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August 16, 2010

Until very recently I didn’t really know what people meant by ‘triggering’.  Lots of women use the term in feminist circles, but I never really understood exactly what was going on.  It seemed to me that its effect was generally to invoke the Magic Mommas/Trembling Sisters dynamic.  A Trembling Sister would say she’d been triggered by something another woman had said, and the Magic Mommas would swoop down from on high to defend the Trembling Sister’s right never to see or hear anything that might trigger her.

Then I read Triggers and Lesbian Interactions, submitted by Fox to the Radical Healing edition of Lesbian Ethics, volume 5 number 3.  She gives lesbians permission at the end of the essay to copy/reprint her work for lesbian purposes.  Here’s how she explains the breakdown of communication, and the splitting off into factions over triggers:

First, we have not been learning to recognize what it feels like to be triggered.  We grasp the concept but don’t know when it is happening to us.  Second, even when we recognize that we are being  triggered, we don’t distinguish the triggering situation and the feelings it arouses from the original situation of abuse and the original terror.  It would seem that the second step, separating from the past, should follow automatically from the first, recognizing we have been triggered, but that has not been my experience…

By far the most important thing that has helped me in my ongoing healing from disabling emotional abuse, perpetrated on me during infancy and girlhood by my family and grade school peers has been learning how I feel when I am being triggered.  I am grateful for the ritualistic abuse survivors who have taught us about triggers, which I believe operate in many of our lives.  I may get deeply depressed, for no apparent reason.  The more anxious version is a hot, stuffed feeling radiating out into my body from a lump in my chest.  I feel hated and attacked by everyone a round me, in fact by everyone in the world. Emotionally, I am panicked and despairing.  I freeze, unable to think or talk or act, wanting only to run away.  My mind replays the tape that I will always be alone and hated, that others will always get unpredictably angry at me, that I will never have anyone to love or like or help or take care of me, or even to recognize my existence.  It is not so much that I return to infancy, as that I feel and act as though the conditions that pertained during infancy and childhood are eternal.

Because these feelings are triggered by something that happens in the present, it is very easy to perceive them as caused by something or someone in the present.  In fact the feelings are caused by the accumulation of many, many girlhood occurrences of abuse.  I see many dykes in addition to myself caught up in this conundrum.  Helpful questions to ask our sleves are:  Are the perpetrators here now?  Have they been here recently or are they likely to be here soon?  How many ways do we have to protect ourselves that we didn’t have as girls?  Healing is about living in the present.  Reality and illusion contend with each other, each fading in and out.  But with practice the ability to perceive the stress for what it is grows.

She goes on to talk more about the strategies she uses for recognizing that she is acting out learned patterns of victimization and helplessness, and for pulling herself back into the present, so that she can deal fairly and reasonably with women who have never been abusive to her, even if they have said something that throws her back into an abused frame of mind.  It really is the first time I’ve ever read anything about triggering that didn’t enable triggered women to blame those around her in the present day for causing her distress.  It’s the first time I’ve read anything that seeks to encourage women to move beyond the anxiety or anger or depression that being triggered might cause, so that being triggered doesn’t dictate their behavior, doesn’t keep them slaves to past trauma.

I’m not sure that any woman can avoid ever coming across triggering stimuli in her daily life.  And I’m not sure that any woman can stop herself from feeling triggered by present-day occurrences and situations altogether.  But women can learn not to act on those feelings.  Women can learn to place the blame for these emotional reactions where they belong – the abusers of the past – rather than scapegoating other women for triggering them.  I think women owe it to each other and ourselves to try.

  1. August 16, 2010 3:24 am

    I always thought the whole triggering thing was a white girl (and white identified) drama thingy used to make everything about them.

    I’ve thought about triggering and to me, my life does not afford me the opportunity to be triggered. It is like having to get rid of a dead body before the police arrive. You don’t have time to stand there screaming and crying, you got to get on, bury the body, and find some bleach.

  2. August 16, 2010 3:31 am

    I do think wallowing in feeling triggered and wanting everyone else to tip-toe around you so that you never have to be triggered again is kind a white-girl thing. I mean, there are certain things people might say to me that make me feel like I’m unloved and unlovable, but I never really recognized that as my being triggered because I always associated it with the sort of cry-baby “nobody should ever make me feel triggered” reaction. I didn’t realize that just falling back into emotional patterns I had as a girl WAS the triggered part. That I moved on and away from feeling triggered by reminding myself that I’m an adult now and it’s not always all about me and I can’t blame other people for my own emotional assumptions – well, that was me dealing with my own problems as adult people should. It’s not anyone else’s responsibility to never say anything that makes me feel like an unlovable, ugly little girl again.

