How to Take Care of Yourself When… You Mistakenly Thought You Could Have an Intellectual Discussion on the Internet

“I was intrigued by an acquaintance’s statement online, so I joined the conversation and added my perspective, only to receive ad-hominem attacks by another commenter.  My acquaintance didn’t even respond.  Is it me, or is respectful, logical, intellectual exchange no longer possible?”

All it takes is one glance at the online comments under the average YouTube video or web article- which are often unmoderated- to get an eyeful of more pointless, racist, sexist, homophobic, and crude language than you ever wanted to see.  The number of people trolling (joining conversation threads with the only intention of spewing ugly words and hurting others) is large.  While there are many reasonable and reasonably kind people online, it only takes one troll to shift the energy of a conversation towards the uncomfortable or even abusive.  

On the other side of the spectrum, many people don’t want to engage in actual dialogue online.  They may feel fine posting articles or making comments that put forth debatable perspectives, but if anyone shares a contrary perspective, they will not engage or may even delete your comment.  (Believe me, I’ve seen it happen.)  So, how does someone who appreciates intellectual discourse and wishes to be engaged with others by sharing thoughtful and respectful dialogue get his or her intellectual and social needs met?  If you haven’t guessed it yet: NOT online!  Here are some tips for recovering from your mistaken attempt at online intellectual discourse.           

 

desertbench

“Is there anyone reasonable out there?”

 

Remember: What You See Online is Not Representative of Reality

As an intellectual person, you value respectful discourse.  You may even be sensitive to others’ words and intentions, which is why you are drawn to talking things out: to make sure everyone is understood, to break down barriers to communication, and to find the common ground where many parties can find agreement.  And then you witness the underbelly of our society: people spewing hateful words, for no beneficial reason, derailing actual dialogue.  This can be demoralizing.  A resilient way to respond to this situation is to accept that some places are dark and negative, and you have no obligation to go to those places.  Avoid them, if that is better for you.  I would propose that this is better for all of us, but for various reasons some people are drawn to the dark and negative and intentionally go towards them.

Another resilient response is to recognize that there is a disproportionate quantity of negativity online because the negative, trolling individuals are making their voices heard, while those who are conflict-averse are not posting at all and those in the middle are getting shut down by the trolls.  Additionally, one troll can be accountable for great quantities of vitriol.  In this This American Life podcast, writer Lindy West talks about her experience with online trolls and discovers that one person was responsible for several- apparently different- troll attacks that she sustained.  The podcast is definitely worth a listen.

 

Accept the Limits of Internet Dialogue

Now that you have experienced first-hand the limits of internet dialogue, it may be easier to accept those limits.  The unmoderated internet is, at its worst, wide open to being co-opted by trolls.  People who want to have intellectual discourse have no control over that (aside from heavily moderating the comments made by guests to a given website.)  Besides the troll factor, the difficulty in ascertaining tone and intention behind typed statements prevents the genuine understanding that could be possible between people speaking face to face.  This is not surprising when you consider that even speaking face to face about contentious topics with someone you know well is fraught with potential misunderstanding and communication breakdown.

Your thoughts- no matter how well-considered and reasonable you consider them- have a high likelihood of being misunderstood and negatively interpreted if you toss them into the ether of the internet.  It is silently- and silencingly– frustrating to be pedantically told how you are wrong by someone who then puts forth a position that is intellectually inferior to your own.  When you think about it, do you really want to engage a stranger in mutually trying to educate each other through written text, in a forum that is visible to and available for further comment by anyone with an internet connection?  Probably not.  That, unfortunately, is the nature of the internet: people who don’t know the experiences or education of others, interpreting their black-and-white words through one’s own flawed, limited perspective, and then critiquing others’ knowledge/logic/intention/decency.  Any expectation you have for compassionate and intellectual dialogue is misplaced on the shoulders of the person in front of the computer at another node of the internet.          

