I am particularly delighted to welcome Carole to the blog. She is writing about such an important topic—compassion on the internet. In these polarised times it is so important to take her Netiquette guidelines to heart. Thanks for the post, Carole!

Compassion is a strength that has supported me throughout my life. I have also witnessed the development of compassion help many people in my role as a private practice psychologist.

I think we’d all agree that communicating via the internet has been one of the fastest growing evolutions of the last 20 years. These days there are endless opportunities to communicate online and it can seem like a fast-paced world, difficult to keep up with. No doubt there has to be an effect on our mental health. Our relationship with these communications and how we relate to each other has been something of a personal and professional fascination to me over the years. 

Today I will be sharing an online experience that took me to some dark human depths and caused me to wonder ‘where is the compassion?’ in these places. It was hard learning. This has driven me to create some online etiquette (Netiquette) guidelines that I am sharing with you today. I’ll walk you through my story.

Stepping into the Lion’s den

Working solely in private practice has its rewards and difficulties. One of the potential pitfalls can be becoming isolated from other professionals.  So, when the opportunity to connect with others became available through social media, I considered it. To be honest I mostly ‘lurked’, watching others post and felt very reticent to get involved. I didn’t think too deeply about why that might be at the time. I found myself drawn in to respond to areas I had experience and knowledge in, feeling a responsibility to share. 

One fine day I noticed someone asking a question on one of these social media networks that I had some information on and experience in. I summoned up the courage to post a link on the subject in question in a desire to be helpful – I remember thinking it was a neutral thing to do as I wasn’t directly offering an opinion. Now, it is important to say here there are difficulties with having such a small space to respond in as things may look out of context, AND you do not know what has gone on before in that forum…..these are things I learnt the hard way. 

The unforeseen threat

Although I had responded to one person’s information request what happened was an entirely different person responding with an angry tirade of words. They were directed to me personally, questioning my knowledge and professionalism…I had a sense of ‘who do you think you are?’. It felt very threatening and I can share with you I felt absolutely crushed. I did not know who this person was and what sort of influence they might have. Crucially, I did not know who was looking in and struggled to find a way to deal with the situation, in the moment. Nobody posted anything straight away after this – although each of us got (secret) likes. In effect I had experienced a group shaming process, and in my vulnerable state had to decide how or if to respond. 

I absolutely agonized over what to do. Ultimately, I decided there was no way I could respond directly or indirectly without entering into the angry, difficult behaviour. Abstaining was hugely difficult in itself as a fragile part of me felt like I was allowing myself to be bullied. In effect I was both trapped by the situation and blocked from responding – a dangerous and compassionless feeling place. This has caused me to wonder whether the speed of our ability to communicate is bypassing the decision-making part of our brain? We could be responding straight from our threat systems. Ironically, I suspect my seemingly (from my end) innocuous posting provoked the other persons threat system. 

The power of self-compassion

Now, at this point I’d like to say thank goodness I had been practicing self-compassion for many years. Fortuitously I was already on one of Maureen’s (online) self-compassion courseswhich was hugely helpful in helping gather myself, and help view things from a safer feeling mindset. From this view I applied some compassionate self-correction as opposed to shame-based self-attacking (Professor Paul Gilbert OBE) for my part in entering naively into the online domain ill-prepared. 

I wondered how I might respond if this were to every happen again. This was quite a conundrum. I spent some time considering what had happened to compassion in this situation and how important to our well-being kindly, well thought out communications were likely to be. Goodness knows we can think of many examples of difficult, unhelpful and harmful online interactions that go on every day. 

Salvaging something from the experience

I decided to move forward by finding a way to contribute positively to these tricky communication spaces. Previously, I had encountered Netiquette (online etiquette) guidelines but they did not cover what I wanted to convey. I really hoped it would be useful to offer an understanding of what might be going on for us as human beings in online places, and why this might be important for our well-being. 

Using my experience, I wrote from the heart and a set of compassionately written guidelines emerged. My thinking was that if anyone found themselves in the same impotent situation instead of entering into the communication, they could send a link to these Netiquette Guidelines. And whilst I am not naive enough to think this might also feel inflammatory the other end it would offer an opportunity to respond compassionately and not feel blocked.

