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Leon Pomeroy Ph.D.

Microaggressions and Trigger-Warnings

Emotional thinking is the enemy of truth seeking.


The gift of life is something we often take for granted. The fragility of life and freedom is often overlooked along with "the thinking we do when we don’t think about the thinking we do." And yet, thinking makes a big difference when it comes to life and freedom . I’ve always practiced psychology paying attention to thought-styles and the valuational-styles lurking behind them. The various clinical interventions I use provide a “telegraph” or “pipeline” into thinking and cognitive distortions behind problems in living.

I make use of procedures like the free-association of sentence-completion exercises, speaking in a language patients or clients understand, using metaphors, case histories, experiential exercises, hypnotic inductions of the “quieting response,” storytelling, humor, and so forth. My relationship with the patient is everything. No bonding, no relationship, no success, and always one patient at a time unless it’s couples therapy or group therapy.

My interest in how we think began with my study of General Semantics and psycholinguistics in college, and perfected as a postdoctoral intern under Albert Ellis many years ago. It was a considerable surprise to learn about bad thinking on a large scale involving Millennial college students preoccupied with microaggressions and trigger-warnings .

Google free image
Source: Google free image

Must I provide a "trigger-warning" for this image which some may regard as a "microaggression" and "insensitive"? Read on!

Well, I never imagined that one day the emotional thinking and cognitive distortions of my patients would become "contagious" to the degree of "infecting" large numbers of Millennial students on college campuses.

If what Stone and Creeley in the Washington Post and Lukianoff and Haidt in The Atlantic are telling us is true, then we have a problem, and not enough psychologists of my persuasion to treat them.


The more effective intervention would be proactive psychoeducation involving the "preventive psychology" of moral education based on value science; plus a curriculum consisting of Ellisonian Cognitive Psychology, Comparative Religion, The History and Philosophy of Science, the Scientific Method, and resources being developed by those with an interest in the new field of "Philosophical Counseling" inspired by my mentor’s reading of philosophy and the Stoic philosopher Epictetus.

Given the scale of bad thinking reported by Stone and Creeley and also Lukianoff and Haidt , I’m left asking what is wrong with society and its discontents? Why aren’t we hearing more from practicing clinical psychologists like me ? Why are campuses coddling students with bad thinking, assuming my sources have this right?

From the perspective of Axiological Psychology , we're likely dealing with a tragic flaw in the character of society and civilization. The roots of bad thinking go deep! It has a lot to do with neglected values in the world of facts, and the asymmetric evolution of a science of facts without a science of values. This in turn has given rise to dangerous levels of moral-relativity which in turn is stimulating the rise of even more dangerous and malignant factual-relativity ; recalling the old saying that "we have a right to our own opinions, but not our own facts."

But, even the right to our own opinions is not absolute given the existence of moral-absolutes limiting moral-relativity! This is a consequence of biosocial and psychosocial evolution; for values and valuations underlying "opinions" are rooted in biology ; namely the biolology of cells in our bodies that is called protoplasmic irritability . This has left us governed by natural laws influencing and limiting how we value. This limits the range of moral-relativity (therefore opinions) where the goal is psychosocial adaptation and survival.

Therefore, the right to our own opinions isn’t absolute while claiming a right to our own facts is pure insanity and a denial of reality. Reality comes up and slaps such relativists in the face! The natural laws governing the formation and exercise of values result in the organization of values around three dimensions of value called the Feeler or Intrinsic, Doer or Extrinsic, Thinker or Systemic dimensions of value possessing measurable levels of se nsitivity, balance, influence, and flexibility (This gives us triaxiomatic value-vision , the configuration of which shapes the way we think at all levels ranging from identity and self-esteem to cognitive distortions and aesthetic judgments. Identity or existential-values have to do with the eternal struggle to maintain the sense of an adequate, competent, and familiar self which is getting more challenging in the modern world).


