I am dismayed to hear about a trend in higher education in which students are expecting to be given “trigger warnings” if a lecture or piece of literature might be upsetting, or in therapy speak – triggering- to them. This will allow them to opt out of learning from content that emotionality challenges them. I believe that protection from things that make us uncomfortable limits learning and growth. There is a great big world out there and much of it will make us uncomfortable. And the only way to get more comfortable with all those different or challenging perspectives? Face them, learn about them, try to understand them.
One reason this makes me very concerned is that we know from studies (recent ones focusing on attitudes about gay marriage) that exposure to difference is the best thing to reduce discrimination and negative beliefs about a different group. It is easy to hold on irrational beliefs about something you have no first hand knowledge of. Being exposed to that which makes us uncomfortable is a huge component of growth, without it we stagnate quickly. The education system should be a series of uncomfortable events, each designed to open us to new ideas and perspectives. We need to face the realities of the world we live in, much of which we might prefer to blissfully ignore.
And that is another reason I don’t support trigger warnings, the world is full of triggers. Getting stronger in the face of them is empowering. Hiding from them is not. I work with clients who struggle with PTSD and part of treatment is to identify triggers, things that send messages to their brain that they are in danger. Once they are identified, we can talk about ways to avoid some of those triggers, sure. And that can be helpful in reducing stress in the short term. But I never guarantee to a client that they will be able to arrange their life such that they can avoid all triggers. That would most likely be a very limited life. Instead we work to build up strength and new responses to triggers, so that they have less power to through someone into fear.
I see the affects, big and small, of people believing they cannot handle things that make them uncomfortable. And I know that the healing for that is, almost always, facing those things and finding that they do not have to damage you. I see the arguments for discrimination and reducing our rights being made on the basis of “I shouldn’t have to be witness to their life/behavior/art/ideas/sexual expression/choices/religious beliefs/ and on and on”. I have seen people not say something that was true and important to them for fear of upsetting a partner and the ways that reduces intimacy and connection. I have seen my own biases and blindspots change as I find myself in brand new territory, even as it scares me.
So let’s commit as conscious sexual selves to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Let’s let it strengthen us and inspire us. Let’s understand our own ability to honor and accept difference without having to let go of our own self. Let’s get excited about the stuff that makes us go, “what the X#*?” or “ick” because it means there is more out there than we can fully grasp, and that is ok. And let’s never let the world convince us that we are not strong enough to face it.