One of the peculiarities of running a blog is that you get access to data about the search terms that bring people to that blog. And, on one level, that’s kind of creepy in the non-specific way that anything which reveals how much the internet remembers is creepy. And a lot of the time the search terms that bring people to my blog are pretty much to be expected, although often also a bit annoying—quite a lot of people seem to come here searching for Alexis Hall free book torrent, and while I would like to think that they’re looking for the free content I do actually give away on the website, I suspect a lot of them are just trying to pirate me. Which I suppose is flattering in a way.
Recently, I’ve noticed that some traffic to my blog has come from people searching for the phrase “why do i get triggered so easily over non con stuff”, hence the title of this post. And, to an extent, I’m not sure how to process that information. I actually prevaricated quite a lot about writing this post because I didn’t want to give the impression that I was calling someone out, or trying to address or reach out to anybody, because I’m really not. I feel that would be very much not my place. On the other hand, I also don’t want this post to just be me pontificating narcissistically about what might lead a person to Google for that term or what the answers to that question might be. Because that feels like I’m just co-opting someone else’s narrative for blog content. So in this post I’m going to use the search term as a kind of jumping off point to address some thoughts about triggering and noncon that I vaguely hope might be of benefit to anyone for whom the phrase “why do i get triggered so easily over non con stuff” has resonance.
Because, right now, if you Google for that phrase one of my old blog posts about how non con is complicated, y’all seems to be one of the top hits. And I don’t think it’s a very good thing to find if you’re Googling for that particular question.
I don’t like to describe terms as getting de-valued just because their usage evolves beyond that which some people consider (often incorrectly) to have been the original. But I do think there’s been a shift in the way we understand the word “triggered” over the past few years. I think when I first started hearing the term it referred quite specifically to content that reminds a reader (or viewer or whoever) of similar experiences from their own life in a way that provokes a negative reaction which, to an outside observer, might seem disproportionate to the stimulus. Going right back, it ties to things like PTSD and people for whom a sight, sound or, indeed, smell that would be completely innocuous to the general public triggers an emotional connection to a related traumatic event. And I should stress that I am in no way an expert here. And I strongly suspect that PTSD flashbacks are one of those complicated psychological issues where the popular perception is very divorced from reality.
I think these days, when we talk about things that are “triggering” we’re usually not talking those kind of, for want of a better term, second order associations. Rather the term tends to be used for specific reference to or portrayal of traumatising content that is likely to be significantly more impactful to a person who has experience (direct or indirect) of that traumatising content. Hate speech is quite a straight forward (although, as ever, probably more complicated than it seems) example here: as a white British person, I can watch a movie in which the bad guys consistently use ethnic slurs and just treat it as another thing that’s bad about the bad guys, whereas for other people that kind of content would be uncomfortably close to their real life.
More recently the term seems to have developed a host of subsidiary meanings, often just being used for “strongly upset by” and sometimes used in a disparaging way to mean “being a big crybaby about”.
All of which puts the question of how one should respond to one’s own triggeredness in a very difficult place. To step back onto slightly safer (although not much safer) ground I think you can draw quite strong analogies here between being triggered by something and being offended by something. Not in the sense that they’re similar experiences but in the sense that they occupy similarly complicated cultural positions. In particular, when it comes to being offended, people tend to perceive it in two different ways, and the ways in which they perceive it aren’t necessarily consistent but vary from context to context. We will sometimes see offence as resulting from a flaw in the person who causes it and we will sometimes see it as resulting from a flaw in the person who was offended. And even speaking strictly about offence we have to be careful of false equivalences here because while not everybody draws the lines in the same place, most people agree that there are lines and there is a difference between, for example, a member of ethnic minority who is offended because someone has used a specific ethnic slur explicitly to insult them and some jerk who gets offended at being ID-ed while buying alcohol at a store which has a clear policy of ID-ing people who buy alcohol. And there a whole lot of grey and not actually grey but some people think they’re grey areas in the middle that I’m not going anywhere near, but you get the point.