  3. August 16, 2010 3:33 am

    And I think that’s what you’re talking about – the not having the luxury of standing around boo-hooing about feeling triggered, not necessarily not having been afforded the opportunity to be triggered in the first place. And on that I agree with you completely. The idea that being triggered makes you special and other women are supposed to cater to you and indulge you in it is definitely a white thing.

    • August 16, 2010 3:50 am

      I am not trying to make it about race, really, I’m not. But I feel, react, and act before I fill in the blanks and/or articulate in words and/or theories what I am feeling, reacting to and acting on. I can tell you what spits out of my mouth, or in my head when I am forced to bite my tongue has always been “Stop acting like a white girl.” It is what I think when my oldest daughter goes through her drama. I just want to shake her and say, “You are not fucking white so stop acting like one. You are not going to be babied like those white girls are, so stop.”

      I think I am stabbing at race (and poverty too), because like everything else the people with the most tools to begin with demand and take more, and the people who need (dare I say deserve) the hugs and the compassion are forced to pick themselves up and move forward.

      It probably plays in the stereotype of being hard. Well, if we define hard as moving forward, how can you be anything but hard.

  4. August 16, 2010 3:53 am

    I completely agree, Kitty.

    And I’ll also say that since it’s generally only white women who expect to be indulged in this, it’s generally only white women the Magic Mommas swoop in to defend. And it’s almost always a black, nonwhite, or nonwhite-identified woman who is scapegoated so that the white woman can be protected from ever having to see or hear something that triggers her. The fact that black, nonwhite, and nonwhite-identified women take it upon themselves to work through it on their own means that no one ever thinks that black, nonwhite, and nonwhite-identified women are also triggered, when it should frankly just be assumed that ALL women have triggers, and suffer emotional distress because of it, given women’s station in male supremacy.

  5. August 16, 2010 4:59 am

    “But women can learn not to act on those feelings. Women can learn to place the blame for these emotional reactions where they belong – the abusers of the past – rather than scapegoating other women for triggering them. I think women owe it to each other and ourselves to try.”

    Second this, I used to try and avoid posts that had “trigger warnings” etc on them lest my precious feelings be hurt, but then exactly like you said, learned to blame the original source of the discontent, rather than the reason it had been stimulated. Also, sitting around feeling sorry for myself really wasn’t solving anything, fuck, if anything it just makes it worse. I wish more white womyn WOULD learn to ‘suck it up’ as you’re right, it does seem to be a predominantly white thing, guess this would be an example of my own privilege shining through again seeing as hell, I’d never even thought of it like that. The fact that trigger warnings are just another way of creating distance between womyn DOES make an infinite amount of sense though.

    “…when it should frankly just be assumed that ALL women have triggers, and suffer emotional distress because of it, given women’s station in male supremacy”

    Gah this is so brilliant.

    • Mary Sunshine permalink
      August 16, 2010 11:25 am

      I’ve finally learned to avoid situations where I know I will be triggered. There are enough situations in public that will pop up unpredictably that will trigger me. In those cases I will bring to bear the skills that I have developed for myself, with difficulty, over the years . Primary in those skills is walk away, physically as well as mentally, whenever possible.

      When that is not possible, I must intentionally and patiently and carefully devise and execute a rational and centred course of action. It is still very hard after all these years.

      Failing to do so has repeatedly landed me in disastrous situations.

      Adapting as we go along is key to our survival and well being.

    • August 17, 2010 5:49 am

      You know, Mary, it’s interesting to me that you bring up walking away as a strategy for dealing with having been triggered. Very often, I have seen walking away framed as an absolute tragedy for everyone involved, and I’ve never really understood why that is. A woman feels uncomfortable in any given situation, walks away, and the Magic Mommas step in to chastise whomever “caused” that woman to walk away.

      It’s never seen as a good thing that certain discussions or events can carry on despite that woman being unable to handle it herself. It’s never seen as a good thing that any given woman knows herself well enough to walk away when she can’t take it, and to come back when/if she can. It’s only ever seen as a travesty, and a punishable offense, that any woman might ever take care of herself in this way.

      Of course, it’s the opposite when the woman doing the walking away is a black woman walking away from racist-sexist remarks by white women, or a lesbian walking away from lesbian-hating remarks, etc. But in those situations, it’s not really “triggering,” so much as a continuation of ongoing persecution sanctioned by the wider world.

  6. soulsis permalink
    August 16, 2010 1:15 pm

    And here I thought that the association of triggered-babyish actions with white women was all in my mind.

