‘Sticks and stones can break your bones’ and words can really hurt you!

Weeks of lockdown have had a negative impact on most of us and I’m aiming to be especially tolerant of everyone – myself included! I’m pleased to say that seems to be true more generally, but if you’ve had an especially bad time of it you might find yourself more irritable than usual. On average, our levels of anxiety are up and we’ve suffered months of reduced social contact.

Most of our communications these days are via social media and it’s well known that we tend to say things online that we never would face to face. In online therapy this is called the disinhibition effect. The term comes from a 2014 article by psychologist John Suler. He explored several aspects of this effect but the takeaway is that the virtual world is somehow less real than face to face. Maybe you’re anonymous, so think ‘You don’t know me, so why should I care?‘ In many cases you’re invisible to the person you send a message to: ‘You can’t see me so I can say what I like‘. Sometimes there can even be a sense that there isn’t a real person about to get this message. At some level we aren’t quite aware of we can think ‘It’s all in my head’ or ‘It’s just a game’. Suler also noted that there’s a tendency to minimize the status of the other person or to ignore normal social guidelines: In the virtual world those rules don’t apply.

The disinhibition effect can influence any of us and the consequences can be dire. You might like to think of yourself a a fearless keyboard warrior but how will you feel when your online victim comes up to you in the pub after lockdown?

So what do we do about it?

The Persian poet Rumi has a 13th century solution for our very modern dilemma. He wisely advised that before we say something we ask three questions:

  • Is it true?
  • Is it necessary?
  • Is it kind?

That might seem like a tough rule to apply to all your online communications and I’m not suggesting that you apply it to every single message. But you’ll know when you need to apply this check list. Are you riled up, tired, snappy or triggered by something someone has written? Go ahead and write you reply – get it out on the page! And then take a breath and check with Rumi’s wisdom before you press that button.

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