NETIQUETTE GUIDELINES

These guidelines focus on the realities of being human beings in the online space, which has some significant differences to communicating in other places. There are some very interesting phenomenon that influence these communications such as the Online Disinhibition and Black Hole effects that you can follow if you are intrigued.  I bring into view the public shaming opportunities public platforms can bring, as well as the opportunity to use our powers for good. I also encourage PUSHING THE PAUSE BUTTON as we are encouraged to sacrifice sense for speed. 

Importantly …I encourage us to remember there is often a human at the other end  but crucially remember we are all human! Being courteous and mindful is likely to reap big rewards for our well-being. 

FORGIVE OTHERS AND BE COMPASSIONATE WITH YOURSELF 

– Remember you are a human too and with the best will in the world we all make mistakes. Mistakes online can feel much bigger, but if we are forgiving and compassionate with others and ourselves, perhaps that will become contagious. 

REMEMBER WE ARE ALL HUMAN.

We are not all the same

 You may be thinking ‘I wouldn’t be affected like that’, and this is a very interesting point. We are just in the beginnings of understanding what impact communicating via the internet might be having on us in terms of; changes in our brain, conditioning, attention etc. This evolution has potentially been the fastest in history and pushing the pause button to reflect perhaps the wisest thing we can do at this juncture. I have come to wonder how differently we react to online communications in different contexts and one interesting notion is how relevant our attachment styles might be. If you haven’t encountered attachment theory before it is really relevant in how we communicate with other people (and ourselves) and is often explored in compassion-based therapies. 

Attachment and its importance in relating to others

From our early experiences we often talk about four styles; Secure, Ambivalent/Anxious, Avoidant and Disorganised (basic explanation). It’s not our fault we find ourselves subject to these styles and it can be helpful to understand how they might impact on our lives. 

What is fascinating to me is how these might be acting on us in online communications that have different rules and less non-verbal communications to steer us. I have certainly noticed in my practice how some clients are drawn to continually check for approval in these 24/7 online spaces. It is also difficult to ignore the fact that we can compare ourselves to others at an alarming rate. Other factors are suggested as important such as; having a safe haven, a secure base, proximity maintenance and separation distress

It is profoundly interesting to wonder how these ideas might be being influenced in the often boundaryless feeling online space of the world wide web.

Reflecting on the learning

 My own very strong reaction to this experience has been hugely interesting and I would certainly subscribe to the idea my attachment style has a place to play. An area of concern for me is the idea that compassion might be getting eroded in some online communications.  Also, the capacity for group shaming and high levels of self-critical thinking, greater than in other spaces. Perhaps we could view these communications as high challenge in terms of being without the same safety giving non-verbal cues. This in turn might mean we require high self-support to manage them. In my experience self-compassion which encourages courage, distress tolerance, and a sense of safety might well provide balance to this modern-day stress. I sincerely hope my story and subsequent reflections have resonated with you. Please feel free to share the guidelines and I send compassionate best wishes for us all going forward.  

Endnote

I would like to leave you today with the words of Tim Berners-Lee (creator of the internet) in his open letter 2019, 30 years after he gifted us the Internet. His message, I believe, is of hope in we can steer the internet as we move forward – as opposed to being steered by it. I’m hoping in a more compassionate direction.

Against the backdrop of news stories about how the web is misused, it’s understandable that many people feel afraid and unsure if the web is really a force for good. But given how much the web has changed in the past 30 years, it would be defeatist and unimaginative to assume that the web as we know it can’t be changed for the better in the next 30. If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us, we will have failed the web.” (Direct quote)

  • Gilbert, P. (2010). The Compassionate Mind. Constable: London
  • Holmes, J. (2014). 2nd Edition. John Bowlby and Attachment Theory (Makers of Modern Psychotherapy). Routledge: Abingdon-on-Thames.

Carole is a counselling psychologist in private practice near Bristol, UK. She provides therapy, supervision, consultation and training both face-to-face and via online means. Carole often combines her research interest area of online relational aspects and compassion orientated approaches to explore some of our every day struggles. Her passion is in sharing understandable insights she hopes will be helpful to us as human beings.

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