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Friday, January 23, 2015

Triggering—good for you?

If someone approached you on the street, someone you did not know but whom you had seen numerous times, and asked you for money, would you give it to him? If he tried to guilt-trip you into giving him money or acted like he was entitled to some of your cash, would you feel guilty for not handing it over? If you knew, from observation, that the person had a substance abuse problem and anything you gave him would probably end up buying more substance to abuse, would you give him the money anyway?

Some of us just automatically hand a bill out the window to street corner beggars or toss coins into their proffered cups. We don’t really give much thought to the fact that we might be enabling a substance abuser with our mindless contributions. And we may be put off by the demanding, guilt-tripping, or entitled beggar, but many times we give anyway, perhaps because we wish to ward off the possibility of ending up that destitute ourselves.

Even those of us who refuse to enable another person’s addictions and don’t guilt-trip easily may find ourselves mindlessly giving to someone who seems to be more needy than we are. It is easier than stopping and hearing the person’s story and then giving suggestions that probably have been heard before and summarily dismissed.

For as long as I can remember, we have been warned about “triggers.” I suppose it began with such things as allergies where avoiding a triggering substance could mean the difference between life and death…some allergies, after all, can provoke a swift and even fatal reaction. Those of us with less lethal allergies know that avoiding certain triggers, like cat hair or certain pollens, makes our lives more comfortable. Over time the whole idea that avoiding triggers is good for us has grown to encompass not only physiological triggers but psychological triggers as well. And here is where I part company with the commonly-held belief that avoiding psychological and emotional triggers is a good thing.

A few weeks ago I got sharply faulted on line for using the word “inappropriate.” It seems that the word was a “trigger word” for my critic, although I was unaware of it. Up to that point, like most people who simply and mindlessly accept the notion, I had never given much real thought to emotional trigger words. I just went with the flow, trying to warn people when my writing contained something I thought might trigger them. Even in on line discussions, I had made a point of avoiding or warning about things I thought might be a trigger. But this time it was different.

I did not use an emotionally-laden word like “hit” or “beating,” nor did I describe a harrowing episode in evocative terms. I simply stated that something “seemed inappropriate to me” and Bang! the sh!t hit the fan.

In a discussion a person had revealed something he was doing that I felt very uncomfortable about because it felt inappropriate…a betrayal, actually. I asked him a specific question at least three times for the purpose of clarification and none was forthcoming. Thinking that if I explained why I needed that specific bit of information, I said that what he was doing seemed inappropriate to me (owning my feelings and not putting them on him), and could he please clarify so I could lay the issue to rest. I did not say that he or his behaviour was inappropriate, and was careful to use language that put the onus on me: I wasn’t quite clear on exactly what he was doing and could he please elaborate.

Instead of the anticipated explanation, however, I got “‘Inappropriate’ is my trigger word!” I don’t recall exactly what else was said, but I do know this took me aback, as his reaction to an ordinarily innocuous word used to describe my confusion was very strong and defensive.

This set me to thinking about trigger words and how we all act around them. It seems to be perceived as being insensitive to not “respect” triggers and refrain from speaking them in the presence of those vulnerable to them and yet, how sensitive was this person to my feelings when he jumped all over me for saying a word that I could not possibly have known might be a trigger word for him? I felt assaulted…for an instant I was that little girl again, backed into corner, NM blistering my ears with a verbal assault for doing something I had no idea was wrong. It was only momentary but it was, in the very least, insensitive and at worst, abusive. All I did was ask for clarification and then give the reason I needed clarification, using ordinary words that described my feelings on the subject, projecting nothing onto him. The response felt wrong, too much for the circumstances, too vehement. And so I started doing some research.

The first thing I found was a Wikipediaentry that cited some bona fide researchers on the topic. “The efficacy of ‘trigger warnings’ has not been methodically addressed by scientific study, however in an interview about Trigger Warnings…Professor Metin Basoglu, a psychologist internationally recognised for his trauma research, said that ‘…Instead of encouraging a culture of avoidance, [the media] should be encouraging exposure. Most trauma survivors avoid situations that remind them of the experience. Avoidance means helplessness and helplessness means depression. That’s not good’. Another expert, Richard J. McNally, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard…discussed the scientific merit of trigger warnings noting that ‘Trigger warnings are designed to help survivors avoid reminders of their trauma, thereby preventing emotional discomfort. Yet avoidance reinforces PTSD. Conversely, systematic exposure to triggers and the memories they provoke is the most effective means of overcoming the disorder.’ [W]hile citing several academic studies conducted on PTSD sufferers. Frank Furedi, a former Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent described trigger warnings as a form of ‘narcissism’, with the concerns not really being about the content of a book or work of art but about individual students asserting their own importance.”

That last sentence really clicked with me. A torrent of images and half-formed thoughts cascaded through my mind, images of people walking on egg shells and tiptoeing around a sleeping dragon. And I realized what it was about my experience and the whole concept of trigger word avoidance and warnings that was bothering me: it put onto others the responsibility for something inside one’s own self. You do not have to learn to cope with and deal with those things that distress you, I have to watch my words around you. I even have to figure out what words might distress you and if I guess wrong, you get to sharply rebuke me for it…and in a public forum, no less. No wonder I felt flung back in time, recoiling under the verbal barrage that was my mother’s prelude and run up to a beating.

