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Are “Trigger Warnings” Making Us “Trigger Happy”?

Instead of more gun laws and mental health diagnoses, how about cultivating more grit?

The latest school shooting tragedy, this time in Oregon, has got me wondering if we have more than just a gun problem, or a mental illness problem, as news pundits, experts and legislators have been saying.

Not it - games banned at recess
A generation of young adults has been deemed too fragile – emotionally and physically – to endure games of tag, community sledding, and even parallel parking (recently removed from the Maryland driver’s test). These are all now too “hard” or “dangerous” for our children, apparently.

What if our problem is that we’ve coddled a generation of young adults to be so sensitive to “trigger warnings” and keeping them safe from harm that they cannot handle rejection, hardship, failure and discomfort without lashing out violently?  What if this bubble wrapped generation is going crazy because of their emotional fragility, and not necessarily because we aren’t catching mental illness early enough, or we’re making too many guns too easy to get?

I’ll illustrate my thoughts with three stories, which have all bothered me for a long time, and that underscore why I think lack of grit might be at the root of our challenges:  

  • A few years ago I spoke to an audience of college students, where I discussed my work in Positive Psychology and my book, “Creating Your Best Life.”  As I explained the connection with hard goals and happiness, I asked for someone to share something they had done that week that was hard, and that they had derived some pride from doing.  Not one hand went up.  As one young man explained from the third row, “We aren’t used to doing hard things here.  We plan classes around sleeping late, we look for easy professors to get good grades, and we party most nights of the week.”  No one disagreed.
  • After I wrote my sixth book, “Positively Caroline,” I began posting more regularly on eating disorder recovery sites as a guest blogger, where I was asked to share my stories of recovery so that others might have hope.  On several occasions, I was told that my posts had been removed or altered because my stories “might trigger” others to binge eat.  I never figured out what my offending words or phrases or stories were, so I eventually stopped reaching out to certain audiences, although I noticed that long posts of relapse, fear, hopelessness and hospitalization never got cut.
    A generation of red-shirted, overtrophied kids who learned "Math Made Easy" and who earned inflated GPAs are so anxious when they hit adulthood that it often comes as a shock, resulting in depression, anxiety and anger. Is this at the root of our nation's gun violence on campuses and elsewhere?
    A generation of red-shirted, overtrophied kids who learned “Math Made Easy” and who earned inflated GPAs are so anxious when they hit adulthood that it often comes as a shock, resulting in depression, anxiety and anger. Is this at the root of our nation’s gun violence on campuses and elsewhere?
  • Last spring, Brown University’s administration caved into student complaints about a speaker who had been invited to appear on campus.  Her viewpoints were controversial, so some students said that they would feel “unsafe” on the campus, and the administration created a “safe space” where dozens of students visited during the debate and were treated to videos of “frolicking puppies,” along with tables filled with cookies and Play Doh.

What’s wrong with this picture?  Everything.  And I think it goes to the heart of what’s happening in our anguish about guns and how simmering resentments over all kinds are causing blood to be spilled.

What if the biggest problem is simply that we are churning out weak, self-involved, lazy whiners who need to hire cuddlers to hold them for an hour when they can’t soothe themselves, and who can’t handle rejection, spilled hot coffee or hurt without calling a lawyer?

It’s been well-researched and documented that the self-esteem parenting movement did nothing but foster narcissists who believe they are entitled to trophies and praise for simply participating in life and activities.  It has left them fatter, slower and more anxious than previous generations, and their neuroses and fragility have given birth to the term “microaggression.” Microaggression is what they say occurs when they have to sit through book discussions that contain words and concepts they disagree with, they hear a racial nuance that disturbs them, or someone enters their environment that causes perceived “hostility,” thus making them vulnerable to be “triggered.”

HR executives lament that telling employees anything other than how great they are is likely to result in tears and moping. One law firm partner told me at a speech in Texas recently that when she fired an Ivy League law school graduate for laziness and poor performance, the woman said that she was going to sue.
HR executives lament that telling employees anything other than how great they are is likely to result in tears and moping. One law firm partner told me at a speech in Texas recently that when she fired an Ivy League law school graduate for laziness and poor performance, the woman said that she was going to sue.

Reports about the latest shooter note that he was rejected by women online and in person.  He may have had other underlying problems, but interpersonal challenges are thought to have been the “trigger” that caused him to erupt in violent rage, much like the gunman at the University of California at Santa Barbara last year, who had the same complaints about women and their unwelcome treatment of his advances.

Perhaps we need to overhaul our parenting, our culture, our schools and our standards for resilience before we get wrapped up in another debate about gun laws and inadequate mental health facilities.  What if the biggest problem is simply that we are churning out weak, self-involved, lazy whiners who need to hire cuddlers to hold them for an hour when they can’t soothe themselves, and who can’t handle rejection, spilled hot coffee or hurt without calling a lawyer?

