Sharing the story of our hurt is healing. It’s healing to get it off our chests. It’s healing to take control of a narrative that ripped agency from us. It’s healing to be taken seriously and believed. It’s also healing to see how sharing our story impacts and empowers others.
The amazing thing about the internet is that this healing can extend beyond a couple in-person relationships. We can connect with others who’ve been through our struggles. We can start wide-reaching social media platforms without any middle-man policing our story. We can effect change and expose lies and abuse just through one viral tweet. That’s incredible. I’m eternally grateful for all the brave people who shared their stories publicly, forever changing my life.
The downside to this amazing phenomenon? There are a lot of injured, unprepared, easily triggered people thrust to the helm of important social movements and prominent platforms, and they are not healed enough to be there.
I’ve observed that there are many, many vocal people who subconsciously use their platform as a form of personal healing. They want the internet to hear them, believe them, and validate their experience, no questions asked. They fly off the handle at questions; they attack people’s character for using the wrong word or tone, even unintentionally; they want people to change their minds, but don’t want them to ask any questions. “There are tons of articles on that. Do your own research,” they snap.* They talk about how exhausted and done they are after one dissenting comment. Their patience and their skin is extremely thin.
I used to judge these people as mean and irrational, but now I understand that they’re just hurt and unhealed, and continued interaction with the insensitive and ignorant masses further compounds their pain. The stress of being questioned and not immediately believed, the frustration of hearing the same stupid questions over and over, the exposure of their deepest selves to a skeptical world — that’s a lot. They are burned out.
I’m convinced there’s absolutely nothing wrong with expecting people to accommodate our pain and adhere to our boundaries, but if we’re going to be speaking to people who don’t know us, who aren’t familiar with our type of experience, and who don’t agree, we’ve got to be aware of our needs and explicit about our boundaries. It’s essential for our own well-being and our movement as a whole to specify whether we’re looking to be heard and validated or seeking to educate others.
In my own online experience, I enjoy clearly-defined boundaries that set me up for what to expect as a participant. I don’t mind being in spaces where a particular marginalized voice is elevated or where I’m expected to listen and not talk. I appreciate when someone specifies which terms they do or don’t prefer so that I can discuss things sensitively. I’m okay with working around people’s sensitives and triggers. We all have them — even prominent, confident social media leaders. Just because someone is an internet celebrity doesn’t mean that their followers and detractors get to define or ignore the celebrity’s personal boundaries.
What does bother, frustrate, and confuse me is when people enter into spaces for open debate or set themselves up as a public, vocal advocate, and then not only refuse to accept questions, criticism, or the ignorance expected from beginners, but rage at others for daring to question their experience. Again, to be clear, there is nothing wrong or weak about admitting our triggers, acknowledging our areas that need healing, or setting up spaces and boundaries that are geared toward support and validation only. We just need to be clear about them. And we need to be realistic: it’s not fair to ourselves or others to set ourselves up as an expert, to start debates, or to attempt to change people’s minds if we’re not healed enough to patiently, kindly deal with the skeptics and the newbs.
This is where I see positive social media movements going off the rails. They start as primarily raising awareness about a problem, empowering people with similar experiences to speak up. It picks up steam as all the people needing the validation of being seen, heard, and believed hop onto the bandwagon.
Then, since it’s public and controversial, the dissenters start in with questions, comments, and criticisms — many outright trollish, meant to silence and intimidate; many genuine, meant to understand and to give a fair hearing, even if they cannot agree to agree beforehand. The movement, being designed more for awareness, not debate, and being comprised mostly of ordinary people who signed up for validation, not skepticism, who aren’t healed enough to hear a barrage of questions and a slew of the same old ignorant microaggressions about their very personal stories — the movement reacts as any hurt person punched in their wounds would: lashing out, withdrawing into itself, creating an insular echo chamber that demands unquestioning belief and perfect sensitivity, without any energy to educate even its own people on what that looks like.
This inability to engage with the public erodes the movement’s credibility with the crowd of reasonable but ignorant people willing to give it a fair shot. People get nervous or frustrated, unable to engage in a discussion without being told to sit down and shut up. Within the movement, people are too afraid of getting cancelled for unintentionally saying the wrong thing. People with valid concerns get kicked out for simply disagreeing. The movement fails to educate those trying to listen and learn, and it’s unable to handle the introspection needed to course correct or grow. All the leaders are off and on angry, burnt out, or unwilling to answer or tolerate questions, and finally, the movement implodes in on itself with infighting, because everybody’s sensitivities and hurts are unique, and nobody knows how to handle those differences in healthy ways.