 

Get Your Intellectual Stimulation in Person

So, you now know that the dark side of the internet is not (entirely) indicative of the intellectual decline of the human race, and you know that you can’t expect the internet to provide the understanding, rational, intellectually curious dialogue you wish to have.  How do you meet your need for thoughtful intellectual discourse?  Look for places that foster face-to-face dialogue.  Mainstream, generic culture does not bring us into places where we can have meaningful discussions.  Most people are neutralized in their non-work time by television, passive internet usage, and substance use.  

If you crave real interactions and talking about serious issues with other people, you need to connect to groups of people that meet for some common objective.  Groups of people where you are likely to have meaningful conversations with other members would include activist groups, church / spiritual groups, debate clubs, poetry slams, Toastmasters clubs, and other places where people meet to either look deeply into things or to develop the art of communication.     

Hostility on the internet does not have to silence you; turn your attention to places and communities that celebrate dialogue and cultivate understanding.  Help build those communities, help bring in other people who, like you, are engaged thinkers looking for their tribe.

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Pausing

Accepting

Creating Community

Share Your Experience

What have you learned about self-care through internet dialogue?  Where have you found good outlets for intellectual inquiry?  Please share about it in the “comments” section.  The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!  Don’t worry: I monitor the comments.  

How to Take Care of Yourself When… A Relative Has Estranged You

“My grandfather doesn’t approve of my marriage, and has cut me out of his life.  I can’t be someone I’m not… but I also feel incomplete without my grandfather in my life.”

 

Estrangement is a very painful- and often hidden- part of many families.  Sometimes, the estranger (the one deciding to end communication with another) is explicit in his or her intentions: “I don’t want to see or hear from you again.”  Other times, the estranger simply never responds to efforts at communicating from the estranged (the one being estranged) and doesn’t reach out to the estranged.  My assumption in writing this article is that if you are identifying as an estranged person, you have tried to communicate with the estranger, and they have either not responded to your several attempts via different avenues (telephone, email, letter, stopping by) or they have explicitly said they do not wish to be in communication with you.  At this juncture, it is safe to say that you have made all the reasonable effort you can make, and that a return to communication will have to happen through future efforts of the estranger.  

When you become estranged, rejection, loss, grief, shame, unworthiness, and a host of other debilitating feelings may come to the fore.  To be estranged- especially by a relative- is one of the most triggering of the human experiences.  A family is oftentimes a symbol of security, love, and acceptance- and yet, here, you are experiencing instability, indifference, and rejection.  The most important thing for you to know is that the estrangement is often not about who you actually are.  In fact, estrangement is most often indicative of the social and emotional intelligence of the estranger.  Many people- when they have a disagreement with someone- are able to initiate a dialogue about the conflict and come to a place of healing and relationship preservation.  Not so, with the estranger.  Barring a hard “no-contact” boundary on account of abusive history perpetrated by the estranged, the estranger is often incapable of maintaining healthy relationships with people whom they find challenging- and sees no reason to develop this capacity.     

Some people deeply value family and family connections, and others don’t.  This can be one way that estrangement happens: if a relative does something you don’t like and you don’t value family, it might be easy to decide you never want to see that person- or his or her children- again.  On the other hand, some people deeply value family and family connections- so much so, that they have developed an enmeshed experience in their families, where identities blur and the choice of a relative is seen to reflect either poorly or positively on oneself.  In this case, it may be very painful to estrange a relative who has made a choice you wouldn’t make for yourself- and yet you might value your “pride” or “honor” over keeping the relationship intact.  