A generation of anxious young adults who cannot self-soothe easily now turn to "cuddlers" whom they pay to hold them.
A generation of anxious young adults who cannot self-soothe easily now turn to “cuddlers” whom they pay to hold them.

I’m currently learning the martial art of Tzee Wai Kuen, known as the “mother of all self-defense” because of its emphasis on the fundamentals of handling your body with mindfulness.  The primary tenet is about eye contact, especially when facing aggression.  Instead of running, we’re instructed to lock eyes, move closer, and then disable the threat.  Resisting or running away from the attacker is a guaranteed loss, as is the inability to lock eyes with your foe.

Perhaps we need to overhaul our parenting, our culture, our schools and our standards for resilience before we get wrapped up in another debate about gun laws and inadequate mental health facilities.

Let’s take a look at whether or not we are teaching our students, children and employees to face hard truths and lock eyes with aggressors to develop strength and coping skills, or if we are actually perpetuating weakness and needless “trigger happy” aggression by teaching them that the world is a scary place of dangerous ideas and unnecessary mastery experiences that are better off avoided by doing things like making all playground equipment rounded plastic, banning tag and sledding, and telling them they are winners for doing nothing.

Maybe our problems are that basic and our national agenda should be about getting some grit, not about removing more threats.

15 Responses

  1. David Pollay

    Caroline, this is a fantastic post. It should be required reading for all of us parents. Thank you for continuing to share your message all around the world.

    – David

  2. Michael

    Pretty true in many ways Caroline, thank you. I work in a school. We recently reviewed the Student Wellbeing Policy, which others may name as a Student Behavior Management Policy. It was a good thing to hear from the teachers who when working on a summative ‘mantra’ to cue the students decided to go with “I am safe. I am respectful. I am resilient’. Nice to have it confirmed by your insights.

  3. mary

    I have to disagree. Looking at the stats in comparison to Canada, I would say that very weak gun laws is definitely an issue. For us to expect children to self regulate their emotions without any education on how to is expecting way too much. Grit? Sure, once a child is educated about how to become responsible with their emotions, we can expect more. Until we address emotional health k-12 in every school, we will continue to see more of this. I am very thankful to live in a country that has strict gun laws.

    1. Caroline Adams Miller

      I don’t think it’s JUST gun laws, even though that has to change, too. I’m just pointing out another contributing factor that I’ve thought about for a long time, along with supporting evidence. It’s never just one thing, but focusing only on two factors may be foolish.

      1. Mary

        *It’s never just one thing, but focusing only on two factors may be foolish. You are correct, it would be foolish. I have been researching this for 5 years, so….that would make my comment – an informed one. Emotional health/self regulation will be in the forefront within the next 3 years. Wait and see. Thank you.

  4. Pingback : Guns: Why Everyone’s Arguments are Wrong | The Psychology of Wellbeing

  5. William Adams

    Cultivating grit AND common sense gun laws such as universal back ground checks and closing obvious loopholes are appropriate. A reduction of grit levels in recent generations is not a reason to not ask whether gun laws need adjustment.

  6. Betty

    I’m not that what I want to say is a ‘fact’. But I’m asking. Do these mass shootings occur in TX. Or AZ. ? I’ve lived in both state and almost everyone has a gun, not at home or tucked into the band of their pants where they are hidden. It’s a Texan I know that a mentally or emotionally upset person may get 1-2 people shot but the perso closets to him will end it. We all have our guns. We all know you do too. So like I said, you may kill 1-2 innocent people., but you won’t go much further than that . If I were standing close by, I’d put you down.

  7. suzie

    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    Excellent post, Caroline! Very well written and great food for thought! Keep your ideas coming! We need them!
    Suzie

  8. Michael

    I’ve always lived by the golden rule: Treat your fellow person as you choose to be treated. I’ve never had problems; it’s really not the utopia it seems to be. Respect and love happens everyday. We just need more of it.

  9. Jane

    Caroline, excellent post! As someone who has mostly lived outside of the US since the end of the 1980s, when I read some of this I feel like Rip van Winkle. And while I agree wholeheartedly with what you say, I believe that regulation around gun ownership is also a VERY important piece. When I read the statistic on the number of arms in the US, and when I recently learned that another high school friend is picketing to stop a gun shop from opening next to a school in McLean, VA, again I am Rip van Winkle. Shocked.

  10. I also grew up in Bethesda, and at my elementary school I was allowed to jump out of the swings and fall, tumbling as landed. I wanted to be a paratrooper when I grew up. I was sad when they removed the swings from that school, and I also noticed that my favorite rock in the ground, where I used to play with my toy soldiers, was gone. I didn’t join the Air Force, but I did take 5 years of ballroom dance lessons on roller skates and learned all but one of the singles jumps in freestyle. Even now in my mid 60s my body knows how to take a fall with no damage. My orthopedic surgeon said “Your knees are perfect. They have just the right amount of space between the bones. I wish my films looked as good as yours do. Whatever you’re doing, keep it up.” That would be regular exercise, including skating.

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