Ms. Opinionated: How Do You Cope With Insults Online?

Megan Carpentier
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Welcome to the latest installment of Ms. Opinionated, in which readers have questions about the pesky day-to-day choices we all face, and I give advice about how to make ones that (hopefully) best reflect our shared commitment to feminist values—as well as advice on what to do when they don’t.

Dear Ms. Opinionated,

I am hoping you can help me with more than just advice to go to therapy, which I don’t want to do. My problem is this: I can’t stop thinking about it when people say mean things to me. It doesn’t matter if they are deliberate insults, or what they think are minor criticisms of me or my work, I get totally obsessed and can’t think about anything else for days, beat up on myself, think about how whatever the person said must be true and how I can fix it until I just create more problems (which I then beat myself up about).

The reason I ask is that you write on the Internet, so you must deal with nasty insults a lot, right? But every time a woman writer is just like, “Don’t read the comment threads,” that isn’t really helpful. How do you actually cope? What do you tell yourself when people write or say mean things to you? How do you resist the urge to look? There must be something other people do that you can actually tell me.

First off, let’s stipulate that is is totally normal to be bothered when people say things that hurt your feelings, even if your feelings are more easily hurt than the average person. And it is totally normal to mull the things over, and try to figure out what you did to evoke that response in someone else, to potentially change your behavior. In fact, the latter is a even a better response to constructive criticism than defensiveness (something I struggle with).

That said, getting “totally obsessed” over every stray remark or insult isn’t a healthy response to critiques (constructive or otherwise), nor is being unable to “think about anything else for days” and getting into a cycle of self abuse. Those are actually potential symptoms of an underlying mental health problem for which medical assistance might be warranted. You wouldn’t eschew medical attention for symptoms that indicated you might have heart disease (or any condition), right? That is what “therapy” is: medical treatment for a problem that you identify that you have and which is causing you great distress.

And, yes, there is no easy way to tell someone that therapy might be a good idea without it potentially coming across as an insult, especially when the problem that the person has (which might benefit from medical attention) revolves around insults and responses to criticism that they identify as unhealthy. But, the way you lead off with the idea that therapy is not a tenable option sort of indicates that I’m not the first person to try to suggest it, possibly even with love and your best interests at heart. Rather than take it as an insult, perhaps think about what motives—in addition to a pattern of behavior that you know is hurting you—those people have to suggest it instead of focusing on changing (or beating yourself up over why you can’t change) a behavior pattern motivating the suggestion.

Comparing mental illness to diabetes might be a good analogy here because, as with some mental health problems, some cases of diabetes can be controlled by patients changing their patterns of behavior under a doctor’s care, and other patients require medication to get the disease under control. But without medical care and supervision, you don’t know which course of treatment is best, you can’t accurately assess the need to change the course of treatment over time and doing the wrong things can actually make the disease and its symptoms worse.

You recognize that your pattern of thinking and behavior isn’t healthy for you, and that’s a great first step! But that doesn’t mean that following my advice is something you will actually be able do, given how difficult it can be to change one’s own patterns of thought or ingrained reactions at all—and you don’t know if those patterns and reactions are reinforced by a chemical imbalance that is treatable. So please at least consider the possibility that therapy—which, yes, I’m a big advocate of—could help you not only figure out why you engage in this cycle of self-flagellation when these things happen, but also ways to help you stop this pattern that makes you so unhappy.

But, on to the rest of that advice!

I think the best way to arm yourself against insults is to have a sense of self—self-esteem, yes, but also a fair accounting of your own strengths and flaws. For instance, I noted above that my initial reaction to criticism, even when fair, is often defensiveness. I know that I do this. I know that it is hard for me not to do this. I try my best—I rewrite a LOT of emails—and I accept that I am not always going to be successful. I try to apologize when I am not.

This is important because an accurate accounting of your strengths and flaws, as well as a healthy sense of self esteem (or ego) is great armor against insults. Insults, particularly online but in general, are designed to hurt their targets. So knowing my strengths and flaws, I’m able to judge the accuracy of an insult and determine whether I should be insulted. Fat? Sure. Unfuckable? Demonstrably untrue (though highly uninterested in 99.9% of men’s penii). Stupid? Anything but. Wrong? Possibly, but probably not about this. Defensive? Ouch.

And, not just “ouch,” but “Ouch, and time to examine what I’ve said that leads the other person to that conclusion.” Doesn’t mean they’re right, necessarily, but (in this example culled from a variety of insults I’ve heard online) I’m able to immediate dismiss 4 of 5 insults just by knowing whether they are true and/or that I don’t care.

The next thing you need to recognize about insults is that, when they come from someone who doesn’t know you or know you very well, they are almost always a guess about what will hurt your feelings. On what basis does the average insulter decide to lob an insult when they don’t know what the other person would actually be insulted by? They can only guess based on their own experience of what is insulting—i.e., the things that hurt them. So the last person who called me “fat” was—you guessed it—overweight and insecure about it. Unfuckable? I think you know the answer. And it goes on and on. People lob the insults they think will land, and the ones they think will land are often a pretty good indication of what they are insecure about—or, if you think about it, they’re not really insulting you (at least, not successfully) as much as they are revealing their own insecurities and ways to insult them.

To the issue of “not reading the comments” (or reading the Tweets or whatever), I really don’t look. It’s just that simple. Just because someone has the legal right to say or write something does not give me the legal or moral obligation to listen or read it. People want to scream insults on Twitter? Scream it to the void, man. I do this because I’ve learned to value my own time and my own sanity over picking at the scabby bits and scars of my ego by subjecting myself to negativity. I can look at a gazillion cat pictures on Instagram, or I can read mean shit that people write about me online. Here, look at my cat’s fuzzy belly. Why would you look at mean stuff online when you can look at fuzzy kitty belly? Prioritize!

