What do you do if you find you’ve triggered someone? You’ve done something you probably thought was harmless, or no big deal, and the response is huge, perhaps distressing and impossible to make sense of. Maybe they shut down, or broke down into tears, had a massive panic attack or exhibited other PTSD symptoms. In my experience, this does not reliably go well so I thought I’d share what I’ve learned so far.
You may feel what’s happened is unfair. You did nothing seriously wrong. They are reacting based on something historical that isn’t your fault so why should you have to change your behaviour? With the reaction seeming disproportionate, you may feel they are being ridiculous. This all serves to protect you from having to consider your own behaviour or take responsibility for making changes.
A traumatised person who has been triggered into a response is not well placed to explain to you what just happened. Explainnig requires trust, and you’ve just put them in a very bad place – however innocently. It is worth bearing in mind that these kinds of responses are like people traumatised in war being put back in the trenches by the sounds of fireworks. To have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder you have to have been traumatised.
One of the worst things you can make a trauma survivor do is go over what happened to them. You don’t need to understand what happened to them. You need to care about them and respect them enough to listen to what they need you to do differently. If you care about a person, you’ll do that. If you don’t – then don’t expect them to let you get very close to them.
One of the hardest things in this can be looking at behaviour that is a little bit off. Did you shout at them? Did you touch them without consent? Did you say something that opened the door to a very dark place? Did you make a rape joke, or minimise something that was serious for them? I’ve had several rounds of guys who unexpectedly kissed me and who were not willing to not do that for the sake of my wellbeing. I don’t do well with touch, or with being surprised, and I’ve been panicked by this.
It can be really uncomfortable to consider that behaviour you thought was ok is triggering for someone you thought you cared about. It can be hard undertaking to change how you think and what you do. It can be painful seeing something you thought was innocent related to rape culture, domestic abuse and coercive control. It was just a little thing you did, right? It was just small. You want it to be ok. You want to tell them why they should be ok with what you did… if you want your feelings to matter and their distress to be irrelevant, you are going to keep pushing those trauma buttons. If that seems fair enough to you, and like something a trauma survivor should be ok with… consider that you are not the hero of this story.