Triggered, And Other Difficult Words

We don’t always choose the words we use.

I realise that’s an odd thing to say. We do also always choose the words we use. But there are ways of speaking that we absorb rather than actively think about. I find myself using turns of phrase that my closest friends do, just because I’ve heard them using them. Sometimes when I go to different places I even pick up accents.

And most of all, we trade words.

People on the internet trade words too, and this isn’t something we always do actively. Which is why, before I go into talking about how relentlessly rubbish the misuse of the word triggered is, I want you to understand that it’s not necessarily anyone’s fault.

I say ‘ugh, that’s really depressing’ a lot – I shouldn’t. Of all people, I should know better, because I know that depression is not just ‘something that is slightly rubbish’. I know that the word carries more weight, and that when it’s misused like that, it weakens the power of the word in our culture, and thus weakens the ability of people to understand its weight.

But I still say it, because everyone says it.

Triggered is a lot like that. It’s most prevalent in the online gaming community, but is used a lot in general parlance too. Not aware of the word?

Okay. So you’ve got the mechanical idea of a trigger, that’s one definition. The other was coined in the early 20th century when the First World War happened and, suddenly, PTSD was clinically diagnosed.

To refer to the veterans’ traumatic memories being set off, clinicians used the word triggered. As with the sentence: ‘loud noises are triggering for Joan, because they remind her of gunfire‘.

So we’re talking about something that’s really serious. A word that refers to people relieving trauma. What’s it used for now?

Well, a couple of things. One, it’s used to articulate ‘this is annoying me’. Two, it’s used to insult people and claim that they are (and there’s not enough air quotes in the world for this) “too sensitive”.

Let’s…stop and think about that for a moment.

A word that is used to describe reliving graphic and hideous trauma is being used to say that people are being too sensitive.

So not only is that trauma being minimised, that experience being dismissed, the idea of PTSD (or any mental illness that can be triggered) is being reduced to the idea of being ‘too sensitive’. A return to that idea that mental illness is just a form of weakness, and that those of us who experience it just need to buck the hell up.

Well, screw that.

Yeah, language evolves. It should do. It’s awesome that it does. But language should never evolve in a way that harms people, and mental and emotional harm are still forms of harm.

Even the softer meaning (of ‘this is annoying me’) is still minimising. You’re comparing experience of trauma to mundane emotions. Trauma isn’t – or perhaps I should say shouldn’t be – normal. It’s not just feeling a bit nervous, in the same way that being depressed isn’t just being sad.

To be blunt, when you use it, you’re insulting everyone around you who has ever experienced trauma or triggered mental illness. You’re dismissing the gravity of their experience and the seriousness of their symptoms. And you’re probably not doing it on purpose, so hearing this sucks.

Fortunately, there’s a really simple solution: realise you’re doing it and stop doing it.

No, it’s not easy. I’ve been trying for years now to get myself to stop saying that’s so depressing. I still say it sometimes, and feel rubbish afterwards. But I’m getting better.

Want to go a step further? You can also call out people who do it – but don’t do this at your own expense.

I try to call out when people misuse words (or even use hate speech), but it’s hard when everyone else is using those words too. And really, the burden of improving our speech shouldn’t rest solely on the people who are most affected by it.

Remember that if you’re reading this, you’re already thinking about it. That’s a pretty good start. Now – like me – you just need to start catching yourself doing it. You’re going to get it wrong. That’s okay. A few failures don’t mean you’re not doing better.

We can get there. We just have to know that we need to.

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