Another big part of this is that you need learn to recognize the difference between constructive criticism (like, “Megan, your defensiveness is interfering with our ability to address a problem.”) and insults, and treat them accordingly. Again, this requires you to do a real self-inventory (something, ahem, a good therapist will help you do) to help discern on what stuff you need to work and how it can have actual negative impacts on things you want to achieve, and it requires you to recognize and engage in constructive behaviors to address the criticisms (which rarely involve berating yourself).

Lastly, you need to recognize that everyone is flawed. Everyone gets insults, everyone messes up, everyone can benefit from constructive criticism. There is no Perfect against which you are compared and found Irredeemably Flawed. Give yourself the space to be flawed – which is to say, human – and trust that others will, can and do love you because of and in spite of your flaws. (And, if they don’t, and you find yourself surrounded by incredibly negative and unsupportive people, stop hanging out with those people and make new friends. )

It’s not easy, I know. And it can be hard to quiet the voices in your head that tell you that the insults are valid, that the people saying them are more important than your own experiences of yourself or your loved ones’ experiences of you. And clearly you in particular have a long-standing pattern of validating insults rather than yourself. But the fact of the matter is that there’s no magic bullet to not caring about any criticism ever. All you can do is work to reject the automatic assumption that there’s something legit behind an insult, to recognize what is stupid insults and what is legit criticism about which you ought to do something, and to stop the vicious cycle of agonizing over an insult and then agonizing because you agonized over it. But, as I said, that work might require a coach/cheerleader in the person of a trained medical professional, and you might find, as I did, that accepting that assistance is one of the best decisions you ever made.

On a personal note, this is my last advice column as Ms. Opinionated here at Bitch. It’s been a privilege to be trusted to give advice at all, a pleasure to have had people think it worthwhile advice and fun to be able to incorporate the occasional curse word without a raised eyebrow from the fabulous editors here.

For those interested in keeping up with my goings-on (both professionally and on the Internet), you can find me on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook. And for those folks who didn’t get their questions answered yet (or have new ones), I know the fabulous folks here plan to continue the column with a new contributor, so keep an eye out!

Read all the Ms. Opinionated columns here! 

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Photo credit: Kate Black,

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4 Comments Have Been Posted

"you find yourself surrounded

"you find yourself surrounded by incredibly negative and unsupportive people, stop hanging out with those people and make new friends. )

It's not easy, I know. "

I thought it would be impossible to dump a group of people who constantly trashed me. They were sure of their superiority to me and everyone else, but everyone else stayed away. When I finally challenged the one who was my best friend on some blatantly unfair accusations she made, she and the rest of them were gone from my life instantly, but it took me a week to believe they were really gone. Okay, there was some communication around a death but other than that, nothing. (I was at the funeral. They weren't but friend felt free to email why my perceptions were incorrect, the service was terrible, etc. which made me feel calmly relieved to be rid of them and be certain that it would never get better between us.) It was easier than I ever could have imagined. I feel a lot better without that sort of belittling stress all the time.

I am now wrestling with a similar situation with another group and can see more clearly than the first time that they are the crazies but I have to look at what I am doing to provoke their contempt and why I get intimately involved with these kinds of people. I am overly drawn to smartass, caustic humor for starters. I like arrogance while it's on my side. Girly nice and sympathetic make me groan. I don't even believe it. Taking responsibility for your part in what happens (which it sounds like you do) will help you to enjoy the parts you enjoy but keep more emotional distance.

I cannot dump this group since we belong to a larger group that I am not about to quit over them, but I rarely socialize with them any more and when the rude one pulls her constant rudeness I think, "Can we all possibly get along?" and write notes so a month later I can defend no matter who accuses me of whatever distorted version of the event. If it is a work situation keep a notebook. You want every incident in writing where you can find it by date.

When you realize you are obsessing over some Internet insult from a stranger, refuse to let yourself. Feel free to think about it, force yourself to analyze calmly, say any thing awesome in response (it can wait until you know exactly what you want to say), then stay away. Don't go back. Why would you go back? Let them crawl around in their mildewy damp cave of a website with each other. Who cares if it is the website of your favorite musician? He/she didn't and will never stick up for you. Celebrities don't see it as their responsibility. It is kind of nice though when someone you never expected it from defends you, so feel free to defend others. Websites can start forming stifling, we will all agree on everything contracts. Humor helps dispell it.

You have a right to protect yourself from others' mischief and arrogance and I wouldn't go to a therapist either.

Been There

I also tend to obsess over ugly things said about me, even by ugly creeps
who make ugly creepiness a hobby online. No matter the context,
some of us are just sensitive to any measure of cruelty. But, in a way,
I think that's okay. There's nothing wrong with having a gentle soul
that's so good-natured as to be appalled by aggression and hostility.
I like the advice here--avoid comments you know might be
upsetting, and don't let any toxins that trickle through
poison your thoughts.
Trolls are vicious but in my experience there are far more people
out there who want to make others feel better than worse.

Warning signs

It's not fair to make blanket generalizations about all people who do or say a thing, but I tend to think that if someone is adamantly against therapy, they probably need it. Just admitting that you can't do everything and can't be perfect are the first steps towards any lasting personal change.

Twitter Rebuttal

Cupcake ‏@Jazzzzzmina 19 Oct
I saved thousands on therapy and meds by switching to twitter.

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