How to Talk to “The Other Side” on Social Media: Prepare
Tips on how to bridge the national divide, one relationship at a time: Part 1
Posted October 12, 2020
If you’ve been on social media lately—and who hasn’t since COVID-19 bulldozed the world?—you’ve been caught in the war on reality. People you know are posting messages that violently invalidate your lived experience, or distort the facts of events you witnessed in plain sight. This is called gaslighting, and it’s a symptom of abuse. Make no mistake, America, we are trapped in an abusive relationship with ourselves, and we are in desperate need of a therapist to help us out.
I’m not that therapist; no one person is. Like you, I’m just a citizen at a loss amid this dire dysfunction. But as a psychotherapist who has helped a variety of clients navigate toxic dilemmas with family, friends, and partners, I can offer the following extended handful of tips to guide us through our national family crisis—at least on social media.
(This article, Part 1: Prepare, is the first in a series of three. It is followed by Part 2: Take Action and Part 3: Listen).
1. Name Your Feelings (the Vulnerable Ones): First and foremost, recognize and acknowledge to yourself how each antagonizing post affects you, in vulnerable terms. (And keep in mind that anger is not vulnerability; it’s a shield we use to protect ourselves from vulnerable emotions, such as hopelessness, despair, and fear).
You’re not crazy: The people posting stories and memes that rattle you to the core are indeed projecting narratives onto you, and/or people you care about, that are either false or that fail to tell your whole story. Whether they’re doing this out of ignorance, or because of something you’re actively doing or not doing, or some other reason, we won’t know until you engage them in a dialogue. (And you must do that—see #2.) What we do know is that your perspective is being mischaracterized. And if you want that to change, you’ve got to name how the posts impact you, (again, in vulnerable terms), and commit to seeking an emotional understanding between you and the poster.
And while we’re on this topic, as you move through the next few steps, keep in mind that they want you to recognize and acknowledge their feelings too (see #3). You may not be able to see it on the surface, but like you, there is a vulnerability within each of them that they believe you are out to destroy. Whether they believe you are out to get them and defend themselves accordingly because of something you’ve actually done or for some other reason, again, we won’t know until you have a meaningful dialogue with them. But I guarantee that their aggressive posting won’t stop if you don’t first validate their emotional perspectives.
2. Invite a Safe Dialogue: Safety is a priority in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and it should be the first consideration when we’re in an abusive relationship. (I only refer to it second here because, in order to seek safety, we must first acknowledge that we are being harmed and that we want to change that.) In this case, if we want the gaslighting on social media to stop, we must invite a safe dialogue with our identified antagonist, within safe boundaries. And that requires us to take action; the only way out of this dangerous divide is through.
If we simply ignore posts that threaten our sanity, we not only enable the perpetrators to continue to pre-judge and dismiss us but we also effectively choose to continue pre-judging and dismissing them as well. Similarly, if we merely react to them publicly with angry, disparaging remarks, or call them out with the sole intention of “winning” a debate or shaming them, we only shut down the possibility of safety between us.
But if we invite them to participate in an open, respectful, and vulnerable exchange of perspectives, we then have the opportunity to establish a mode of safety between us. And no matter who wins the upcoming presidential election, we will need a way to reach “the other side” emotionally if we want to feel safe living in the same country without having to sleep with one eye open.
Like family members we didn’t choose and with whom we are burdened to navigate conflicting realities for eternity, we must seek “mutual recognition” (as psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin says) with our fellow citizens in order to coexist safely (however impossible that may seem). And the most reliable way to secure a safe co-existence in a family, community, or country, is to actively cultivate one relationship at a time.
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(Along these lines, check out the writing of seminal family therapist Murray Bowen, who found that by focusing on one specific “dyadic relationship” at a time, we extricate ourselves from the general, negative emotions that fuse the whole group together into a toxic morass. Bowen’s one-relationship-at-a-time approach allows for great healing, understanding, and new possibilities to take place for each individual family member, and ultimately for the entire system. The same can be true for us as citizens and as a country, if we each do the work.)
For specific suggestions on how to write messages to your antagonistic poster, take a look at Part 2: Take Action.
Author’s Note: If you would like to share your personal experience trying out some of these suggestions, and if you feel comfortable with me using parts of your story for a follow-up article, write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright Mark O'Connell, LCSW-R
Benjamin, J. (2017) Beyond doer and done to: recognition theory, intersubjectivity and the third. New York, NY: Routledge
Bowen, M. (1993). Family therapy in clinical practice. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman Littlefield Publishers, INC.