I put the words “pride” and “honor” in quotations because they are smokescreens hiding something not so positive in the shadow aspects of the estranger’s consciousness.  Much estrangement comes from the estranger judging something about the estranged and “disowning,” or cutting that person out of the estranger’s life- and sometimes, out of a whole nuclear family or branch of the extended family.  The example quoted at the beginning of this article is an example of such a case.  When the estranger is judging the estranged, it is very often coming from self-hatred, via the psychological process of projection.  The estranger sees something in the estranged that the estranger has been rejecting in him or herself, pushing consciousness of these traits or tendencies down so as not to think about them- though they often do manifest, anyway- simply in ways the estranger is not willing to see or address.  A dramatic example of this is the phenomenon of right-wing, openly homophobic politicians who are found to be soliciting gay sex in public bathrooms.  These politicians are projecting their fear and hatred of their own homosexuality onto others, actively oppressing an entire group of people.  At the same time, they are engaging in the action they say and believe that they hate- albeit surreptitiously and anonymously (until they are arrested, publicly shamed, and their political careers are ruined!)  While projection doesn’t often have such a dramatic consequence, the consequence of families being broken apart on account of someone’s unchecked projection is a major disturbance in the fabric of the family and in the emotional well-being of all family members involved.     

If you have been estranged by a relative or a branch of the family, the pain is real.  You may not be able to reunite your family, but there are several things you can do to take care of yourself.

           

Cultivate Your Compassion

The very first thing we need to do when we’re in pain is to acknowledge the pain and to be gentle with ourselves.  If someone asks about the relative who has estranged you, it’s okay to say you haven’t heard from that person and that it’s something you’d rather not discuss.  Take time to journal if that helps you.  This is also a great time to seek the company of friends and other relatives who will be able to support you as you navigate the waters of estrangement.  The care of a psychotherapist is a powerful tool on which to call, especially at a time like this.  In your work with a therapist you may be able to uncover your personal emotional and cognitive symptoms resulting from the estrangement and develop coping strategies for them.  You may also be able to address the healing possibilities described in the next two sections, Heal Your Relationship, and Fill Your Life With Loving People.     

Further, when we consider the deep suffering that the person who has estranged us must be experiencing, it is a little bit less painful to be estranged.  When we see that this rift is on account of someone else’s suffering and that it is out of our hands, we are able to let it go.  Take some time to consider the magnitude of confusion and pain that the estranged must endure every day to be able to cut a part of themselves off- like cutting off a hand, or a leg.  When you envision this suffering, you may begin to realize that your own suffering is not even the half of it.       

 

Heal Your Relationship

While the estranger has made it clear that they no longer wish for a relationship with you, you still have the capacity to heal your relationship- or the representation of that relationship- within yourself.  Two ways I suggest doing this are through prayer and forgiveness meditation.  Prayer means different things to different people, but in this case, it would involve sending up prayers for the estranger to find peace and healing.

Forgiveness meditation is a process where you allow your heart to rest on the ways you have hurt yourself and others, and the way others have hurt you- all out of confusion and pain- and to cultivate forgiveness towards yourself and others.  When you are able to see the pain and confusion out of which you and others have acted, you are more able to actually feel forgiveness.  People who are suffering cause others to suffer.  This meditation cuts through the illusion that the estranger is acting from a place of strength, pushing you down and hurting you.  Remember that to forgive does not mean to forget.  While forgiveness may allow you to not carry hatred any longer in your heart, you are still able to use discernment about whom you welcome into your life.  I have heard it said that forgiveness is “the abandonment of the desire for the other to suffer.”  Here is a text version of a forgiveness meditation, as well as a 10-minute video meditation, both by Jack Kornfield.      

 

Fill Your Life With Loving People

 

sparkler

The World is Filled With People Who Want To Be Near Your Light

The beauty of our highly populated and internet-connected world is that there are so many people to befriend.  What may seem like a loss of the estranger is actually an invitation to broaden your “family” to include new people.  Your tribe can be an international powerhouse of loving, supportive people- if you want it to be!  Unlike the distant days of small villages and only ever knowing the same 200 people your entire life, you can now build a family of choice.  Whether in your city or town, or with people you have met while traveling the globe- in person or virtually- you can find community.  Don’t let the grief of familial rejection hold you back from finding your tribe.  And don’t let that grief cause you to shutter your light.  Let your light shine, and find others who are sending out the same signal.  There is a community for everyone, and community is- from my personal and clinical perspective- the most important factor for mental health.  There is a tiny fraction of the human population that genuinely does not feel benefit from being in community- if you know you can benefit from building your social circle, reach out and find your people.