The optimum configuration and exercise of Feeler, Doer, and Thinker dimensions of value (which I blog at length about as core concepts of Axiological Psychology and Science) influence all thought and behavior ranging from pro-self, pro-social (i.e., Good ) to anti-self, anti-social (i.e., Evil ). Ok, let's face it, the implied assumption for most of us is that l ife is better than death; life is better than fanatical martyrdom, health is better than sickness; sanity is better than insanity, Good is better than Evil, and so forth. Values and valuations based on such existential assumptions have consequences because we’re prisoners of these values, and as evaluators and habitual self-evaluators they are a big deal. See the following links:

Triaxiomatic Value-Vision and Beyond :

Our concept of "Triaxiomatic value-vision" is not just another poorly defined, fuzzy clinical concept, metaphor or poetry. It is based on the new discipline, the new science of values (i.e., Axiological Science), and can be measured with the value profiling methodology (i.e., axiometrics or valuemetrics) known as The Standard Hartman Value Profile (HVP) and its Parallel Forms and Derivative Applications (It is the "Standard HVP" that my published research supports, along with Hartman's Theory of Value from which this test is derived, and which contributes to the birth of our empirical science of values and valuations called axiological science ).

Cognitive distortions (i.e., bad thinking and sometimes pathological thinking) involve distorted valuational-styles giving rise to distorted thought-styles which include the "magnification" of catastrophic thinking; absolute and grandiose demands ; blame; constricted two-valued-logic or black-and-white thinking , overgeneralizations and confusion concerning levels of abstraction discussed by General Semantics; magical thinking , and the emotional reasoning which ignores facts.

If reports concerning today's manifestation of political correctness, involving microaggressions and trigger-warnings are correct, then our educational system has failed students. This isn’t surprising given the fact that we learn our ABCs and 123s without learning our FDTs (i.e., the nature, exercise, and influence of Feeler, Doer, Thinker dimensions of feeling, acting, and thinking...defining the three dimensional "behavioral universe" ). Education falls short because of the one-sided, asymmetric evolution of natural science without the restraint and checks and balances of a science of values...recalling that morals are normative values, we're talking about a science of moral reasonging as well! Remember that historic science as we've known it reaches for values, but never touches them. The same may be said for education, philosophy, and religion! Why? The answer is found in our examination of triaxiomatic value-vision Beyond Good and Evil.


It is a failure of education that has left today’s campus vulnerable to the bad and pathological thinking that gives us concepts like microaggression and trigger-warnings as new manifestations of political correctness gone mad in the manner of a modern day folie à plusieurs. This "insanity of many" was discussed by the French over a hundred years ago. It refers to the collective mental health of many that Sigmund Freud also considered in the pages of his “ Civilization and its Discontents. ” Is this a phenomena that is also contributing to gun violence in our schools and colleges? Are we looking at the signs and symptoms of social unrest in response to modern life without the common ground of moral education giving us our half-smart approach to education and distorting today's zeitgeist, spirit-of-the-times, mother-of-all-minds, or climate of opinion? I believe we need a preventive psychology based on moral education and moral science for the cultivation of a greater " moral imagination" without emotional and partisan ideologies. I'm doing my best to bring this issue to the wider world and my profession. When I speak later this year before those building the new discipline of Philosohical Counseling , I will raise this issue with them as well. Will they, more than psychologists, seize this initiative (carpe initium capio)?


I diagnose and treat individuals. I’ve never been asked to diagnose or treat a collective of many suffering from the “same problems in living” on a scale reminiscent of mass hysteria, or a "social disease;" or whatever we end up calling such collective or shared problems-in-lilving "infecting" some Millennials on campus these days? I have not experienced this first-hand. I’m witnessing this second-hand with the help of published articles identifying a problem involving some college students with shared cognitive distortions producing bad, emotional, or pathological thinking preoccupied with microaggressions and trigger-warnings. Bad thinking that is easily amplified by social media in ways that are reported to threaten faculty and students!

There appears to be a reluctance to deal with the cognitive distortions spreading in a hysterical manner recallilng Salem Witch Trials . We don’t have an official diagnosis for what’s going on which takes into consideration the scale of the problem, its grounding in cognitive distortions, and amplification by social media. All I’m aware of are the signs and symptoms reported by respectable media outlets reporting obsessive student preoccupation with microaggression and trigger-warnings and speculations concerning bad thinking behind it all.

The problem seems real enough, but has it reached the level of subclinical or clinical pathology? How serious is it? As far as I know, no clinical psychologists has proposed a diagnosis or treatment. Making matters worse is the suggestion that campuses are somehow complicit in the coddling of students engaged in this behavior. This is suggested by Lukianoff and Haidt in their September 2015 Atlantic article entitled “ The Coddling of the American Mind. ” The authors appear to have done a good job bringing this to our attention and linking it to bad, emotional thinking. As an observer, without first hand information, my impressionistic and tentative diagnosis would be pseudocultural paranoia with anger. My treatment suggestions would involve treating those involved individually and providing a program of prevention around psychoeducation and the preventive psychology of moral education based on axiological science.

