Suffering, Trigger Warnings, and Human Harm

I read an article  many years ago that explained how people, especially women, tend to show empathy, compassion, and build friendships by sharing similar experiences in storytelling. For instance, a woman may share the story of her difficult childbirth. A listening woman may share her own similar story to build on common ground and display empathy, showing that she understands because she had a similar experience. However, personal experience has proven that this method of relationship building can backfire. A person may assume instead that the second storyteller is telling their own story to draw attention to themselves and away from the first storyteller, or to illustrate that their experience was worse—implying that the first storyteller  should not complain. Or, accuse the other person of being a “one upper” of the worst possible kind.

People don’t realize they are doing this, but are usually trying to connect with others around them. In this post I want to discuss how this plays out when we talk about the suffering of others, and try and relate our own experiences to theirs.   Silent suffering


First, it’s important to admit to ourselves that all suffering isn’t equal. We all suffer, to be sure, and suffering causes us distress. Our distress during, and in the aftermath, of some experiences may be mild to acute. A few of us may escape life with relatively little suffering. For others, particularly traumatic experiences will cause suffering for the rest of life. War veterans and rape victims may be diagnosed by healthcare professionals with PTSD, from the after effects of the trauma they experienced.

Second, as humans, we put things into categories and we even rank them. For example, we decide what a crime is and then rank crimes, assigning penalties accordingly. We say that murder is worse than possessing drugs. We may assign the death penalty for homicide, but not for smoking marijuana or even crack cocaine. We feel it would be unjust to rank them both the same even though they are both crimes.

We also decide what suffering is, and rank it. International human rights often pivot around suffering. For instance, a person could suffer if forced to marry against his or her will, therefore it violates human rights because of the potential harm. Further, matters of international law such as war crimes are often decided by the level of suffering inflicted on others. Atrocities like the holocaust are atrocities because of the level of suffering inflicted on humanity.

Third, humanity recognizes that extraordinary suffering means something different from the average distress experienced from merely being alive in the world. Therefore, because of the level of suffering inflicted on the Jews during Hitler’s reign of terror, it is particularly offensive to say, “I felt like I was in Nazi concentration camp,” when in fact; you weren’t in a Nazi concentration camp. This discrimination  is  important, not just in matters of law, but in civil society and in interpersonal communication. Definitions are important if we want to have real empathy and understanding for one another. Something can be uncomfortable, make us temporarily miserable, and we may hate it and have had a bad experience. We may say something was traumatic in hyperbole. But in some conversations, particularly internet conversations, this kind of hyperbole isn’t very useful.

I’ve noticed increased usage of “TW” on many blogs, including some Mormon blogs (particularly Mormon feminist blogs). People want to say, “I’m hurting! It wasn’t fair! It was painful! It makes me angry!” Everyone wants to be heard, and wants their pain acknowledged by others. But words matter. PTSD, trauma, and Trigger Warning (TW) have specific meanings, just like Nazi concentration camp, and genocide do.  It would be dismissive of the serious suffering of others to claim not liking redheads is the same kind of discrimination as not liking black people. Blanketing all suffering with words like PTSD, trauma , or co-opting Trigger Warning (TW), before discussing unpleasant  experiences  or topics does the same kind of disservice to those around us who truly suffer.  Wrong usage of these words leaves little room for the empathy to encompass all wounds, and it stifles conversation. In other words: 

“Triggers are a pretty specific psychological phenomenon. They are not the same as being reminded of things one does not like. When the term becomes too general it stifles regular conversation because the phrase carries with it, in common usage, the idea that we should respect the severe psychological responses to otherwise ordinary exchanges, and should modify our behavior accordingly. In the case of a severe response, this seems justified. In lesser cases it seems like a word used to make people stop talking about something you don’t want them to talk about.”

Humanity affords us the sanctity of suffering, allowing us a quiet reverence for one another in that suffering. But words mean something; when we blanket all suffering the same by using words unique to particular kinds of suffering, like holocaust, lynch mob, PTSD or trigger warning,  that sanctity is lost—and the genuine empathy humanity requires of us is lost.


  1. Agreed. My motto is “say what you mean, and mean what you say”.

  2. Thank you thank you thank you! Try as I might I cannot get people to understand what a slap in the face it is to throw around things like PTSD OCD and the like. People don’t seem to understand the depth and breadth of pain and life-altering experience that comes from having PTSD. I hope that people will take this post to heart and be more careful with their words. Let’s love each other.

  3. I have always thought that people suffer a much as they can and that their suffering deserves respect. Suffering is not a competition.

    I see TW inserted as a warning. “Do not read this if the topic will set you off.” I do not see it as a bad thing at all or a plea for special respect.

