I made the mistake of trying to reason with someone on social media earlier today and was trolled as a result. I admit it wasn't a pleasant experience, but since reflecting (as many of us therapists do) I would like to share the insights I have gained, along with some knowledge that may be useful to you.
People are likely to be activated right now with intense levels of anxiety, fear and frustration. There are some who are desperate to find certainty and assert some sense of control and under current circumstances, social media is the one of the easiest and quickest ways to achieve this. Social platforms are used to share strong opinions, and I'm always struck by how people stick to those opinions as if their lives depend upon it. Perhaps they do on some occasions.
The comment I was trolled for was in relation to 'social shaming' - the act of shaming others for not following rules set out by respective governments as part of the response to Covid-19. I have seen the use of dehumanising language and worse, people suggesting that those who don't follow the restrictions deserve death as a punishment.
So why is shaming so prolific? To understand that, let's look at the psychology behind it.
Shaming others through critical judgment sets in motion a set of powerful psychological events. Firstly — ‘I’m behaving in line with the rules, which is why I can be the judge.’ This gives those shaming a sense of power. In the current climate, where many of us feel powerless, that satisfies a big need. We’re also likely to get some validation from others when we assert it, so it offers a double-win.
Secondly, this judgement implies ‘I’m right and you’re wrong.’ So if I’m ‘right’, then I must be doing things properly. This is especially important when we’re fearful for our lives and the lives of people we love. By finding someone to be ‘doing it wrong’ and shaming them we embolden our position as someone who is doing it ‘right’. Consciously or unconsciously, we are looking for comfort that we have reduced our risk of death. In the case of Covid-19, this being the risk of contracting the virus and dying. Consequently, in the unpredictable times we’re in, feeling we are 'right' provides a big psychological payoff.
Finally, armed with ‘I’m more superior to you, and I’m doing it right so my risk of dying is less than yours’ the person judging or shaming can recruit supporters, fans and believers. This happened as I was being trolled; as more people took to their seats as judge and chief shamer, the venom that was spilled out in response to my comment eventually became abusive, so I removed myself and the associated connection from my feed. The function served it's purpose however, in that all those shaming and trolling me felt momentarily more powerful in this newly formed online mob.
All these psychological payoffs are welcome distractions from the fear, anxiety and powerlessness people may otherwise experience if they were to sit quietly by themselves and enter a state of inward reflection. For that reason, whilst holding boundaries, I also hold compassion.
For the most part, social media is an echo chamber. Algorithms skew things so we only see content from people who share views like our own. This morning however, I found myself in another world and it wasn’t pretty. It was a glimpse of the darker side of humanity - the shadow side that we all possess, which often appears when we’re fearful and anxious. That was certainly true of those who took aim at me. I didn’t stick around long enough to see it through. I’ve learned from painful experience that it’s biologically and psychologically impossible to build connection with someone (especially a group of people) when they’re in fight mode. And I forgive myself for trying.
The comment I was trolled for was, ironically, inviting people to be mindful of casting judgement and shaming. Every day, the media are displaying images and footage of the small minority of people who appear to be resisting or ignoring the current restrictions that we’re all being asked to adhere to. These images and stories are being interpreted as ‘cues of danger’ by those who are doing as they have been asked. When we interpret something in this way and we can’t run away from it (flight), our nervous system goes into fight mode — it’s our most primal response to danger. This is when we get angry and want to neutralise any perceived threat. In extreme cases, the rationalising part of our brain literally goes offline and we are at the mercy of our less evolved selves.
When you are able to notice yourself wanting to lash out at someone else for disobeying the rules, or shame a neighbour for having more than one walk a day, go deeper inside your own body and mind (if it feels safe to do so). What’s really going on? Are you trying to feel more powerful to counteract feeling powerless? More ‘right’? Are you trying to recruit people to your temporary online tribe to reinforce your position within your echo chamber?
The truth is, we’re all fearful or anxious about what’s happening, and many of us are acting out in ways that don't align to our ordinary character. Perhaps we can seek to own those feelings as our own and reach out with vulnerability to those who we know can offer compassion in return.
We can never truly know someone’s reasons for doing the things they do. Yes, there must be boundaries and there must be consequences if people abuse those boundaries - especially if it harms others - but does casting judgement and publicly shaming people on social media really help us move forward through this crisis? Or does it inflame our nervous systems, which are already amped up to the max? You can likely find the answer in your body. How does it feel when you read or write these comments? Do you feel rested, calm and grounded? Or is your heart rate elevated, your breathing shallow, your chest tight and your eyes narrowed? If it’s the latter, you’re in fight mode. You’re not therefore open to meaningful connection with others, which is probably the thing you (we) need most right now.
This isn’t a war with an invisible enemy as we’re being told. That kind of language only seeks to make the problem worse and get everyone riled up in the process. As far as we know, this is a natural virus. Viruses are part of the human experience. This one requires us to be rational, take sensible precautions and stay calm. It has the potential to be — and has been for many — fatal, and we should therefore treat it with respect. That simple truth is already enough to put our nervous systems on edge. Adding to that by judging and shaming others won’t help any of us.
Compassion is the biggest antidote to how we are all feeling. I’ve seen that in spades in my local community. People showing incredible selfless acts of kindness, patience, understanding and generosity. The key workers, including the NHS, are working tirelessly to keep us safe, fed and comfortable. Whilst they go to work and risk their lives, the best thing we can offer them by way of thanks is our own self-regulation.
We will come through this, and we need one another to do that. The vast majority of us are following the guidance. Focus your anxious minds and bodies on the good news stories. Do the things that calm and regulate you. Where possible, avoid the things that don’t.
And finally, as I’ve said so many times before. Every one of us is fighting a battle you know nothing about, so be kind, always.