Even deeper than the general concept of community, we also all need people in our lives who fill certain roles.  There are numerous archetypes- or characters with specific traits and behaviors- that cross cultures and are found in all of our psyches, according to Carl Jung.  Examples could be the mother, the brother, the priest, the hermit, the father, the crone, the fool, the teacher, the judge, etc.  When we are able to embrace the elements of these archetypes within our own psyches, we are most whole.  It is also helpful and stimulating of growth to have people in our lives who play some of these roles for us.  In an intact family, you would have an actual mother who is nurturing and compassionate and patient and an actual father who is supportive and loving and encouraging.  However- whether through estrangement or not- some parents aren’t actually like this.  In that case, you can become friends with older women or men who treat you in these respectfully maternal or paternal ways.  I want to be clear that this is very different than the often-criticized “daddy issues” or “mommy issues” that some people have: a need to be taken care of by an older man or woman (often in a romantic relationship) on account of being rejected by one’s actual mother or father, or an angsty need to rebel against an older man or woman (such as a boss at work, landlord, or professor) on account of some unresolved anger towards one’s actual mother or father.  

Your tribe can be comprised of not only age-peers who have your same interests, but multi-generational kindred spirits who are role models and mentors for you, and for whom you are a role model and a mentor.  You don’t have to have any actual sisters or brothers to love people as if they are your own siblings.  Let this estrangement be an invitation for you to turn around and embrace others.  

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Creating Community

Journaling

Compassion

Acceptance

Forgiveness

Prayer

Share Your Experience
If you have experience healing from estrangement, please share it in the “comments” section.  The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!

How to Take Care of Yourself When… You Feel Disappointed by Someone

“One of my close friends didn’t come to my wedding, even though I gave her months of advance notice.  I know she can afford the trip, and I even made a point of letting her know how important it was to me.  ‘Disappointed’ is an understatement for how I’m feeling about this!”

 

Disappointment is a fact of life, and unmet expectations of other people are one of the greatest sources of it.  If you look again at the sentence you just read, you may notice the phrases, “fact of life,” and “unmet expectations.”  These two terms hint at keys to unlock the prison door of disappointment- which is a prison of our own making.  Disappointment is like all of our negative emotional states- we have the power to change it.  If we don’t manage our disappointment, it will soon become resentment, and resentment is toxic.  When we learn to distance ourselves from our expectations of others and to deconstruct those expectations, we can often get some freedom.  When we allow the disappointment of this one person’s action (or inaction) to rest on a level with all the other myriad disappointments we experience in life, we distance ourselves from the behavior we perceive as being disappointing.  This also leads to freedom.  The through-line here is recognizing that there are different ways of looking at the situation you are currently reading as “disappointing.”  Let’s look more closely at how we can care for ourselves when disappointment arrives on the scene.          

    

Sit With It

The best thing to do when a strong, negative emotion is rearing its head is to take some time by yourself to sit with it- to welcome it, listen to it, see what it has to teach.  Rumi said it best, in the poem “The Guest House.”

Your initial urge will probably be very different than this suggestion.  You may be inclined to numb out with some distraction (social media, television, daydreaming) or substance (alcohol, prescription pain meds.)  On the other end of the spectrum, you may be inclined to embody the emotion and to let it loose on other people.  If you’ve ever stuck your digital foot in your mouth by firing off an inappropriately angry email, you know why this is a bad idea.  I’ve heard it said, “Don’t just do something!  Sit there!!”  This is funny, and true.

Pug Puppy

This guy is working it out.

