A Few Quick Thoughts About Triggers That Trigger

15 Sep

One thing that doesn’t seem to get a lot of discussion is what happens and what we can do when two equal and opposing triggers meet.

We tend to often talk about a lot of triggers as if they are are universal and objective and, thus, avoidable by things like trigger warnings. But while it’s true that some things are widely understood to require trigger warnings – eating disorders, for example, or sexual assault, or violent scenes – the truth is that triggers are based on our own personal experiences and traumas. Some traumas (and therefore triggers) are more commonly shared than others – like the things listed above – but some are a bit more niche. And many people (myself included) don’t always know what’s going to trigger them until that train has more than left the station, which can obviously make dodging triggers a bit tricky.

But what I’d really like to talk about here is what happens when one person’s triggers set another person off.

Let me try to explain what I mean.

Imagine you’ve got two people, Jamie and Parker (two non-existent people with deliberately gender-neutral names), who are in a romantic relationship.

Jamie is haunted by fears of abandonment due to some kind of past trauma, perhaps from a close friend or a partner or a parent – it doesn’t really matter in this scenario. What triggers them is anything that gives them the sense that someone is leaving them forever.

Parker was previously in an emotionally abusive relationship. What triggers them is anything that gives them the sense that their personal boundaries are being ignored or they are being manipulated into feeling or doing something that is wrong or uncomfortable.

Most of the time Jamie and Parker have a wonderful, respectful, mutually caring relationship.

But every once in a while something happens that brings up all kinds of feelings in either or both of them, and then things get tricky.

In this case, let’s say Parker was thoughtless about coming home from a late night. They did not adequately communicate with Jamie what was going to happen – let’s say they texted that they might be “a bit late” but then stayed out until 3. Jamie was sending all kinds of texts, but Parker couldn’t get them because there wasn’t great reception where they were. Parker was having a great time, not realizing that Jamie was at home getting increasingly worked up.

By the time Parker got home, Jamie’s feelings of abandonment were in full force. And Jamie then said things that they don’t mean because they were very upset and wanted Parker to understand the full extent of how upset they were. So maybe Jamie then said, “You don’t care about me. If you cared about me, you would have known that this would upset me. You’ve never cared about me. You only care about yourself.”

Now, if Parker didn’t have the history they do, they might have recognized these words for what they were: a hurt person clumsily and inappropriately expressing their hurt.

But because Parker has a history of being emotionally abused by someone who would use similar language – “you don’t care about me, you only care about yourself” – in order to avoid responsibility and to pressure Parker into doing things they don’t want to do, they find themselves growing increasingly upset by what Jamie is saying.

At this point, both Jamie and Parker have their own respective triggers going on. Because of what those specific triggers are, the more upset each person gets the more they inadvertently trigger their partner. So the more Jamie feels that they are abandoned, the more clingy they become. And the clingier Jamie becomes, the more Parker feels that Jamie is deliberately trying to push their boundaries. And the more Parker thinks that their boundaries are being violated, the more they try to hold Jamie at arm’s length. And the more Jamie is held at arm’s length, the more they panic and scramble to get some kind of promise of love or commitment from Parker.

And so on. And so forth.

Ideally we would treat the words “I’m triggered right now” as if they are the end of a discussion; after all, if someone is upset then we do our best to minimize what’s upsetting them. But what do we do when a situation is upsetting to multiple people in multiple ways? And when those people’s reactions only serve to upset each other more?

If I had any answers to this I would probably write a real post for a real outlet that pays me real cash money. But I don’t have any good answers, and I’ve seen too many friendships crash and burn over two people who are deeply upset and feel like they are the One True Grieved Party and can’t or won’t see that how they’re reacting is triggering their friend just as much as they are triggered.

The only answer I can think of is to be willing to see a world wider than yourself where traumas vary and triggers aren’t always apparent (which I know from personal experience can feel impossible when you’re deep down in the feelings rabbit hole). And if we can’t do that in the moment, then at the very least we need to be willing to swallow our pride later, once the worst of the emotional reaction to the trigger has passed, and apologize for how we might have lashed out at someone else in the midst of our own pain. I don’t think that intentions never matter, and I think sometimes the way people behave in the face of triggers is more than justified, but I also think we’re all big enough and aware enough to apologize for hurting someone. Even if the hurt was unintended and inadvertent.


Speaking of rabbit holes, here’s a cute one


17 Responses to “A Few Quick Thoughts About Triggers That Trigger”

  1. thepunkbutterfly September 15, 2016 at 3:22 am #

    hi! you’re one of my absolute favorite bloggers of all time and actually inspired me to start blogging so i thought i should let you know how much i just love your writing.
    also, just so you’re aware, i think you switched person a and person b after you described their triggers… person a was abandonment and person b was abuse when they were first described, then they were switched for the rest of the post. just thought you might want to know! love your blog so ridiculously much!
    xxx abi

    • bellejarblog September 15, 2016 at 2:59 pm #

      Yes! I fixed it in the online version and just put names in instead. I always forget that a draft gets sent out by email to all of my subscribers as soon as I hit “publish”

    • bellejarblog September 15, 2016 at 3:00 pm #

      Also: thank you! ❤

  2. Miep September 15, 2016 at 3:37 am #

    I think what you are describing here is two complementary sorts of attachment disorder.