I am surprised at the level and scale of the alleged emotional thinking involved given that critical thinking is the declared mission of education of students who are tomorrow’s leaders. Can we say eduation is failing? Can we say there are some involved with the coddling of students guilty of bad thinking? On the other hand, we don't want to fight political correctness with another "brand" of political correctness, or terrorism with terrorism, or pathological thinking with excessive psychological correctness either.


The microaggression and trigger-warnings seem to preoccupy some students on campus appear to be supported by cognitive distortions which is the basis of bad and even pathological thinking. In particular, we have the mind-sets of catastrophizing or awfulizing, demand and blame, and others listed by Lukianoff and Haidt. I believe axiological psychology , based on the science of values advanced in the pages of The New Science of Axiological Psychology, has much to offer a proactive, preventive, psychoeducational, approach to the problem, and to the cultivation of a bigger moral imagination which my research enables and encourages. Read between the lines of research summarized in the pages of this book:


Before concluding Part II of our abbreviated tour of microaggressions and trigger-warnings, at the tip of the iceberg of another version of political correctness, I want to share “ The Guide ” with you. It is Ellis’ Super ABC Paradigm . It is a self-monitoring, mental discipline , calculated to help us avoid the biggest cognitive distortion of all having to do with blame as opposed to taking responsibility for our soverign thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in difficult and stressful situations.

Before proceeding, may I remind you that my mentor Dr. Albert Ellis, Ph.D. is ranked in a survey of USA and Canadian psychologists as the second most influential psychotherapist in history. Carl Rogers is first; Albert Ellis is second; Sigmund Feud is third. I now give you The Guide:


" The Guide ” or “ Super ABC Paradigm ” focuses on conscious self-talk and less conscious "thought-shorthand " whch "comes alive" within us (i.e., internalized) with use as habitual evaluators and self-evaluators. Some say we experience 50,000 thoughts a day making Norman Vincent Peale’s “ Power of Positive Thinking ” and Ellis’ “ Guide to Rational Living ” useful references when “self-talk” and "thought-shorthand" (i.e., thinking) get us in trouble. As fallible human beings in an imperfect world we constantly make choices by exercising valuational-styles and thought-styles. Sometimes we get it wrong as we strive to succeed at something while avoiding any "ship of fools" that might come our way on the rough seas of the 21st Century.

There are always bumps in the road, but bumps don’t “kill us,” it’s how we handle (i.e., interpret and process) them that can “kill.” We travel with hope and along the way the Super ABC Paradigm or “Guide” is there to help us avoid problems and the stress of meeting any demand for “Trigger-Warnings" so as to avoid "politically incorrect" “microaggressions.” For those unfamiliar with the Super ABC Paradigm or “ The Guide,” I offer the following abbreviated tour of cognitive psychology horizons.

Google free image
Source: Google free image

“A” stands for “activating events” (e.g., someone insults you), “B” for “belief systems” (e.g., what you tell yourself about it), and “C” for “consequent emotions and behavior” (e.g., your anger, anxiety or frustration). It’s important to understand that “A” doesn’t cause “C," and apply this to one’s life. It is “B” that causes “C.” However, the "maps" at “B" are not the “territory” at "C." Fanatics and true-believers are prone to confuse ideas (B ) with facts (A) , thoughts with reality, maps with territories, and so forth. The Super ABC Paradigm is a reminder that the world doesn’t upset us, it is we who upset ourselves by what we “tell ourselves” (i.e. the self-talk) about the world that appears to be upsetting us. We upset ourselves! (You would be surprised to learn how many are not sufficiently aware of this simple truth, and fail to exercise it in moments of crisis). Finally, many under stress are especially prone to confuse B (i.e., thoughts) with A (i.e., reality), which is to say maps of mind with the territory of reality. I leave you with " The Guide. " Practice until it comes alive within you!

© Dr. Leon Pomeroy, Ph.D.

September 30, 2015


About the Author

Leon Pomeroy, Ph.D., taught at George Mason University and authored The New Science of Axiological Psychology.