However, sitting with difficult emotions is not easy.  This is one benefit of psychotherapy- you get the practice of sitting in the room with an empathetic person as you express challenging emotions and learn, through repeated practice, to listen to and learn from these emotions.  This helps you to later go through the process on your own.  Some people learn this skill as they mature through adolescence, and some people enter adulthood still needing help with this.  The good news is that many of us have access to therapy to work this out.

When you do sit with the disappointment, you may feel terrible.  This is a good time to take out a journal and write down your thoughts.  You might write, “my friend doesn’t really value me or our friendship, since she didn’t prioritize my wedding.”  Write down your fears, too.  They could be, “She and I are growing apart, I’m becoming less desirable as a friend, my husband will think I don’t have strong friendships, maybe I don’t have strong friendships, maybe I’m unloveable, maybe my new husband will realize this and leave me.”  It’s really important to let all the pain and fear leave your psyche, to be seen on the page.  I can guarantee that, if you dig deep, you are going to find some ridiculous and embarrassing thoughts.  This is the human condition: we are a bunch of infants running around in adult bodies.  The more you listen to the infant and take care of the infant, the less likely you are to act like the infant in front of people.  

If this kind of vulnerability is new and uncomfortable to you, do this writing part next to a shredder or a burning wood stove, so you can destroy the document as soon as you are done writing and using it.  But before destroying that evidence, sit with the child-like thoughts and fears you may have uncovered, and send well-wishes to that child.  Cultivate some compassion for the child.  I have learned that placing my hand over my heart cues a sense of both nurturing and being nurtured.  Try sitting like that for a few minutes.

 

Reframe the Disappointment

Once you have honored your own emotions and underlying thoughts and fears, it’s easier to widen your perspective.  This is the time when you can deconstruct your expectations of the person and your stories about the disappointment.  

Here are some mantras that I find helpful when I’m feeling disappointed by someone.  The first one is:

This is not about me.

Because, truly, whatever the other person is going through or whatever his or her shortcomings, the disconnect between your expectations and the other person’s choices are almost never about you.  Untangling your disappointment from the ego leads to some freedom.  Second:

This is the nature of reality: dissatisfactory.

I’ve heard it called the “inherent dissatisfactoriness of life”- many spiritual teachers talk about how dissatisfaction with the material world is just the price we pay to be in the flesh, dealing with imperfect bodies, imperfect minds, entropy, and all the other things that pose challenges.  Hence, the drive to seek meaning in spiritual practice.  Whether you believe this or not, there is no denying that the person’s behavior in question is not the only thing you were disappointed about- maybe even that day!  Recognizing this may help to accept this disappointment as just another drop in the “I don’t like it” bucket.  Third:

This is an opportunity for me to take care of myself.

What did the person fail to do, or fail to do for you?  Can you do it for yourself?  If so, do it!!  Don’t let your disappointment keep you from enjoying what you thought would be coming from the other person.  Do it for yourself, and enjoy it.

 

Acceptance

You’ve considered some new ways to look at the disappointment.  Now let’s dig deeper, to your expectation that set up the disappointment.  First, was your expectation a reasonable one?  Once you put yourself in the other person’s shoes, you may find that your expectation simply wasn’t reasonable.  Maybe it was something that you would do- but was it something that the other party could reasonably be expected to want and be able to do?  For example, if you were disappointed that your friend with three jobs and two kids did not give you 24 hours advance-notice of a lunch invitation… maybe your expectation- while reasonable in most circumstances- is not reasonable here?  Expecting your partner to remember your favorite beverage when he’s at the grocery store is pretty reasonable.  Expecting your mother- who has never been expressive of her feelings- to tell you she is proud when you land a new business deal isn’t- unfortunately for you- reasonable.  

