In the last month, I’ve seen something that triggers me a lot. Someone lashes out or vents about something on social media that is obviously distressing them, and other people will say scold them or even diminish their vent (‘you’re so negative,’ ‘get over it’, “cheer up’). Now, we all know it’s best not to emotionally vent on social media. It’s not necessarily dignified to air dirty laundry when you’ve just been fired or you’ve been dumped or are just having a mental health crisis. However, because this is a big way we communicate now, it happens to the best of us, and I think it is important to be mindful of how we respond.
A few years ago, I was having a totally crap time of it. I was getting divorced right after turning 40, and immediately panicked that I was suddenly alone, falling into a series of very wrong relationships that made me feel like I would never feel worthy of respect again. I was also suddenly paying twice the bills I’d had previously, and very stressed out working full time as a college teacher, while also running my non profit theatre, an extra full time job that I don’t get paid for, and rarely get personal validation for doing. I felt like my brain was in absolute chaos for a long time, and I felt totally isolated in my misery.
We all have our own responses to trauma, and I responded to that one by drinking too much wine and lashing out in my Facebook posts. Hardly anyone asked me if I was ok. Most people responded by either deleting me as a friend, telling me I was negative and needed to ‘cheer up’, or just ignoring me, which I guess was the kindest of the three. Some people would ‘like’ the post, which I guess meant they were at least trying to be supportive. One or two would reach out personally and let me talk to them about it until I calmed down and felt better and felt more positive for the moment, but afterwards I usually felt ashamed that I needed that. That wasn’t my real personality. I was temporarily in distress. Occasionally, I felt like just giving up on life, and that was my scream for help. I ended up struggling through it, and coming out on the other side, after a lot of time and work on myself. I thank the people who tolerated me and stayed my friend through all that. I owe you one, and I will remember it if you ever find yourself in a similar position.
This article on NPR’s website describes how a person who was lashing out in anger was turned around completely when the object of his venting responded with kindness, instead of retaliating with more angry words.
Inspired by this exchange, I recently saw a person I don’t know that well posting angrily about how his life sucks, posting things like ‘what the hell is the fucking point?’ a few times over several days. People were doing the usual ‘cheer up’ and ‘why are you so negative?’, which was making him more angry and the conversation got really nasty a couple of times. Scrolling through the person’s page, I saw that he’d been unemployed after losing a job, and he’d been forced to move in with relatives because he was having trouble finding employment. I didn’t feel like I knew him well enough to reach out with a message and offer help, but I tried some supportive comments on the angry posts, commiserating with him, rather than criticizing him, and he immediately opened up to me and started sharing what was wrong. We had a conversation that ended with him seeming much calmer about it all. If I, a relative stranger, could find that information within a few minutes and react with kindness, why couldn’t someone who knows and sees this guy in person take him aside and say ‘I’ve noticed you seem to be in distress. What is going on, and how can I help you fix it?” I suppose sometimes a person is just a negative person, and reaching out won’t help, but I’d be willing to bet most of the time it’s not that. The person just needs a friend to vent to and doesn’t have anyone they feel comfortable reaching out to directly. It’s worth taking the chance to find out. If you can’t do that, unfollow the person until the crisis is over. That’s the least you can do.
Recently, I’ve had 2 different people say to me in some way, ‘you’ve really come a long way with your attitude’. These are people who don’t really see me in day to day life, but seem to have defined what my personality and attitude is like based on a short time period of watching my facebook posts during a terrible time in my life and judging me accordingly. No, I haven’t changed as a person. I was always this person. I was just having a really hard time for a little while, and now my life is much better. Maybe next time you see someone lashing out, try to see if they need help instead of deciding they’re just too negative to be around. React with kindness and you might find that you can help be a solution to someone’s real problem, instead of just judging a whole person based on Facebook.