Social Media and Private Pain

From the desk of Counselor Dawn Echols: “Social Media and Private Pain”

Several weeks ago, a friend called me out of the blue. Even though we have some common interests and don’t live terribly far apart, our paths don’t often cross, so when this person’s number appeared in caller ID, I made a point to answer it, even though I was a guest at another friend’s home for dinner. The friend calling was in some distress, and with good reason. As I stepped away from my hosts late that evening, the caller tearfully commented: “everyone else’s life is so great”, referencing vacation pictures, celebrations, and other fun times frequently posted on Facebook (and other social media platforms). After the call, that comment stayed with me. Posts about deeply difficult situations don’t usually make it to social media (like Facebook) and perhaps for good reason. One of the few exceptions to this generally unspoken rule is when people share about common major illnesses or the death of a loved one. Due to the shared experience of grief and loss, posts about illness or death may be more publicly acceptable and thus met with more universal support. Often the writer of such a post will limit their statements to an acknowledgement of emotion as well as facts of the situation. And readers frequently see warm and supportive responses of sympathy and encouragement to these online posts. That’s why it is helpful. As to why other painful experiences are NOT usually posted on social media, there are numerous reasons. An occasional exception can be found and when it stimulates useful action, that is why it may be an exception; otherwise, social media is limited. First, social media is a way to stay in touch and does not replace the human connection we need to have with one another. Think of Facebook and other social media like the neighborhood newsletter or annual Christmas cards you might receive. Second, social media isn’t “private” (we tend to forget this detail) and for a whole lot of people, whatever suffering they are experiencing is too painful to share ‘en masse’. A social media post about deep suffering is similar to making a public speech about your most private pain. It is a rare person, often a gifted writer, that can share personal suffering publicly, and they usually only do so after working through it and arriving at a place of being able to share it, and often only for a compelling reason (such as helping others, speaking out, making a difference, etc.). Again, an exception can be the support generated in times of crisis, when warmth, encouragement, and positive thoughts are rallied around a shared experience. Lastly, private suffering shared in a public forum such as Facebook, can, at times, be unresolved, and social media forums offer very limited support; therefore, it isn’t helpful nor is it effective in those cases. This makes sense to mental health professionals, because certain kinds of pain and loss need a more meaningful human connection, as well as effective strategies, in order to process that pain in a useful way; in a manner promoting healing and the ability of the sufferer to move forward. When interacting on social media, try to see positive posts as attempts from your connections to share life’s good things, not because there is an absence of bad, but because the positive is what people need to share. If you find these kinds of things aren’t helpful to you at certain times, consider a break from Facebook or other social media. Call a friend instead, take the time to have a conversation or set a time to meet for coffee, and consider a professional counselor if the situation calls for one.

One final note: Counselors and other licensed health providers must comply to numerous regulations. Confidentiality is the rule, limiting most counselors to general business information in digital or online formats. If you are reaching out to a counselor, a phone call is the best way to do so. Mental health counselors want to be effective helping professionals and work hard to provide that in appropriate settings.

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