  4. Anyway, I do not see any loss in the “sanctity” of the suffering I have had in others reporting their suffering.

    I mourn with those who mourn, I do not subject them to a literacy or worthiness test first. So a friend’s dog dies. To him it was like the loss of a child. I did not chide him for his analogies but instead mourned with he and his wife.

    It is too easy to to deride the illiterate, the uneducated and those with limited experience rather than to have sympathy with them.

    I could be wrong. But if it is not a contest, if we are all children and if all of our sufferings are temporary, then what we need more to do is to model kindness and love.

  5. The fact that it is not a contest is precisely why one should stick to what is actually happening. Having your picture taken when you don’t want to is _not_ like being raped. Someone correcting your grammar (even obnoxiously) is not a Nazi. One can still (and should) mourn with those that mourn, but people need to still realize that their words have gravity.

  6. Mmiles, is there a suffering you have that you feel is being disregarded or discounted? I noticed you use ” those of us. ”

    It can be hard when a mother sends a child off to college or on a mission and talks about how it is as painful as having them die.

    Or someone who has a government suspension (With full pay at the end) who talks as if they have lost their job or had all their commissions stolen.

    But those people have all suffered and all feel pain. They are all in distress.

    It is not my place to judge that as worthy or not.

    But if it is causing you pain and sorrow I do not want to be oblivious to your pain.

  7. I think the only problem comes, Stephen, when people use those declarations of pain to try to control others. People with genuine PTSD or triggers may say, “I’m sorry for my bad behavior, this was a trigger for me.” or “Please be gentle with me, this causes pain,” or “I can’t continue this conversation.” But they shouldn’t say, “this is a trigger for me, so you need to stop talking about it.”

  8. EOR, it seems you have a style or literacy complaint. Having spent my time in Compassionate Friends and with child advocacy centers I can appreciate that much of the world is not as literate as I would like.

    Much of it is very self centered.

    But. But. But, there is so much pain. Kindness seems to help more than a diction lesson when that happens.

    Otherwise we are criticizing people for either being vapid/shallow or being poor in expression.

    Might as well just all become hipsters.

  9. SilverRain — you are right.

  10. Stephen R Marsh,
    No. But people should be aware that TW has a very specific meaning (as linked). It shouldn’t be used haphazardly.

  11. Stephen Marsh,
    To be more specific, TW is meant to warn readers who may have experienced trauma to the degree that severe symptoms, like that of PTSD, could become more pronounced after reading, viewing or engaging about the TW content. In other words, can someone generally go about daily life afterwards?

  12. I have had some people in the grief support group that I attend try to convince me that I could have PTSD because I found my wife’s body. No, I don’t. She effectively died in her sleep, with no injury or trauma to her body. Others in the group had their loved ones die violent deaths, and saw terrilbe things that had happened to their loved ones. I experienced a lot of things at the time of her death, but not a level of trauma that would lead to PTSD. I don’t wake up screaming in the night from what I saw and felt that day. The scenes from that day do not haunt me to the point that I cannot function.

    For a couple of years I suffered from depression, and the holidays trigger memories that make me sad, and I still cry a lot. I haven’t decorated for Christmas since her death, and won’t again this year. But I’m not suffering from PTSD, and any claim that I am trivializes what people with PTSD really are going through.

  13. I’m reminded of a certain uber-wealthy politician who, in 2011, said to a group of unemployed individuals: “I should tell my story. I’m also unemployed.”

    It’s hard for people to truly understand a situation they’ve never been in. I’ve never lost a child, and so it would be foolish for me to share a story with an individual who just lost a child. I was unemployed for a while in 2011, and underemployed for quite a while longer, and was in a position where I was worried about coming up with enough money to pay rent on my family’s apartment every month; it would have been foolish for someone with ridiculous amounts of money to share a story about their unemployment to me at that time.

    On the other hand, when I was still single, I suffered through a bad breakup. A good friend who had struggled with a bad breakup a year or two prior helped me through it. He didn’t tell his story–I already knew it–but he knew what to do to help me through the situation. I was comforted because I knew he understood what I was going through, and because I knew he was there for me.

    People who are suffering don’t necessarily need stories. They need support.

  14. Yes, it is a style complaint. It is extremely bad form to be flippant about the real nitty gritty experiences of others if you have not experienced it. I have a Mets towel that I have had since 1991. I cling to that towel for dear life–so much so that I have actually retired it so that I don’t fray and discolor it more than it already is. As far as material items it is the only thing I love and I love it dearly. If someone stole my towel and I then said that it was like my child had been kidnapped I would both expect and appreciate someone bringing me back to earth. For sure, it would be a trial for me because that towel is akin to a security blanket, but all suffering is not created equal. That is just the truth. Believing that does not impact my ability to mourn with those that mourn even if they do talk about their “PTSD symptoms” I just grit my teeth and try to love them through it. It causes me genuine pain though when people I care enough about to discuss deep feelings with care so little about my day to day life experience as to be entirely flippant with it. I think it warrants a bit of complaint every once in a while.