All of this can be mitigated through self-awareness, self-care, and clear communication. We need to recognize with compassion and sensitivity that hurt people hurt people. They’re not irrational or mean or proving that their experience and their take on it is invalid. They’re just hurt. If someone is sharing something personal in a public sphere, we need to ask about their boundaries and respect those boundaries, offering validation if that’s what they want and we can offer, scrolling past if we can’t.
For those of us who put ourselves out there, let’s be real with ourselves. Are we looking for validation or for changing people’s minds? Are we sharing primarily for ourselves and our healing, for others’ healing, or for convincing dissenters? (All of which are valid reasons, in my opinion.) Are we sharing sensitive things only in safe places and checking in with ourselves before entering into potentially triggering debates? Are we aware of and clear about our boundaries — with ourselves and others? Are we setting ourselves up as an expert when what we really need is expert counseling? Are we setting ourselves up as an advocate when we’re still in need of advocacy? Are we setting ourselves up as an educator without any intention or ability to treat our students with respect, patience, and understanding?
There’s nothing wrong with being unable or unwilling to field questions or criticisms about our personal experiences, or to deal directly with those uneducated and unfamiliar with our movement. That’s a huge job for a specific skillset and level of healing. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to share our story for personal empowerment or the empowerment of others. That’s an important niche in truth-telling. But any decision to lead, educate, and advocate publicly needs to involve an honest, compassionate, realistic assessment of our wounds and our boundaries.
“Not many of you should become teachers,” James warns, “because you know that we who teach will be judged more so” (James 3).
I, as a teacher and a writer, used to freak out at this verse. Interpreted “judged” as divine retribution for getting something wrong. But that’s not what he means. He means it quite literally: the harsh, hypocritical, unrelenting scrutiny from followers and dissenters alike comes with the territory of teaching. People will judge teachers (or leaders or social media celebrities), whether we think that’s fair or not, and whether we can handle it or not.
Not many of you should becomes teachers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more so. For we all make mistakes in lots of things. (And the internet will let us know about it.)
Here’s a good check in for whether we’re ready to take on a public role: “Who is wise and knowledgeable among you? Let them show by their fine behavior that their actions are done gently, with wisdom. … [T]he wisdom from above is primarily holy, then peaceful, considerate, reasonable, full of mercy, unprejudiced, and without pretense. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.”
And if our words don’t follow this pattern? Our words can set the world on fire — in an apocalyptic, dumpster fire sort of way that burns us and our movements to the ground, not the inspirational kind of fire that keeps our message going. “In the same way also, the tongue is a small body part and confidently says major things. Look how small the tongue is and how great a forest it sets on fire!”
Hence James’s advice that not many of us should be teachers — or tweeters or advocates or social media vigilantes, to put it in modern terms.
It’s okay — it’s totally okay and normal and necessary — if we’re not at a place to do any of those peaceful, holy, reasonable, unprejudiced things, if we still need to vent and rage and feel validated and tear down the dangerous beliefs of others in a safe, understanding place that doesn’t require us to watch our impact on those who don’t get it. I went through a two-year long process needing to do just that. I sometimes still need to do that for certain things, depending on where I’m at in my grieving and reconstructing.
But if we’re not in a place to be peaceful, considerate, reasonable, full of mercy, etc., we should be talking to those committed to our healing — a therapist, a support group, a loved one — and not the heartless, skeptical internet. Our souls and our movements’ reputations will be far better off if not many of us were to become vocal, public advocates before we’re ready.
*See Christian Janeway’s pointed remarks on this popular and frustrating dodge here. (Expletive alert, for those sensitive to that.) The gist: “I take issue with anyone who treats someone with honest questions or even honest ignorance about a ‘category of human’ as if the person with the question is a part of the problem for approaching a [expletive] public expert, who built a platform on that expertise. … If you have info that she didn’t have, it is your job to share it with kindness. That’s not oppression — that’s being a kind human being. … When I’m the expert, I fully expect and welcome people’s questions and mistakes. … People who are voluntarily giving up privilege because it’s the right thing to do are already deeply uncomfortable in a space they don’t know how to navigate, and will make mistakes. If you don’t have the patience and maturity to deal with someone making mistakes in a space they’re unfamiliar with, I truly don’t see why I should trust you to be any kind of representative for your group of humans.” Amen.