    • Dr. Sheila Addison September 21, 2016 at 6:40 pm #

      I wrote a long comment to this that failed to post and got lost. :-/

      In short – essentially you’re right, though I’d say “insecure attachment” or “attachment injury” rather than “disorder.” Dr. Sue Johnson’s book “Hold Me Tight” explains the processes of attachment injury that pull couples into this kind of complementary loop. Emotionally Focused Therapy is the approach she has designed based on years of process research to help create safe, trust-building, attachment-enhancing experiences that stabilize and enhance couples’ sense of safety and intimacy. Many folks benefit just from reading “Hold Me Tight” for themselves, though. (Disclaimer: I’m a couple therapist who does EFT in my private practice. But the outcome research on it suggests it really works!)

  3. 1weaver September 15, 2016 at 4:43 am #


  4. ClaireD September 15, 2016 at 5:55 am #

    This is really well put. Humans are so complex and the simple idea that we honour one person’s trigger or just one aspect of their past experience is quite naive, possibly dangerous and damaging. But simplistic solutions make for better clickbait!

  5. vishalbheeroo September 15, 2016 at 10:20 am #

    A powerful post on pulling the trigger that makes us tired and drained emotionally. I’ve read that we need to keep calm and avoid to react or for that matter think of things that make us happy. Informative and brilliant post.

  6. M.C. September 15, 2016 at 1:51 pm #

    Very insightful, and I don’t think people have to suffer from a disorder to get caught in this dynamic. It seems to me that this is the pattern in many, many intractable disputes from the personal to the sectarian to the international levels. A and B have a fundamental link or connection to one another that they desire or need. But in difficult moments, A responds to B is exactly the way that sets B off, and B does the same to A. Both parties think/say “How can you not see what you’re doing to me?” And I’ve found that your strategy for dealing with this *is* the solution; I just find it hard as hell to actually do, especially in the moment. For me, the key has been a willingness to take a time out, a willingness on the part of both to honestly reflect on their emotional responses, and a willingness to own up to my role in the disagreement (and apologize when necessary).

    And maybe it’s a sign of my dysfunction, but I think there’s an upside: Being triggered this way *and* then engaging in the reflection (either on my own or with the support of a friend or professional) has probably been the chief source of emotional growth in my life. And that’s been true whether or not that particular relationship survived this kind of episode. It’s not something I want to experience any more than I have to, but I understand myself, my needs, and my boundaries so much better in the aftermath of these incidents. And I think their frequency in my life has diminished because of the reflection they’ve forced me to do.

  7. Miggie September 15, 2016 at 5:47 pm #

    Thank you for this, it was an eye opener.

  8. aqilaqamar September 15, 2016 at 8:30 pm #

    Reblogged this on Iconography ♠ Incomplete and commented:
    I think triggers are understandable like this. We must be communicative and forgive when we can. There are many mean people but there are always going to people who would actually want to discuss their mental health with you. The only way to try to go about it is be patient. Give the person a chance. I think I would try to do that. I love how this article shows that people may not intentionally try to hurt you. They may genuinely feel confused and not know how to respond.

  9. Anonymous Reader September 16, 2016 at 2:49 am #

    “Speaking of rabbit holes, here’s a cute one.” What a perfect way to end a post like this. (The post was good too, I just don’t really have anything to add but I wanted you to know this is good!)

  10. Nanani September 16, 2016 at 8:43 pm #

    That sounds more like “feelings bombs” (see: Captain Awkward) than what is becoming commonly known as triggers.

    Not that what you’re describing CAN’T be triggers, but I’ve mostly seen triggers and trigger warnings describing things contained in a piece of media.
    “TW: gore” or the like means “This article/episode/interpretive dance contains gore, exercise discretion if this may be triggering to you”.
    I’ve never seen “TW: feelings of abandonment” or “TW: boundary ignoring” because while those things may be depicted, the actual THING they describe is a part of interaction with another human, and human interactions don’t have summaries where trigger warnings can be listed.

    Your final paragraph is lovely and widely applicable though ❤

    • cam September 26, 2016 at 7:02 pm #

      I agree with this sentiment. I actually am Jamie in this scenario, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I am triggered by this sort of event. I am quite extremely upset and frustrated by it, but I feel that being triggered by something is much more sudden and even more severe – hence the word “trigger” – and that by using it to describe any sort of remotely negative feeling regardless of severity really lessens the worth and impact of the word.

      This scenario is important though, and it can be rectified through proper communication and work. Beyond the discussion of language used here, OP is absolutely right. Seeing a world wider than yourself is key.

  11. laurenjinete October 7, 2016 at 5:42 pm #

    This post was very powerful and well-written… I especially appreciate it because it weirdly relates to a situation I am in currently! This is my first time seeing your blog and I already appreciate your words

  12. coralcameronfrancis October 22, 2016 at 6:14 pm #

    This is really on-point. I’ve had half-formed thoughts about this before, but nothing this articulate. Thanks so much for posting.


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    […] via A Few Quick Thoughts About Triggers That Trigger — The Belle Jar […]

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