or start to actually cause psychological harm in the form of cognitive distortions or by reaffirming to people that they are fragile, weak, and defenseless. This seems especially true on college campuses, where some students sometimes expect to be protected from basically everything and where they might “refuse to engage with uncomfortable ideas.” (2) Isn’t that the whole point of going to college? Now that I’m out of academia, I often wonder what it would be like for me to teach college today. What texts would be okay to put on a syllabus? What texts would I need to exclude? What sorts of discussions would be permissible in a classroom, and which would be considered offensive or triggering or politically incorrect? How would I navigate all of this without offending anyone?

As a former academic and as a lifelong spiritual teacher, I share the belief that both college campuses and the world at large are places where we must engage in the “pursuit of truth and the broadening of knowledge.” (4) In more spiritual terms, I believe that it is our collective and individual responsibility to always strive to become more awake, more aware, more enlightened, more informed, and more able to productively engage with ideas dissimilar to our own. This doesn’t mean accepting crazy ideas or harmful beliefs, it just means accepting that people will always have crazy ideas and harmful beliefs, and then to do the work of counteracting those crazy beliefs with more aligned ideas that support the growth and freedom of everyone we meet. (It would be spiritually hypocritical to support the growth and freedom of some groups or individuals, but not of others.)

And, of course, I also believe that trigger warnings must be complemented by other forms of interventions for people who have experienced traumatic events, including counseling, therapy, psychiatric help, support networks, healing work, and the ability to (if they wish) share their stories and help others in similar situations. In other words, I believe we do more harm than good when we add trigger warnings to every piece of potentially offensive content because we’re operating under the premise that people are fragile or defenseless and must be protected. This is just another form of victimization, if we look at it from a broader spiritual perspective. We must use trigger warnings in the spirit of empathy and compassion, but with the understanding that all people are resourceful, infinitely powerful beings who can take responsibility for their own reactions to things.

Simply put, continually shielding someone from experiencing anything remotely “negative” or triggering might be — in my view — more harmful than encouraging them to work through their trauma and emotional responses to life in a safe and supportive way so that they can build up their resilience, use their suffering to cultivate wisdom and compassion, and then help others do the same. Isn’t that ultimately our purpose as spiritual beings?

Not to mention that what we now define as being “triggered” seems an essential part of spiritual development. Hypothetical example: I have a disagreement with my partner about politics, and he says or does something that makes me feel triggered. He says something that triggers an uncomfortable reaction in me (it could be the feeling of anger, shame, guilt, fear, rage, or panic — whatever it is). Instead of rushing to blame him for my reaction, it must be my own spiritual work to ask: Why has this triggered me? What am I thinking or believing that makes me feel so uncomfortable about this? What does his statement remind me of? How am I seeing myself in this situation? How am I seeing my partner in this situation? Of course, it’s harder to apply this type of internal questioning when we’re dealing with a stranger or — worse — someone we perceive as “other” or “evil” or “wrong.” But it’s even MORE necessary in those cases to explore our own positions and ideas fully, if nothing else to make sure that we are acting and speaking with integrity… because we can’t control how anyone else acts or speaks.

We don’t ask these internal questions to relieve anyone else of responsibility or accountability. But we do ask these questions to avoid blaming anyone — either the other person or ourselves. We don’t ask these questions to make ourselves feel bad or to punish ourselves for our reactions, either. We ask these questions because we want to move beyond our comfort zones, because we are committed to deep integrity within ourselves, and because introspection and inner exploration are essential components of the (true) spiritual journey.

Pema Chodron invites us to “start where we are,” not to “start when we are perfect and not triggered by anything or anyone.” As long as we are incarnated in physical form and we have egos and personalities, life will never be 100% trigger-proof. That’s just part of the human condition and why we call what we do spiritual work: it isn’t easy to deal with our own uncomfortable and sometimes distressing emotions and reactions to life.

It is also a fallacy to think that because I feel something, it must be true. This is one of the cognitive distortions discussed by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in their now-famous (or, rather, infamous?) Atlantic essay, “The Coddling of the American Mind.” (5) This distortion is called emotional reasoning: “I feel it, therefore it’s true.” In spiritual terms, this is actually an overidentification with an emotional (typically egoic) response to something in our environment. Or, in other words, the inability to separate who we really are from a temporary state or feeling. We think we ARE the emotion, rather than the calm observer behind that fleeting wave of emotion.

As we continually try to remind ourselves on the spiritual journey, we are not our emotions. We are not our emotional reactions. We are not even the self — the human personality — that gets triggered and has the potential to be triggered in the first place. We are broader and bigger and more powerful than that. We are the infinite observer behind and beyond those emotional reactions, those hurt feelings, those ego identifications. Not to say, of course, that we must not honor and address our hurts, our suffering, our past traumas. Honoring and working through these human experiences and feelings is extremely important. But we must also never lose sight of the larger spiritual perspective: that our Souls are incorruptible, they are forever aligned with Source, that they are actually as creative and powerful as that Source, that they are infinitely at peace, and that nothing can trigger them.


Sources

(1) Kate Manne, “Why I Use Trigger Warnings,” The New York Times.

(2) Scarlett M. Young, “Why Trigger Warnings Are Important,” Odyssey.

(3) Edward Schlosser, “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me,” Vox.

(4) Craig Harper, “It’s Official-Trigger Warnings Might Actually Be Harmful,” Medium.

(5) Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” The Atlantic.

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