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Navigating Social Media Boundaries With Relational Trauma

Protecting your social media boundaries can be difficult for those with trauma.

Key points

  • For those with relational trauma, it can be hard to figure out how to establish and maintain social media boundaries.
  • Unlike those without relational trauma, it can be incredibly distressing to discover that you've accepted a follow from a fake account.
  • When you are estranged from or setting firm boundaries with members of your family of origin, social media adds another level of complexity.

The other morning, I saw an Instagram follow request from an old high school teacher.

Not thinking too much of it, I approved her “follow” because I like her so much.

A few hours later, I saw a DM from her: “Hello. How are you?”

This was definitely not my high school teacher. We’ve stayed close over the years and that wasn’t her speaking style. Quickly I checked my other IG followers and saw her “real” profile. The one that followed me that morning was a dummy that now had access to my private IG feed full of photos of my daughter and husband.

Quickly, I blocked that person and couldn't help but think: “Was that just a bot or was it one of my estranged family members?” It was such a uniquely relational trauma recovery kind of thought that, after my chagrin subsided, I knew I had to share it in case, you, like me, experience social media as yet another complexity of coming from a relational trauma background.

Social media: Yet another complexity in the relational trauma recovery journey.

Most of us have a complex relationship with social media for many reasons. And, these days, almost all of us get followed by bots on social media from time to time. But not everyone has to worry about someone they really don’t want to have access to them deliberately and under false pretenses attempting to get in touch with them via social media. Repeatedly.

This experience of having estranged or abusive family members you’ve blocked deliberately trying to get in touch with you through fake profiles is something some of us from relational trauma backgrounds might relate to.

The reality is that social media is a second relational world we all have to navigate these days. And, just like real life, the social media landscape is also a place where we’re forced or compelled to hold boundaries with people in our life.

For some, both in real life and online, holding these boundaries feels low stakes. For others, like those of us who come from relational trauma backgrounds, in both territories, the stakes can feel higher. This is because many of us who relate to coming from relational trauma backgrounds often have estranged relationships with family of origin members — or have relationships we just don’t want to have access to more intimate details of our life. And so, sometimes, the same level of vigilance we may have to employ in the real world – such as when considering whether or not to say yes to a cousin’s wedding invitation – can play out in the digital space as well as the flesh-and-blood space.

The relational trauma recovery question persists with social media as it does in the real world: How do I keep myself safe and away from people who feel harmful to be around?

Upholding social media boundaries, making mistakes, and moving forward.

You – like me – have probably already taken steps on social media to address that key question: How do I keep myself safe and away from people who feel harmful to be around?

Personally, I keep my personal profiles private. I’ve blocked and unfriended people. If a follow request comes through that looks even remotely suspicious, I text or call that person to make sure it’s really them. I take extra care about who I allow to have access to my personal social profiles because that’s where I post photos of my husband, daughter, and our life together, and both my husband and I are estranged from family members who we absolutely don’t want to have access to that content.

So normally, I have strong and rigorous social media boundaries (as I do in real life, too). But that day when I quickly accepted a follow to my private IG (all my profiles are private except for my work ones), I made a mistake: I rushed.

This mistake gave a dummy profile access to about 100-plus pictures of me, my husband, our daughter, and our life together. This is content that I don’t want those estranged family members to see and it’s painful to think that one of them might have. Now, I can’t prove whether it was an estranged family member or just a random bot, but the chagrin I felt imagining that, for four hours, an estranged family member did get through, was painful.

And, as I mentioned, even as I sat with those painful feelings, I thought to myself: This is such a unique experience for someone who comes from a relational trauma background with estranged family members. I wanted to write about it to validate another nuance some of us might contend with if we come from relational trauma backgrounds.

I wanted to write about it, too, to illustrate how, even 15-plus years into my own relational trauma recovery journey, I still make mistakes with my boundaries sometimes.

And I wanted to write about it in case my normal practice of being very careful of accepting follow requests and taking time to screen for the legitimacy of the follow could feel helpful to you as you deal with estrangements or challenging family-of-origin relationships.

I also wanted to share this mistake I made in my life, admit the automatic place my brain went to when it happened, and be right there with you in the continued complexity of a relational trauma recovery journey, protecting myself as an adult while I live my life.

Has this scenario ever happened to you: An estranged family member attempting to get access to you through dummy profiles? Does social media also feel like a fraught landscape for you? What steps do you take to uphold strong social media boundaries with estranged or painful relationships in your own life?

If you know or suspect that you come from a relational trauma background and would like support on your personal growth journey, you can find a therapist in the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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