I can see what that professor said about it being more about an individual asserting her own importance than the actual issue. How much more control can you have, how much more important can you be, than to be able to control how other people speak? And if you control how they speak, it’s a very short step to controlling how they think. And the big taboo that surrounds “triggering” someone is proof of that: somewhere we went from the courtesy and compassion of not wanting to wantonly elicit painful memories in another person to the tyranny of another person’s sore subjects being cause to dictate how we speak, lest we be thought insensitive boors.

Before you tag me with that label, let’s give this a little thought. Contemporary psychologists think that tiptoeing around those trigger words do more harm than good. When we refrain from using trigger words around a person, we actually help entrench their problem by helping them commit an avoidance behaviour. And trigger warnings, apparently, are even worse…not only do they help commit the avoidance behaviour, they key it to a conscious awareness of the issue the trigger warning is about. In other words, we give them an additional episode of thinking about the trigger and then avoiding it, further entrenching the avoidance.

Now I am not advocating dumping the basics of polite interaction by intentionally using trigger words to affect those who are avoiding them. But I do advocate not being suddenly guilt stricken or feeling ashamed when the word comes up in conversation and someone jumps on you with “That’s my trigger word!” or something similar. How is this different, at its most essential level, from that panhandler who is attempting to guilt you into enabling his addiction rather than find a better coping strategy? In both cases, the person relies on others joining into the process to keep it going and avoids taking the steps necessary to resolve their issues. Enabling an avoidance behaviour, regardless of the compassion and empathy behind it, is still enabling an unhealthy act and therefore becoming a part of it.

What is most tragic about this blind adherence to the avoidance of trigger words is that they, and the unpleasant feelings they evoke, can be defused…like defusing a bomb…so that they have less power, whereas avoidance give them more and more power over time. So each time we blindly obey the social imperative to not utter that trigger word or we post that trigger warning, we are actually doing exactly the opposite of what we intended to accomplish. Instead of sparing the person emotional pain, we are simply entrenching it more deeply…and denying that person the opportunity and impetus to learn new coping strategies such as defusion.

The online dictionary, Wiktionary, defines “defusion: as “the separation of an emotion-provoking stimulus from the unwanted emotional response as part of a therapeutic process…” This unwanted emotional response is generally a form of anxiety, which can be expressed in an infinite number of ways. The problem is that we are unwilling to tolerate those feelings of anxiety, so we do something to distract ourselves from them and that distracting behaviour is, in and of itself, a contributor to further anxiety because it is a kind of avoidance. Like all of our other issues, the way to deal with them it to face them because until we do, they simply cannot go away.

This requires coping strategies. If your only coping strategy is avoidance, invoking the sanctity of trigger words and expecting everyone to tiptoe around you verbally so as to avoid provoking your anxiety, is behaving like a narcissist. I did not say you are one, I said you are behaving like one. You are failing to deal with your issue and you are requiring other people to take care of you…and not just take care of you but to alter their speaking and even their thinking to accommodate you, while you do nothing to deal with your issue save demand that others tiptoe around it. As long as other people don’t trigger you, then you are fine and why should you do anything? Isn’t this how our narcissists think? To make their little lives comfy by requiring other people to walk on eggshells around them and not say something to provoke them? How is this fundamentally any different?

Dr. Alice Boyes, writing for Psychology Today, lists three ways to stop avoidance coping:

1. Recognize that it doesn't work.
What have you been trying to avoid? Feeling awkward? Feeling anxious? Thoughts of not being good enough? Do you still have those feelings or thoughts? So…has avoiding them helped any?

2. Recognize the costs of avoidance coping.
What has avoidance coping cost you? How much time and mental energy has avoidance coping sucked up? How has it impacted your health? How has it affected relationships? How has it affected your sense of yourself as a competent person?

3. Learn to tolerate uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.
You need to learn how to tolerate experiencing thoughts and feelings you'd prefer not to experience until they naturally pass (thoughts and feelings are by their nature temporary). If you can do this you won't need to use avoidance coping. Being prepared to experience anxiety will overall lead to less anxiety. 

Okay, I agree…all of this is easier said than done. But there are ways to make it easier. Dr. Boyes recommends:
  1. learning to soften rather than tense in response to triggering thoughts and feelings or when you catch yourself doing a self-defeating behaviour;
  2. learning physiological self-soothing skills (teaching yourself how to activate your parasympathetic nervous system by doing things like slow breathing, which in turn slows down your heart rate and makes it easier to think more clearly).
  3. learning to recognize that thoughts are often distorted so you can't actually trust any negative thoughts you have.
  4. building up your capacity to self-regulate e.g., if you're prone to overeating then setting a schedule for eating that meets your energy needs. Then, only eating at these times - not eating outside these times or skipping scheduled eating times.
  5. using ‘defusion’ skills to reduce the psychological grip of intrusive thoughts. For many people defusion skills are highly effective but at first glance they seem quite odd. For example, singing your intrusive thought to the tune of a familiar song.
 Dr. Barb Markaway, a clinical psychologist, published an excellent article in Psychology Today entitled Stop Fighting your NegativeThoughts. In it she outlines numerous ways to defuse those thoughts rather than repress or avoid them. She first recommends asking yourself Is this thought true? Is this thought important? Is this thought helpful?”

