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.