When looking at the reality of the situation, we can see the places where we haven’t been reasonable- the places where we need to accept reality- and also the places where we can ask more of our loved ones.  Maybe you have heard the Serenity Prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  

There is much, much freedom to be had in this sentiment.  When we can see the parts that we simply cannot change (a friend / relative / coworker who is not interested in being reliable, for example,) we can let those expectations go.  Sure, we also then adjust down our vulnerability to that person- but without any hard feelings.  This approach- acceptance- is against a lot of people’s natures.  Humans are problem-solvers, and sometimes the problem is another person!  If we could just decide how everyone else would act, the world would be great- right??  This is the dream of every dictator.  When you find yourself wishing someone were more this way and less that way, remember Stalin and instead radically accept the person for who they are.  You don’t need control of other people- managing yourself is hard enough!  

On the other hand, when we see the parts that we can have a hand in changing (a partner / coworker / friend who simply doesn’t know the best way to relate to us,) we can speak up and help change the situation.  This is where setting some boundaries- described in the next section- comes in.     

 

Set Boundaries

Now that you are much clearer in your thinking about the disappointment, and have gotten a deeper understanding of what pieces were your perception and what pieces were truly unacceptable behavior, it’s time to communicate skillfully.  It’s important to remember the things you appreciate about your coworker or loved one before you broach this conversation.  Look deeply to see the paradoxically good qualities tied to the disappointing behavior.  For example, if your college-aged daughter skipped her Sunday phone call home and didn’t answer her phone when you called, only to call the next day and say she had been backpacking that weekend, you might be disappointed that she didn’t tell you ahead of time so you could make other plans and not worry.  If you look deeply, you may also see your appreciation for her spontaneous and adventurous nature.

Next, look for times that you have made the same mistake as what you are finding disappointing right now.  There is almost always an example… for example, didn’t you miss the Sunday call by an hour last month, because your phone battery died and you weren’t somewhere you could re-charge?  Look deep for this- taking responsibility for your own regrettable actions allows you to have empathy for the other person, allows you to see how easy it is to do what they did.  When you share your regret with the other person, you also clear the air and you model taking responsibility for your mistakes.  To set your boundary, find a good time to talk with your loved one or coworker.  Share your appreciation, share your regrets for times you’ve made similar mistakes in your relationship, and then set your boundary.  For example:

“Lisa, as your mother, I so appreciate your spontaneous and adventurous nature.  I love that you are taking time to build friendships and enjoy the mountains even when you have such a demanding course load.  I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry I didn’t plan accurately last month and I wasn’t able to call you for our weekly phone call.  I know you set aside that time and I’m sorry you had to wait.  This last weekend, I was pretty worried when I didn’t hear from you on Sunday- and even more worried when I tried calling you.  I do my best to not catastrophize, but that kind of stuff keeps me awake at night.  In the future, I’d like for us to both make a better effort to keep our phone call- and to always let the other person know if we won’t be available.”  

Or, on the topic of the missed wedding:

“Sadia, I appreciate that you are such a go-getter- you’re always doing creative things, and going to new places!  I was recently thinking about the time you planned a group vacation in Mexico and I was the only one from our group of friends who didn’t make it- I’m sorry I didn’t make a better effort!  Last month, when I was looking around at all the friends and family in town for my wedding, I was very hurt to not see you there.  We can’t turn back time and put you in those memories, but I need for us to have a conversation about how that went down, so I can put it behind me.  I want to know that you value our friendship and value me… if, in fact, you do.”   

When you approach another person with well-considered thoughts and perspective, you are much more likely to see a positive outcome.  The communication style I am describing here- influenced by both Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication and the Beginning Anew conflict resolution style of Plum Village Monastery- allows both parties to feel seen, heard, appreciated, and accountable.   

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Listening

Pausing

Journaling

Compassion

Acceptance

Reframing

Gratitude

Personal Responsibility

Self-Advocacy

Communication

Setting Boundaries

 

Share Your Experience
If you have some ideas or experience with managing disappointment, please share them in the “comments” section.