“Triggered” and “Problematic:” Two Words That No Longer Mean Anything

Merriam-Webster defines “problematic” as “posing a problem” (i.e., almost everything), “not definite or settled” (again, almost everything), “open to question or debate” (everything, especially on Twitter), or “expressing or supporting a possibility” (???). (Amusingly, one of the synonyms listed is “ticklish.”) According to the Internet, all of the following are problematic: your favorite TV shows, a recent Microsoft software update, Idaho’s geology, art, Western leaders’ attitude toward Muslim attire, banning plastic bags, indoor dining, and COVID-19 trends.

This isn’t a matter of “one of these things is not like the other.” It’s more of an “each one of these things is sort of like the others, but also very much not, and for such a broad range of reasons that are now being obfuscated by vague language and shoddy critiques, many of which are made on Twitter, which was never a good platform for critical thinking to begin with.” This is why I never use “problematic” in my writing: it barely means anything. Unless I’m critiquing the word itself, as I’m doing here.

The term “triggered,” though slightly more controversial, has arrived at a similar point of inutility. Before the trigger warning debate enraged and/or enthralled students, professors, op-ed columnists, and trolls everywhere, “trigger” in a psychological sense referred to post-traumatic stress disorder. For someone with PTSD, a trigger is any environmental stimulus that evokes a traumatic response, such as a flashback. Many triggers are inherently innocuous; they only elicit these reactions because of their past associations with traumatic experiences. For instance, I met one person named Jennifer* who had been called “Jen” by her abuser. Thus, that nickname gave her flashbacks. As many have pointed out, avoiding triggers doesn’t help those with PTSD. In fact, it’s symptomatic of the illness. But that hasn’t stopped people from fiercely defending trigger warnings and arguing that they are necessary not only for comfort, but for safety. (I’ve got a lot of opinions here, but that’s an infodump for another time.) Importantly, only 3.6% of the U.S. population has PTSD. At this point, mentions of mental illness are a red herring in the trigger warning debate – the people I know with severe PTSD aren’t that worried about this issue because they’re struggling just to survive.

But I digress. What I’m trying to say is that the phrase “I find that triggering” is now synonymous with “I don’t like that.” This was actually one of my pet peeves in eating disorder/mental illness treatment. Interpersonal treatment drama is either profoundly exasperating or unbearably hilarious, depending on what sort of mood you’re in, and much of this drama is framed in terms of “triggers.” Of course, a lot of the people in treatment do have PTSD, but even in that context, the information-to-sound ratio of the phrase “I feel triggered” is still pretty low.

Case in point: It’s morning process group at [insert literally any treatment center here], Ava* didn’t eat breakfast. Ellie* finds this triggering, as does everyone else. Why? Because people in eating disorder treatment have eating disorders, and this is how eating disorders work. I’ve witnessed and/or been a part of this conversation approximately 5,239 times, and its course is highly predictable. If a good therapist is involved, they’ll get Ellie to express her emotions in more detailed terms, and while this sounds very cliched (“How did that make you feel?“), it can lead to productive conversation. Key operating factor: moving beyond “triggered.”

How do you make this conversation more efficient? Skip the “triggered” part and say what you mean. And that, my friends, is precision of language. Did you learn nothing from The Giver?

Gif of a woman wearing a red coat and black leggings standing in a snowy forest. She bends down, picks up a handful of snow, and throws it straight at the camera. The text "#THEGIVEREXCITEMENT" is written at the bottom of the immage.

*All names changed to protect confidentiality.

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