And the thing is some people make it a point of pride not to get offended by stuff. And it would be easy to say that these people are mostly white men who fail to recognise that it’s easy not to be offended by things that don’t actually affect you, but that’s kind of an over-simplification. There are plenty of people who belong to marginalised groups and who feel that there is a power in rising above and not being bothered by things that other members of those same groups think there is a power in challenging. Because, hey guess what, groups of people aren’t monoliths.
Bringing this back to triggering and being triggered, I think the centre of gravity is in a slightly different place as we are generally comfortable as a society with the idea that there can be social and cultural value in being deliberately offensive, whereas it’s a lot harder to make the case for the social and cultural value of being deliberately triggering. To take a difficult example, the Australian comedian Tim Minchin has song called Fuck the Motherfucking Pope, which is deliberately offensive but is deliberately offensive in order to (from Minchin’s perspective) highlight the hypocrisy of being more concerned about the risk of hurting the feelings of religious people than the actual child abuse to which the song is a response. And you can absolutely make the case that the best way to challenge hypocrisy and speak truth to power is not, in fact, to insult a people of group that has actually, historically, been way less powerful than we like to pretend. But it’s hard to deny that there’s a coherent political purpose there. By contrast, I honestly cannot think of any good reason to just deliberately remind specific people of traumatic things that have happened to them, unless you’re just being an arsehole. Point being, there’s the same spread of opinions but offending people has a certain cache that triggering people doesn’t currently have (although, actually, there are bits of the internet where that ship has already sailed).
I think the other key difference between being offended by something and being triggered by it is that, for a lot of people, being offended can feel empowering, because it takes you to an angry place in which you feel motivated to do something productive. And I should stress that I’m not trotting out the old canards about people “trying”, “wanting” or “looking” to be offended but I am suggesting that there is potentially real social and political value in being able to say, “this is offensive, I am offended by it”. By contrast, being triggered by something just makes you feel shit. It takes you to a place of helplessness and it’s a feeling you always want to avoid.
And, again, people will disagree about in whom the flaw lies here. And I should probably say that I don’t actually think expressing these things in terms of flaws is very helpful but I feel that’s the cultural context in which we operate (and possibly part of what makes these kinds of things so difficult to talk about). I did actually blog about trigger warnings many years ago and it’s always struck me as really odd that people object to them because, to me, they’re just information about the sort of thing that could be in a book. But I think some people feel that being told that the thing they’re writing could be triggering to someone is the same as being told the thing they’re writing is flawed in some way. And even though we all rationally accept that our works are imperfect it can feel bad to hear something that you perceive as telling you that the thing you chose to do is a thing you should not have chosen to do. Again, I should stress that I don’t think that’s what trigger warnings do, but I suspect that some writers might feel like that’s what they do. Which might explain why they don’t like them.
And, of course, from the other perspective we have this (I would argue genuinely toxic) tendency within some cultures and subcultures to view as flawed anyone who expresses hurt or discomfort at anything. This is the culture that leads to calling people snowflakes because they don’t particularly want to be reminded of (without wanting to be either too specific or too stereotypical) all the ways in which their life has been shit and the life of the person calling them a snowflake usually hasn’t been shit.
And this complex, messy, often I feel genuinely harmful social context is, I think, why I found the search term “why do i get so easily triggered over non con stuff” so affecting.
I promised myself that I wasn’t going to let this post devolve into speculation into the sort of person who might be searching for that particular search term. But I do think that the choice of words highlights some interesting complications of our cultural understanding of these issues and the ways in which we can interact with them. The question “why do I get so easily triggered” for me underscores the conflict between a number of different ways that these things can be perceived.
The interpretation of the question “why am I so easily triggered” that I would personally consider most dangerous is one that’s grounded in self-condemnation. That is a response to a cultural framework that treats suffering, or acknowledging one’s own suffering, as weakness or self-indulgence. I am uncomfortably aware that literally millions of people go through life not only feeling shitty, but surrounded by people who tell them that they’re weak and wrong for feeling shitty. This makes me profoundly angry (I am, ironically, offended by it).