  15. This discussion brought to mind a quote . . .
    “Nothing that grieves us can be called little: by the eternal laws of proportion a child’s loss of a doll and a king’s loss of a crown are events of the same size.”
    ― Mark Twain

    I think he has a good point.

  16. I agree, Zee DM. It’s impossible to know how deeply something affects another person because we can never fully know or understand their lived experiences, mental processes, or emotional range. Something trifling to one person may be devastating to another and vice versa.

    And language is tricky at the best of times. Some people may be turning to hyperbole for various reasons, but others may simply be struggling to find the words to convey how deeply they felt about something. In either case, though, there is often an unmet emotional need, which is what really needs addressing.

  17. I am a rape survivor and an incest survivor, and have been involved in rape and assault support groups, in one form or another, for over 20 years. I couldn’t even guess at how many nights I have spent crying with rape victims as they mourn the losses that come with violent rape, date rape, spousal rape, or whatever category their rape falls into. Sometimes the men and women are new to the pain, overwhelmed by the reality that their life was changed by their rapist felt they had the right to use their victim’s body for their own gratification, without their consent. Others have had their PTSD triggered, and the day/night, from 5/10/30 years ago, is lived again along with the memories of being marginalized between that time and “now.”

    I was involved in a 200+ comment marathon, with someone who had referred to paying taxes, as being raped by the government, every quarter. It took over 100 comments for that person to admit that maybe taxation and sexual assault are different. Once we got beyond that challenge, we still remained far apart. It was only towards the end of the conversation, that he said that he understood why his constant comparisons between rape and taxes, was not helpful or appropriate. He admitted that people had told him not to make that equation many times, but no one had actually explained why to him.

    I don’t often have conversations that long, especially in public forums, but I felt a specific prompting to, in that case. I have had a number of people thank me for continuing on, refusing to let the other commenter be more stubborn than me. I later realized that several Facebook groups had links that were following the conversation, and I was asked by a blog that addresses communication around sexual assault and rape, to consolidate the various stages of engagement from that conversation.

    What I personally learned from that interchange is, that there are times to not challenge someone who using language in a way that could be offensive, but those times are when the person is hurting and in pain. If the person has made a completely inappropriate comparison, without any real pain that they are sharing, that is the time to have the discussion and speak plainly. There is a huge difference between someone who is traumatized by a loss, making a loss comparison that may seem more than I would say. (The loss of a beloved pet being like losing a child would be in this category.) That is entirely different from someone who doesn’t like something that is happening, (especially by the government in a democracy, or by leaders of an organization that they have chosen to belong to) comparing *the feeling* of not being in control, with a violent sexual crime, and claiming equal distress from them. When someone makes that kind of comparison, I don’t see them as seeking partners to mourn with. I see a rallying cry to change who is in charge of something, or what they are doing.

    I personally feel that mourning with those that mourn is one of the most Christlike things we can do. There is no rallying cry in mourning with others, rather there is a reaching out, an attempt to feel what they feel, and lighten the burden in some way. In a group of men and women who all have experienced sexual assault at one time, I learned a question, that I ask myself, whenever I take on the challenge of mentoring a sexual assault survivor. It simply reads, “Would my words and actions convict me as this person’s Neighbor?” As a member of the LDS church, I have made it into the shorthand, “Could I be mistaken for Christ?” (The longer form of this comes in thinking about my baptismal promises to take on His name, and always remember him. Or as one of my favorite YW songs say, “Have you received His image in your countenance?”)

    I think when we consider our words, and which kinds of suffering truly are difficult to comprehend without having survived through it, I think of our Savior. He suffered more than anyone else on earth, and He did it out of love for us. I wouldn’t say that being a rape survivor is like bleeding from every pore in the Garden of Gethsemane. I often challenge people who make statements that, “Having to do (fill in the blank A) is like being raped by (fill in the blank B),” to change the sentence to, “Having to do (fill in the blank A) is like (fill in the blank B ) making me bleed from every pore.” If the second version doesn’t make sense, the first version probably doesn’t either.

  18. That is how I see TW used — as a warning, yet to see it as a way to try to dominate conversation.

    Eric, I’m glad you are not suffering from PTSD. Sorry for your grief, wish I had better words to say.

  19. I think that’s a good litmus test, juliathepoet. If the person is genuinely hurting or in pain, then we should give them the benefit of the doubt with regard to their choice of words. But if it’s more of an irritation, then a gentle reminder to be conscious of the pain of others seems fair.

