January 16, 2016

Handling Emotions Mindfully in the Age of Social Media.

"Girls on Tour," Gary Knight, Flickr

As a Clinical Psychologist who values an emphasis on insight oriented, mindfulness based psychotherapy I am struck by this type of social media passive aggressive syndrome that has developed over the last 5-10 years and is now reaching epic proportions.

This age of social media, where we can dump our emotional rants to thousands of our closest friends, has atrophied our ability to sit in our emotions, to marinate long enough to pause and contemplate the meaning, consequences and collateral damage of our actions. It’s especially intoxicating and provocative to adolescents who are by developmental decree in the process of building that region of their brain that allows them the ability to pause and tolerate emotional discomfort with a new and more mature set of skills.

But this issue is prevalent with adults too, now that the virtual world offers up plenty of ways to scratch every emotional itch with the press of a button.

I’ve certainly been the subject of embarrassing and hurtful social media bullying campaigns where someone decides to act out her anger via Facebook using cryptic quotes hijacked from the self help world, but wielded instead to break someone’s spirit. Conscious or not, the goal of this type of behavior is to leverage shame as a weapon of pain, humiliation and control.

It’s pretty devastating when it happens—even for a grown adult.

I can only imagine how treacherous it must be to be a teenager in this complicated and virtual world of “connectedness.” In my private practice, I listen to and witness the effects this has on people’s sense of security, connection, and self-worth. It is not benign. When you choose to use social media as a forum to air your dirty laundry, there is collateral damage, even though you are protected from having to feel the other person’s pain.

This type of bullying is pervasive and very often it results in clinical symptoms of anxiety and depression for those caught in the crossfire. It feels difficult to imagine, but the best response is no response at all. That, again, is harder to do the younger the subject. Adolescents have a much more difficult time tolerating frustration and managing impulse control, at least in part because the prefrontal cortex is in still in developmental flux.

The interpersonal shrapnel is painful and has long-term consequences that can change a dynamic indefinitely.

But there’s a deeper disconnect that happens when we engage in this type of knee-jerk, moment-to-moment social media slander: the virtual version of soap-boxing and gaslighting that camouflages a more perplexing and troubling internal decay. We atrophy a process of emotional mindfulness that has far reaching intra-personal consequences; then, our relationship with ourselves suffer under the burden of this type of avoidant, passive aggressive behavior.

It distances us from our core self, it works as yet another distraction from the effort to deeply understand our internal architecture and thus it creates fractures in our ability to access empathy for others.

What mindfulness or meditation or any other process of intrapersonal observation affords us is the opportunity to create a moment of pause in that razor-thin line between stimulus and response. When we intentionally create space to observe our thoughts, feelings and emotions we are essentially challenging our self to just sit in our own skin and bones long enough to really snuggle in to our experience(s).

This ability, like any muscle, grows stronger and stronger with more use.

The risk with social media is that our most vulnerable and often fleeting feelings can all be acted out immediately and without any chance for pause, which in the past provided us with a forced space to take time and think about our feelings.

The typical result is that the intensity of our immediate reaction subsides and a more soft and pliable state of emotion surfaces in its wake. However, now people can spew their feelings through all kinds of expressions on social media and they will likely be further reinforced by the thumbs up and encouraging comments from well meaning, but often ill informed “friends.” This positive feedback deepens the seduction towards this style and forum for self-expression, a world without the same consequences as if you had been forced to communicate directly. We used to be forced to talk it out with someone, face to face, which was hard but necessary in order to learn from and deepen relationships.

Worse yet, if we don’t pause and draw attention to what it is we are feeling, beneath the surface layers, we end up living out patterns that keep us disconnected from others and from our best self. We end up being shackled to our own liabilities and intra-personal limitations, which we all have, and must find that moment of pause in order to seize the possibility of freedom and choice from such patterns.

It is in that sliver of time between stimulus and response that we have the chance to achieve true freedom from behavioral patterns that no longer serve our highest self.

There’s so much good that can come from this world of connectedness that we have created in the virtual realm. There is no denying that. But there is also a seedy underbelly that has contributed to a global atrophy of our ability to sit in our intimate emotions long enough to listen, really listen, to what the deeper meaning and lessons are that lie just beneath the surface. Tucked just under consciousness is a world where deeper ties, connections and layers of feeling reside.

But to access it, we must thread that needle of pause between stimulus and response. We must exercise the muscle of restraint over our impulse to act immediately. We must observe the intentions behind our action and wonder, what do I hope to achieve by doing this? Would I say this to his/her face? Will it hurt someone? Will I regret this tomorrow?

There’s an opportunity here for us to teach our children through modeling the merit in waiting, the gift of introspection, and the intimacy that is born from working through conflict, through staying present even in the storm. I encourage my patients who are on either side of the equation to just sit for 20 minutes in a state of observational mindfulness before posting anything to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.

Observe how you feel and what lies beneath the surface reaction. After the 20 minutes have passed, if the emotions still feel powerful enough that you want to address the issues, call the person directly and invite them to have a discussion about how you feel.

The intra-personal and interpersonal benefits from this type of approach will accumulate over time, yielding more and more profound returns.





Relephant Reads: 

The Action of Non-Reaction.

Disconnected: Finding Joy by Deleting Facebook.



Author: Sarah Sarkis

Editor: Renée Picard

Image: Gary Knight, Flickr 

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