    I grew up with a crackhead father and a mother who “didn’t want her kids to not have a father” so she stayed with him… I had younger girl siblings to watch over and protect. We were poor, we had the BARE necessities and no time for weakness and bullshit. I had to learn early on how to deal with harmful, damaging, confusing “triggering” events like a sensible adult. I didn’t have time to flail about crying and having a “woe is me” style pity party. And honestly, as bad as this sounds, I have never respected weak women who cannot pull it together and deal with what’s fuckin with them. Especially not well-to-do white women.

    Its something that confused me about feminism… anything about rape and abuse send me to the roof, maybe that’s a trigger, but now I deal with it by vocalizing my feelings and not botteling them away as much, the way I did when I was a girl. Any man who discusses rape upsets me. I refuse to discuss womens oppression/liberation, rape, abuse with males. They are clueless and ignorant and often down right HATEFUL on these topics. Everything they say reeks of victim blaming (and always where there is no blame to assign) and it overwhelms me and takes me back to being called “a lil slut” at 10 because my body dared to resemble a “real woman” and “tease” a “man under the influence.” It always brings me right back there and my “adult” reaction is to wanna claw the throat out of the man who did that to me….. (or any man that takes me back to that time) but if I clawed out the throat of every man who “triggered” me I would be serving so many life sentences lol.

    It always seemed like a bullying thing to me. Another way white women lord their privilege over black, non white/identified women. “Oh noos she used my trigger word oh dear me whatever am I to do now” and the next thing you know there’s an angry vicious mob of white women calling you everything but a child of god…

    • August 17, 2010 2:55 am

      You’re exactly right, sis. These women NEVER turn that vitriol against males. The majority of them even have males commenting on their blogs, yet I’ve never seen white women ostracize males for triggering women, even though the males at least share the sex of the people who most likely abused these women in the past so that they are now triggered by present-day events.

      I think a lot of women really believe that the only woman worth defending is a feminine, weak woman. A woman who has demonstrated any ability whatsoever to heal, or at least treat, the wounds inflicted by male supremacy is too “manly” to be of concern. It goes back to what Kitty was saying about the stereotype of certain women as “hard.” The “strong black woman,” the “sturdy peasant woman” and so on – these women don’t deserve compassion at all. And, of course, no one ever makes the connection between male devaluation of women who are unfeminine, in their reactions to trauma, in their demeanor in the face of persecution, or even just in their appearance, and “feminist” devaluation of those same women.

    • Mary Sunshine permalink
      August 17, 2010 4:30 pm

      {{{ Margaret }}} Every word that you write above is gold.

    • Soulsis permalink
      August 17, 2010 8:59 pm

      DAMN thats good!

      Margie I completely agree with you here. Nothing more to say.

  7. soulsis permalink
    August 16, 2010 1:25 pm

    And what’s also interesting to me is how women turn on each other doing this. Like I can’t have my way so imma throw a fit and make it all about me, me, me so she has to pay. Its used the same way white women wriggle out of accountability for racism and het women wriggle out of responsibility for lesbophobic bullshit! Like hurt feelings are the end of it.

    Or maybe, because that kumbaya bullshit never was of interest to me, I’m not a “real” feminist. I want to be a part of a movement that EMPOWERS women, not one that provides endless excuses for bad behavior. I’ve experienced and suffered through so much. It just disgusts me to see women lamenting and crying and powerless. Trauma means different things to different ppl, ok, but if the circles are for support and whatnot, how is it supportive or healthy to disable a womans independence by treating her like an infant who is incapable of caring for herself?

    If women in “3rd world” can find their way, then wtf is the problem with american white/identified women? And naw, this ain’t the oppression olympics. I’m just sayin…

    • August 17, 2010 3:12 am

      how is it supportive or healthy to disable a womans independence by treating her like an infant who is incapable of caring for herself?

      I’ve often wondered the same thing. I mean, on one hand, a woman should take as much time as she needs to learn to overcome whatever physical or psychological obstacles past abuse has put in her way. On the other hand, how is anyone to move forward if one woman’s obstacles are to become everyone else’s?

  8. August 16, 2010 1:58 pm

    God I love this post. It so nails what has nagged at me.

    Also, a blogger named The Apostate, who I disagreed with about a fuck of a lot of things, still had a brilliant post on triggering once, where she talked about something I experience too – “triggers” can be/often are innocuous things as well. Were people supposed to not eat baloney sandwiches, or know to warn me when they do, even though for an actual while, the smell of baloney was a genuine trigger for me?