  20. Julia:

    ” there are times to not challenge someone who using language in a way that could be offensive, but those times are when the person is hurting and in pain. If the person has made a completely inappropriate comparison, without any real pain that they are sharing, that is the time to have the discussion and speak plainly.”

    That captures it well.

    Well said.

  21. Zee,
    Consider two people with identical backgrounds and living circumstances, who live side-by-side. One day both are robbed of exactly $15.00. The burglar enters and exits the house the same, and leaves everything in place. The first resident is out when the money is stolen, and only realizes when he finds it missing from the drawer. However, the second person is home, and the burglar brandishes a gun and waives it in his face, threatening to shoot him and his son if he doesn’t give him the $15.00. The law recognizes differences in this case, and so does the rest of society based on the harm done.

    Another example, suppose an ambulance arrives at the scene of a car accident. Two people are injured. One is conscious but in terrible pain with a broken leg. The injury is not life threatening. The second is unconscious and has life threatening head trauma. Of course both patients will be treated, but the more urgent care, and a longer duration of care, will be given to the patient with the head injury.

    In these examples, everyone suffered, and all of the suffering was legitimate. However, we would not find it appropriate for the patient with the leg injury to say, “I was in a car accident and nearly died,” because he didn’t nearly die. Nor we would we be ok with the person he had $15.00 stolen while he was out say, “Someone broke into my house and stole my money and threatened to kill me.” When people mislabel suffering or inappropriately coopt words to explain their own suffering, that is in essence what they are doing.

    While I understand suffering is big to those who suffer and we don’t want to downplay it—at the same time we should recognize all things aren’t equal. Of course that doesn’t mean withholding empathy because a person’s suffering isn’t as big as another’s, but it’s fair to expect people to use correct language.

    Thanks for you comment.

  22. I agree with this post to the extent we suffer, suffering varies a great deal and not all suffering is the same. But it is possible to transcend non-physical suffering and to reduce physical suffering through acceptance. In truth most of the pain of non-physical suffering comes from resisting, from craving the way we want things to be instead of accepting them as they are. As soon as we accept them non-physical suffering ends. This concept isn’t new it has been well know and practiced by Buddhists for thousands of years but Mormons tend to revere suffering choosing instead to be spiritually refined by it rather than learning to transcend it.

  23. Eric,
    Thanks for sharing so candidly with us. It’s a good reminder that deep suffering takes many forms. I am sorry for your loss.

  24. Howard, I think you over simplify.

    Mmiles, in my journey of burying three children I have admit that a constant theme I noticed was people without the ability to express themselves well being treated as if their pain was not real.

    I really belie that pain is not limited to the literate or the good looking or the socially connected.

  25. Stephen,
    I agree.

    This post was not to say people aren’t suffering–or that they shouldn’t be recognized unless they say it succinctly or we don’t get it. Rather, the post lays out the correct usage of very specific terminology, specifically Trigger Warning–which of late has been terribly misused in Mormon blogging circles, and attempts to explain why it is important to use it correctly. There really isn’t any other reason for this post.

    Carry on.

  26. Oops, believe not belie.

    Though I have been told that my child’s death was not as significant because I was not in the right social group.

    Some things are universal.

  27. Stephen, I can’t imagine living through what you have, without diminishing that experience I respectfully ask you to elaborate. Please share what I left out with my over simplification.

  28. Sorry I lacked the context. I just see TW as a warning. If someone were using it to try to cut off discussion I would expect them to leave the discussion rather than rail on others for having it.

    You have my sympathy.

  29. Stephen, I cannot stop crying. I cannot imagine the pain and trials you have had and continue to go through.

  30. Stephen when I first encountered your writings about this my reaction was the same as Louis’. Isn’t the process of writing about your losses largely about coming to acceptance? If not what are they about?

  31. Howard, you are right. But acceptance does not really resolve or mute the pain.

    CS Eric. My heart goes out to you. I remember Christmas when my wife’s heart could not take a tree. So I bought a small one in a pot for my surviving daughter’s room and she decorated it with folded metallic Reese’s cup wrappers.

    It can be so hard. I wish I could do more than feel for you and wish you well.

  32. Stephen wrote: But acceptance does not really resolve or mute the pain. I’d love to hear more about that because it is counter to my personal experience and that of others I have worked with but I have seen multiple losses add up so quickly they cannot be processed as they occur resulting in PTSD type symptoms blocking and complicating pain reduction.

  33. Howard — I was too terse. PTSD blockages are helped by cognitive therapy and acceptance. No question there.

    But I still feel grief even with acceptance.

  34. A lingering hollowness or something else?

  35. will cover it better than I could at the moment.

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