Mental health practitioners have noted for a long time how differently people can behave online than they do in person; often in more negative and aggressive ways, with resulting effects on readers. This is especially typical with topics that generally tend to be polarized to begin with: religion, politics, and relational dynamics (i.e. parenting, sexuality, marriage, etc.). See the following article: The Psychology of Online Comments.
I’m inviting all of us to consider both self-care and self-monitoring when it comes to the “comments section” of any online medium we may be visiting. Here are some ideas to consider both as we make comments… and as we read them:
Boundaries. When and if somebody is sharing a personal experience, it is not appropriate to disagree or minimize what they have been through.
A simple, “for me,” at least allows for the possibility that there is room for more than one experience. "It was helpful to read your experience so that I could consider something other than my own. Because, for me, I saw it from this perspective."
The sandwich approach, bread/meat/bread, can also be an effective and empathic way to express an opposing thought. "I really appreciate your willingness to share your perspective on this (bread)… I happen to have a different viewpoint (meat)… regardless of how we may differ on this, I appreciate our friendship (bread).”
The “yes, and” is also a good strategy. “Yes… I can see your point of view… and I also think about this being a possibility as well.” Getting rid of "but" is good since it automatically invalidates.
Focus on feelings (process) that go deeper than anger or disgust. “It is hurtful for me to read this perspective because my personal experience has been so different” instead of “what a load of crap.”
If you are the one who has written something and you feel disrespected by comments, you can mindfully decide how much you want to participate in debating back and forth. From not making any comments in return, to stating that you will not be making comments in return, to asking that people not comment on your page disrespectfully, to blocking people from being able to comment… these are all ways you can set limits.
Empathy and differentiation skills. When we read or consider a point of view different than our own we can use that experience as a way to grow our empathy and differentiation skills. Notice your physiological responses… what can your body teach you about how you respond to anxiety, anger, or discomfort? What if anything are you able to learn from differing points of view? Do you notice yourself using cognitive distortions (i.e. all or nothing thinking, catastrophizing, belittling, etc.)? Are you willing to consider the concepts of "confirmation bias" and "group think" (we are naturally only willing to consider perspectives that already agree with our own or the tribe we are a part of)? The more we can learn to self-regulate during these times, the more capable we are of staying humble, learning and staying connected to those who disagree with us.
Accountability. Pretend that you are talking to this person face-to-face. Would you posture yourself the way you are willing to do in written form? Why or why not? Are you accounting for tone being harder to read when you don’t have body language in front of you? Sometimes emojis can be helpful in describing tone… as well as calling tone out directly. “I am smiling as I say this…” or “I’m not sure if my words convey that my tone is meant to be be empathic and understanding," can be helpful examples of including tone in your comments.
What are ways you have been affected by comments sections? What are ways you have chosen to interact or set up boundaries that have helped you self-care? What are things you’d like to improve upon in this area?
Natasha Helfer Parker, LCMFT, CST
Natasha is the owner and founder of Symmetry Solutions. She is a Licensed Clinical Marriage & Family Therapist in the states of Kansas and Wisconsin and a Certified Sex Therapist. Natasha has been in practice for over 20 years and works with adults and adolescents. She specializes in mental health therapy, sex therapy and sexuality concerns, family/couples services and faith transitions within spiritual journeys.