    I’m not saying “baloney and rape jokes – people should know they are the same and either get over both or slap warnings on everything!” I’m just saying triggering isn’t a) actually understood widely the way it’s described here, from what I’ve seen – it is absolutely understood to be about how a person in the present has CAUSED the feelings, rather than triggered feelings that were caused by others long ago and b) it is not at all a simple case of “things on such-and-such subject matter are what triggers are, and need trigger warnings.” Anything can be a trigger for anyone, in fact.

    And I also very much agree with the frustration at some trembling white sister behavior out there in blog land, how hard it is for me to feel a kinship with people who wilt instead of stand, at any/every opportunity. Everybody has moments where they break, but there is something about acting like another woman just CAUSED your trauma and RUINED your day/life-in-the-present by not-posting a “trigger warning” before blogging about her own experience with violence for instance – that shit tears the rag off the fucking bush for me. That is not “someone breaking under duress.” That is someone scapegoating, exactly as this post’s title suggests.

    Also one last thing I want to say about people crying and why I also have judgment at times about why it’s treated as the saddest, most tragic thing in the world (“you made her cry!”). When I was a child, yes in keeping with the excellent point the quoted writer makes about how this is shit that started for us in childhood, so when I was a child I did think that crying was weak, and I just refused to do it, and that was the case until I was almost 30, and so on the rare occasion I ever did cry, I wanted it to be treated like an international event. It was a big deal, for me! But then one time when I took LSD (I know, this is not my best argument, I’m just being honest about my “process!” ha) and accidentally watched Arsenio Hall, it made me burst into tears, and crying on acid was…so beautiful. It felt like literally there was a warm shower running on the *inside* of me. And it shifted how I thought about crying, as did some other things a short while after that.

    And now how I feel about it is – crying is like laughing, it honest to god is. It is a physical manifestation of emotions, period. It is not an event, a symptom, an injury, an “episode,” it’s not anything. It is exactly to sadness (or even joy) what laughing is to finding something funny (or even being nervous). It is embarrassing when people act like “it made her/me cry” is a tragedy that needs atoning-for. That, to me, is the only way weakness is still connected with crying. Crying itself is just something the body does, a really healthy thing it does. Acting like it’s anything more than that – much less an indication that someone has wronged you on a human rights level *merely* because those tears are present – is fucking egregious.

  9. Level Best permalink
    August 18, 2010 1:41 pm

    I’ve been reading the post and all of the comments here over and over. Brilliance everywhere, and truth, too. Thinking things over, it does seem to me that where I’ve encountered a lot trigger warnings and etc. is on white women’s blogs. I’m white, but definitely “a sturdy peasant,” Appalachian, working class and from working class, and I have NEVER had the luxury of not just going on and going on and taking care of things and people, no matter whether I had dying parents, gut-wrenching money problems, medical problems, etc. And of course no combination of such things is considered an excuse for taking a minute off from work. Oh, no! I’ve sucked it up so much I should be named Dyson.

    Just my opinion, but from what I have seen, I think concern about triggering is mostly encountered in middle- to upper-class white, heterosexual women. Does anyone else think a class element might be involved? I mean, who in the lower echelons has such privilege of avoidance?

    • Mary Sunshine permalink
      August 18, 2010 3:15 pm

      Level Best,

      I totally agree. As a woman in poverty, you know for one thing that nobody in the general public cares about how you feel about anything. So why would you even have the concept of trigger warnings?

    • August 18, 2010 4:04 pm

      Hi Level Best 🙂 Oh, there’s absolutely a class element. I can’t think of a single scenario in which there’s a race element but no class element, or vice versa, in fact. Kitty mentioned poverty too.

      Mary, the knowledge that no one cares definitely has something to do with it. When I talked about how privileged women feel entitled to everyone’s concern, I didn’t really extend the thought to include the fact that the farther away from the ideal a woman is, the more she, not only doesn’t expect other people’s concern but fully anticipates their indifference. Of course, this, too, is a survival mechanism. It can be extremely (re-)traumatizing to need and seek out compassion only to be sneered at. One learns either to do without the compassion altogether, or at the very least not to seek it out where it’s unlikely to be given (which barrenness, might I add, perhaps needlessly, is much more inescapable the less mainstream a woman is).

  10. joankelly6000 permalink
    August 18, 2010 5:51 pm

    “the more she, not only doesn’t expect other people’s concern but fully anticipates their indifference. Of course, this, too, is a survival mechanism. It can be extremely (re-)traumatizing to need and seek out compassion only to be sneered at.”

    and being called or assumed to be so “mean” as to be incapable of feeling pain/ever needing or wanting compassion is a form of being sneered at. I hate that that is never acknowledged.

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