Additionally, Dr. Markaway recommends the following tips to help defuse negative thoughts:

Label your thoughts. Instead of saying “I'm a loser,” say, “I'm having the thought that I'm a loser.” Instead of saying, “I'm going to blow this test,” say “I'm having the thought that I'm going to blow this test.” The difference may seem subtle, but it can help you gain the perspective that you are not your thoughts.

Thank your mind. If you're having anxious thoughts such as, “I hope this plane doesn't crash…I hope the pilot knows what he’s doing…” say, “Thank you, mind. Thank you for trying to keep me safe. But there's nothing that you really need to do right now. I’ve got it covered.” I’m big on notes to myself, so sometimes I write my mind a letter of appreciation for its efforts, but also let it know it can take a break.

Let them float away. This one involves imagery. You put each negative thought on a leaf and imagine it floating down a stream. When you have another thought, as you will, you put it on another leaf and watch it float by.

Sing your thoughts. Try singing your thoughts to the alphabet song or to Row, Row, Row Your Boat. Your thoughts will certainty sound absurd this way, which is the whole point.

Say them in a funny voice. Try saying your thoughts in a funny voice. Maybe do an imitation of a cartoon character. 

Name your stories. Many times our thoughts are repetitive and involve the same stories. My story frequently is, “I don't really know what I'm doing.” When thoughts come up along that storyline, I can say, “Oh, here’s my I’m Incompetent story, and just let it go.

Do it anyway. Perhaps the most important tip is to remember that you can have a thought and perform any kind of behavior at the same time. If it’s something you care about, it’s worth it to let the thoughts simply be. You don’t have to do anything about them. When I work with clients on their anxiety using exposure therapy (face-your-fear therapy) the most important thing they report learning is, “I can function even when I’m anxious.”

Dr. Markaway says it “takes a little practice to get the hang of ‘defusion’ techniques, so don’t give up. Many of my clients use them, and each person develops their personal favorites. I’ve tried all of the above except for saying my thoughts in a funny voice. I’m pretty sure it would be helpful, if I could only get my mind to stop telling me how silly I’d sound.”

There are more ways to deal with anxiety and negative feelings and thoughts than by expecting other people to tiptoe around you verbally and censor themselves in order to spare you discomfort. That kind of an expectation is narcissistic in nature in that it expects others to sacrifice their “normal” in order to accommodate your “dysfunctional.” This is a really big flea because of the way it impacts others around you: it requires them to censor themselves beyond the level of normal conversational courtesy and demands they adapt their speech…even their thoughts…to oblige you. It’s not a healthy way to deal with anxiety either for you or for those who pander to you.

So the next time you are tempted to publish a “trigger warning” or admonish someone with “That is a trigger word for me!”, give it a think first…will you be hurting someone by helping her to continue her avoidance game? Are you expecting that others alter their language or thoughts in order to accommodate you? What would happen if you left off the warning or if you took responsibility for your negative thoughts and implemented some of the techniques above?

The choice, as always, is yours to make.


  1. Wonderful post, Violet. Balanced, thoughtful, and ultimately KIND to the person who berated you for using a word that anyone can use in ordinary discourse. Then you take the post beyond that, into useful research and ideas. thanks for writing it, so helpful.

  2. I never thought of a phrase i dislike as a trigger word before but i suppose that's exactly what it is. That phrase is "no problem" because being a double negative it sounds insincere everytime i hear it. My girlfriend upon hearing me explain this amazingly never spoke these two words to me again. Just a calm sincere explanation was all she needed, and i think given the fact that its usage is trying to express a kind gesture is why she took it seriously. Its rate that i share this with anyone but i honestly appreciate that my partner realized it made me cringe when i heard it. Definitely expecting the world to see things the same is beyond reasonable and my occsisional cringing doesn't kill me. But.. I have to say what a great partner i have that could see how i perceived something negatively and had the compassion to adapt. Great article! It made me think.

  3. My trigger word is the "N" word, I recoil and get angry anytime it is used around me.

  4. Now I am thinking. Thank you for including me and sharing honestly. I want to be normal, but I avoid those things that will help me along the way. OMgosh. Thank you

  5. Thanks for the blog! And this article! I know its not exactly as you are discussing here but reading this helped.

    For me, my father didnt allow the use of the following words; "should, shouldn't, never, always and fine". He was very controlling with this. If I ever accidently said those words he would get angry, sometimes flying off the handle and other times give me a very long lecture on why I must not use those words. Even after 15 years since leaving home I still cringe when i hear those words and worry when someone says those words to someone else. I think that might make someone fly off the handle like my father would.


I don't publish rudeness, so please keep your comments respectful, not only to me, but to those who comment as well. We are not all at the same point in our recovery.

Not clear on what constitutes "rudeness"? You can read this blog post for clarification: