Trigger Warnings in a Mindful Culture



As I get older and drift further into a state of “get off my lawn” consciousness, it’s not lost on me that the polarization of the American psyche has drifted beyond politics into virtually every facet of life. Pick a topic:

  • Should we let our kid playing tackle football?
  • Are we allowed to drink out of plastic water bottles?
  • Is workplace bullying a real thing?


What are Trigger Warnings?

One of the current debates concerns the use of trigger warnings, alerts used in various media such as online posts, videos, scholarly articles, etc. Their purpose is to warn the audience that the content may trigger negative emotions and unhealthy reactions.

For example, a recent victim of sexual abuse could sustain additional and unnecessary trauma by reading a passage in an assigned schoolbook that graphically describes a rape scene. A trigger warning (TW) gives readers a heads-up as to what’s coming so that each person can make an informed decision about whether or not they are ready to proceed with taking on the task of digesting such a potentially challenging passage.

This seems to be a pretty simple manifestation of empathy that we all can give to those suffering through traumas that most of us will never fully grasp.

With an estimated ten million people in the U.S. who live with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, it seems like the very least we can do as a caring society to help those fighting internal demons every day.


TW Opposition

Believe it or not, there are those who object to trigger warnings. They complain that there is no definable measurement of harm as it applies to these potentially injurious texts, videos and audios. Others use the familiar “slippery slope” argument and theorize that trigger warnings will eventually find its way into everyday conversation, “I was watching CNN this morning and, trigger warning, they had a fascinating dialogue about the suicide rate of American veterans.” Kind of like “spoiler alert”, right?

It’s hard to fathom how someone could actually object to TW’s.

To my knowledge, no one is mandating their use. What harm is being done by putting a simple TW symbol at the beginning of a potentially harmful paragraph or video?

If you had a son who was secretly struggling with whether or not to come out as a gay person, wouldn’t you want him to be warned in advance of reading Matthew Shephard’s story? Who “loses” by providing that boy a warning that this could be tough stuff? The goal is not to convince people to skip the potentially harmful pieces but merely to give them the opportunity to make their own decisions (do warnings on cigarette packs ring a bell?).

Trigger Warning

Trigger Warning

Does anyone really think it’s good strategy for a supposedly caring society to default to the “suck it up” modality of crisis counseling? I am convinced that those who object to the use of such a powerful yet benign tool such as the TW are really just uncomfortable in the presence of those whose sensitivities are different than their own.

Is putting a TW in front of your tweet going to rock your world by depriving you of two of your 140 characters? Really? Do you think these people just need to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and face their fears? If it’s that simple,

how would you feel if someone decided that spending twenty-four hours in a room full of copperheads would be the best approach for you to get over your fear of snakes?

We should not force-feed that kind of therapy on anyone.

Trigger warnings don’t harm anyone. They aren’t going to lead to PTSD victims walking around full-body Kevlar to protect themselves from the world. Relax. This is something we can support to help our fellow citizens decide what and when they want to read, watch or listen to on a timetable that makes sense in their individual recovery.

And this is not the Tipper Gore crusade for putting warning labels on music.

These are people who desperately want to rebound from traumas and lead more normal lives. If we can ameliorate that process with simple warnings, who suffers? Trigger warnings are not causes that you believe in or don’t. This isn’t an issue to be politicized.

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Trigger Warnings in Mindful Work Culture

Mindfulness is a tool to help alleviate suffering.

Emotional Intelligence (EI) can be a pathway to happiness and an indicator of occupational excellence. Empathy is a key characteristic of EI because it is the ability to understand the suffering that mindfulness can help heal.

Doesn’t it seem natural to utilize all the tools possible to help those around us who are suffering, even in the workplace? As writer Anne Theriault puts it:

Life is an ongoing exercise in empathy. As a human being, your job should be constantly learning how to make your own way in this world while causing as little harm as possible.  Which is why I’m ultimately baffled when people wonder aloud if they’re supposed to look at everything critically and worry about its potential to harm others. Because yes. Yes, that is exactly what you are supposed to do.

As leaders in our respective organizations, we have an obligation to proactively seek out potential trigger warnings in our business cultures:

  • What kind of mechanisms are currently in place to warn employees about potential triggers?
  • Where might those triggers exist? In customers interactions? In training materials? Other?
  • What actions can you legally take as a leader in the short- and long-term to add this empathetic tool to your work environment?

In our mindful efforts to provide a culture in which our colleagues’ engagement is enhanced, this type of innovation has no downside so what can you start doing today?

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