Being easily triggered by something is not a character flaw. It’s not a weakness. It’s just a thing. We have this deeply problematic and largely unchallenged culture which teaches us that the experiences of people who face difficulties, or disadvantages, or even disabilities are valid only if they rise above them and live their lives the same way as people who do not experience those things. We are so keen as a society to celebrate people who triumph in the face of adversity that we ignore the fact that those people are, by and large, outliers. Being triggered by something (either in the sense of being strongly upset by it or in the sense of being reminded of your own personal traumatic experiences by it) is not an inherently less worthy reaction than not being triggered by it. It’s a less pleasant reaction, certainly. It’s reaction that makes you feel disempowered. But we (as a culture) are often unwilling to admit that how empowered or disempowered you feel is often more a function of how much power you have than your attitude or ability to think positively. And while it feels terrible to be easily triggered by stuff, I suspect it feels even more terrible to be triggered by stuff and believe that the fact you’re triggered by it means that there’s something wrong with you.
And, again, I should stress that I’m not speculating about the people who have come to this blog via that search term. I’m really talking about basically anyone who has ever been made to feel worse because they haven’t been allowed to feel bad about something shitty. And I know for a fact that this covers a great many people.
All of which is to say: it is okay to be easily triggered by things.
Or to put it another way: if you are easily triggered by something, then for the sake of your own mental health you need to find a way to deal with it, but avoiding the thing you find triggering is as valid a coping mechanism as trying to be less triggered. And, obviously, avoiding things that trigger you means accepting living within certain limitations, which can itself can feel bad in different ways. But, then, attempting to “get over” one’s triggers is never guaranteed to work. And the process will almost certainly be on some level traumatic.
non con stuff
I should stress that I’m using non con here very much as an example, just because it’s the example that comes up in the search term that inspired this post. I’d likely to be writing the same post whatever the subject.
If you have an aversion, be it finding something triggering, being deeply offended by something, just really disliking something or being afraid of it, you are faced with a fairly simple choice. Confront the aversion or accept it. I’ve said “as a society” about ten million times in this post but I’m afraid I’m going to say it again: we as a society have this tendency to assume that confronting aversions is always the right way to deal with them. And I genuinely appreciate that for some people this is an important part of the way they see the world and the way they live their life. For some people, to use the oldest cliché in the big book of old clichés, there is nothing to fear except fear itself. Some people would always rather do something they don’t want to do than be prevented from doing something by the mere fact they don’t want to do it.
Because I’m a glib, meta bastard I like to feel that I have internalised the doctrine that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” to such an extent that I have stopped being afraid of fear. I have joined John Wilmot in the conclusion that all men would cowards if they durst. And I’m partly being facetious but I’m mostly really not. Because at the end of the day there are a finite number of things you can do in your life and it feels borderline irrational to me to spend time doing things you know you’ll probably dislike (or, indeed, find genuinely harmful) just for the sake of proving to yourself that you can do them. I used to do quite a lot of things that I didn’t want to do and I told myself that this was courage when in truth it was just fear of missing out or looking weak.
And I admit that I am a bit hyper-rational but, these days, when given the chance to do something I ask myself two very simple questions: what do I get out of it and what does it cost me?
This is going to be the bit where I talk about non con. Now, I don’t read non con. I should stress that I have nothing against it, I have nothing against people who write it or read it, and I completely respect that there are people who feel they get something important out of writing and reading non con. That it helps them safely confront ideas, issues and feelings that they couldn’t safely confront in a different context. I absolutely get that. And I also get that a lot of the people who feel that they have these positive reactions to reading non con also find the experience of reading it difficult. And for some people there is real value in a book that you find at once emotionally devastating and uplifting. But I know myself pretty well and I feel it’s profoundly unlikely that I would have that kind of reaction.
I am one hundred percent not the person to talk to if you are not sure whether you should try reading non con. But I am one hundred percent the person you should talk to if you are basically convinced that you don’t want to read non con but feel that this makes you weak or judgemental. I am sure there are people who find non con triggering but read it anyway and find value in reading it. This is fine. This is great. More power to those people. There may even be people who find non con triggering and, through reading it, come to be less triggered by the sort of stuff they are reading and possibly even similar triggers in everyday life. Again, that is great. That is a genuine social good.
But it’s not for everybody and it won’t work for everybody. And it is completely okay to conclude that benefits of being a reader of this particular subgenre of fiction are not worth going through the emotional distress that you feel you will suffer in reading it.
This wouldn’t be an Alexis Hall post if I didn’t go off on a massive tangent about critical thinking. There’s a very important concept in data analysis called survivorship bias. In short, it’s that the information you have about something is biased in favour of things that survive the information gathering process. There are loads of cool examples of this, of which my favourite is the one about fighters in WWII.
In the Second World War we were trying to work where to the put the armour on our airplanes for maximum benefit without putting too much stress on our limited reserves of metal. So what we did was we looked at planes that came back from the front, looked at where they’d been shot and assumed that those bits of the plane were the bits that were most likely to take damage and therefore the bits that needed protection. But this didn’t work. The same number of planes got shot down. And the very clever boffins at HQ thought about this for a while and they realised that the reason it didn’t work is that the planes that had been shot in those locations were the ones that came back. So all they were doing was adding more armour to the bits of the plane that the plane could fly perfectly well without. They started armouring the bits of the plane that were coming back undamaged and more planes started to survive.
Survivorship bias is also why you have to be really sceptical about pretty much all inspirational talks and speeches. Because the only people who get asked to make those speeches are the ones who are already successful. No-one ever has the initiative to go down the dole office (I think it’s Job Centre Plus these days, but let’s not split hairs), find an unemployed person and get them to stand up in a room full of people and say “Everybody said I was crazy when I quit my job and poured my lifesavings into my tech start up and they were right because I lost everything” even though that’s what happens to most people who do that.
This is going somewhere, I promise.
My first book, Glitterland, deals with some topics that I’m very aware a lot of people find very triggering. It deals with depression, suicide, suicidal ideation, self-harm, and so on. Every so often I will get an email from someone that says “I originally didn’t want to read Glitterland because I thought I’d find it really triggering, but I did anyway and even though I found it really hard to read I’m really glad I did.” Obviously these emails are great and I love getting them. But, the thing is, they’re another example of survivorship bias because you’re much, much more likely to email the author if that’s your experience than if you try reading the book, finding it triggering, and have stop halfway. Or, for that matter, if you decide (correctly) that you’ll find the book triggering and make the perfectly reasonable choice to just not read it.
The thing is, I would never recommend that somebody read Glitterland if they think they’ll find it triggering. If I just went by my emails I’d be a lot more blasé about this because the feedback I’ve received suggests that most people who think they’ll find it triggering are wrong. But my emails don’t reflect reality. I am pretty much one hundred percent certain that most people who think they’ll find my book triggering will, in fact, find it triggering. And if they choose not to read it they are probably making the right call. I am, of course, flattered and grateful when people decide to read it anyway, especially if they do not regret the decision. But, to me, it would be a staggering failure both of humility and of empathy to ever tell a person that I believe that they will be more negatively impacted if they miss out on reading my book than if they read it and are triggered by it.
I’ve put this subheading in because I sort of feel I should have a conclusion but, as is so often the case, I, um, don’t. I have a position, which is very strongly that you should never feel bad about your own reactions to things or interpret behaviours in which you engage for your own safety as weakness. And, of course, the deeply ironic thing is that I suspect that my other post about non con from 2014 will still wind up being a better hit for the phrase ‘why do i get triggered so easily over non con stuff’ than this one. But I guess I wanted to say something anyway.
Because I think actually we all worry about why things upset us and it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that it’s okay to just feel bad sometimes. And that this doesn’t say anything about you except sometimes you feel bad.