Anxiety Online

By | December 14, 2016


I have longtime friends and associates who I’ve always known to be kind and thoughtful. Yet something happens to them at times when they are on Facebook, Twitter, or e-groups. They become bullies. They shame and troll. They criticize and judge. I see the tendency in myself. What comes over us that makes us objectify others, see them as one-dimensional, and define them by their worst mistakes? What is this cyberspace curse?

Let’s start with a definition of terms:
Trolling – posting deliberately inflammatory, offensive, or provocative statements to elicit a charged response. Usually done in a cynical or sarcastic tone, to sow discord or start arguments. Also known as baiting.
Shaming – causing someone to feel inadequate, inferior, or embarrassed by comparing with self, others, or an ideal. Objectifies and one-dimensionalizes. Typically done by ideologues to those who don’t match up to their belief systems or expectations.
Bullying – repeated use of aggression, force, or influence to abuse, intimidate, dominate, or manipulate. There is a real or imagined power imbalance. Often practiced by those with mental disorders.

When we can’t look into each other’s eyes, we don’t know how our words affect others.
This makes the issue of cyberabuse hard to address, and sometimes even to identify. Here are the two basic guidelines to follow when working with both abusers and those affected:
1. Listen closely and empathetically. For those affected, this is a very personal issue, so rather than coming from objective perspective, we must gain a deep sense of what they are experiencing.
2. Refrain from rating or comparing. To recipients, trolling is trolling and shaming is shaming. Being more or less shamed or bullied is irrelevant to them.

The core reason for taking these debasing practices at face value is that they hold one point in common—they cause stress. More often than not, this stress becomes chronic, as most perpetrators are persistent. Unresolved chronic stress morphs into trauma. For those already traumatized, these practices are a regular post-traumatic stress trigger.

Cyberabuse becomes such a serious matter for the recipients because of their vulnerability:
– They are typically alone and have no support.
– They have no way to adequately convey their feelings.
– Their online communities may have no clue as to what they are experiencing.
– They become susceptible to a host of coping mechanisms, including substance abuse, depression, and suicidality.

To Own It, We Need to Feel It
“But that’s not me!” Was my first reaction after reading over my newly finished definitions for trolling, shaming, and bullying. To be more specific, it was my ego that reacted. And I’m glad he did, because it caused me to reflect and realize that cyberabuse was my personal issue as well, as I’ve been on both the giving and receiving ends.

As well, I came to realize that I needed more than definitions to personalize this issue with people who had healthy (I’d insert a ☺ here if it was in my vocabulary) egos like mine. So I asked a couple of my therapist colleagues how I might help people see their roles as perpetrators without coming across as…well…trolling, shaming, or bullying.

One of them thought definitions were too academic and distancing. “Approach it on a feeling level,” she said, “and people will relate.”
Another concurred, saying that the easy way to tell when someone—including himself—is bullying, trolling, or shaming “is when they are being a prick.” Now that’s getting right down to a feeling level.
Someone else told me that being shamed feels like being the victim of identity theft. Another person said the hardest part is feeling objectified. Being bullied, said another, is like experiencing life on fast-forward, out of control. Everything starts spinning; you can’t get grounded. Trolling causes someone else to feel disrespected and worthless.

The Shamer’s Edge
Shaming is so unnerving because the shamer strikes from the fantasy platform of how idealistic people pretend life to be, which leaves the shamed person alone to struggle with how complex we really are (Monica Lewinsky: ‘The Shame Sticks to You like Tar’ by Jon Ronson in The Guardian, April 16, 2016).

Identify It When It’s Happening
Here are the common indicators that I notice when shaming, trolling, or bullying is occurring. Someone is:
– Talking down to a person.
– Labeling, marginalizing, or building a case.
– Not addressing someone by name.
– Using only you statements.
– Pushing an agenda and not listening.
– Picking an argument.

Take Responsibility
In researching this topic, I have come across a number of solutions. The most effective and far-reaching ones involved taking personal responsibility, whether it was for one’s own actions or another’s. When I become aware of the dynamic and take responsibility for my role in it, I create options. I can desist from engagement, work to change its trajectory, or seek professional help.

From the perspective of avoiding or eliminating chronic stress, I recommend these two self-empowered approaches:
1. Create empathy. In the same way that we find it easy to gossip about someone not present, we get caught up in the cyberspace curse. Whenever we are posting or texting (or receiving a message) and something doesn’t feel right, we can imagine that we are connecting with a close friend or lover. Right away we should be able to tell whether we are addressing (or been addressed as) a person or a concept (‘You Want to Know What They’re Writing, Even If It Hurts: My Online Abuse’ by Homa Khaleeli, in The Guardian, April 15, 2016). If this is still not clear, check the indicators I just listed.
2. Create a new narrative. Whenever there is cyberabuse, there is an imbalance of power, status, or values. This creates competing narratives, which are obvious with aggressors, and they can be disguised with enablers or passive victims. When we can take personal responsibility, we can write our own narrative, which either puts us on equal—and relationally responsible—footing in the relationship, or terminates the relationship (Lewinsky – The Guardian, 2016).

And Take Action!
Cyberabuse does not dissipate on its own, even if the actual abuse stops. Like paper trails, cyber trails persist. Even more, they are easily available to an ever-widening audience. And memories continue to evolve the story. Create a new, self-empowering narrative and your story is less likely to come back and haunt you. 

Creating Cyberabuse-Free Communication
With trolling, it is important to avoid arguing, which is one of the troller’s favorite weapons. On top of that, the dynamics of internet discourse provoke arguing. Exchanges are often fast, one-dimensional, and not well thought out, which makes them subject to misinterpretation and encourages contention and reactiveness. In the words of Darsh Singh, an alternative investment portfolio manager, “The internet is the worst place to argue with people—it’s a wasteland in terms of logic and thoughtfulness.” (‘You Want to Know What They’re Writing, Even If It Hurts: My Online Abuse’ by Homa Khaleeli, in The Guardian, April 15, 2016)

With shaming, I follow the advice of the native elders I apprenticed to when I was young: accept shame and criticism with gratitude, then look for the grain of truth in it. Monica Lewinsky, who may be the most shamed person in the past twenty years, echoes the elders when she says, “Integrate the experience, the faster the better.” There is a very practical reason for the immediacy: survival. “Shame sticks to you like tar,” says Monica. If we try to escape the shame, we get shamed for that (Lewinsky – The Guardian, 2016). The alternative to action? Chronic stress—and maybe trauma—with all of the debilitating aftershocks.

With bullying, some people try to either squelch it or defend themselves by being the bigger bully. This is sure to backfire, as it sanctions bullying and increases the stress load on all involved. Instead, we can recognize that bullies (along with many who accept being bullied) are wounded and externalizing their pain on others in an effort to find some relief. It then becomes possible for us to relax our defensive-aggressive boundaries and take responsibility by empowering ourselves with the two approaches we just covered: create empathy and create a new narrative.

We all need a safe haven. When we head home at the end of the day, we look forward to being with those who will listen to our story. We want to be in caring, supportive company, where we can unwind and recharge for our next venture out.

Many of us find this compassionate community on the internet. When we no longer feel safe going there—going home—it can feel as though we have been abandoned. When those we trust and care for start to criticize and belittle us, it can sting as intensely as if we were being skinned alive.

Alone we are lost. Together we can create the home that calls us back.

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