Holding Your Own
I’ve been thinking a lot about social media lately, about why it feels particularly challenging for me lately. I think a lot of us—maybe most of us on Twitter—feel increasingly unseen and unheard. I think most people want to feel like their existence matters, that it has weight and importance. I think most people want the opportunity for their perspective or emotions to be noticed and given consideration. Social media offers at least the promise of a remedy for that.
It is a stereotype about Twitter that people blithely reveal intimate and vulnerable truths there that they don’t elsewhere. I think that speaks to what this specific platform is good at: giving us an outlet for our feelings that feels simultaneously personal and public. That’s particularly true for those of us who don’t have big followings. There is enough anonymity that when we say things there it doesn’t necessarily make much of a ripple in the overall stream, but there’s also always the chance that someone will actually notice and engage. I think that even extends to the way many of us think about Twitter when we are actually replying to someone else.
And this sort of highlights both what I find useful about Twitter and what I find challenging about it. I don’t begrudge anyone the desire to be visible. I feel that, too. I want to be known and seen and accepted, for my opinions and emotions to be respected, even validated. I also have often appreciated the opportunity to hear what other people are going through. It has not only given me the opportunity to connect with others and sometimes be of service, but it also has helped me feel less alone, knowing that others feel similar to how I feel.
But in times of widespread harm and trauma, when we are all very understandably using Twitter in the way we always have, broadcasting our feelings—which, again, I also do—it gets difficult for me. Rather than feeling connected, I feel overwhelmed. And since I also live in the world, in times like these I am also already feeling overwhelmed by events, and so trying to hold or even just witness everyone else’s feelings just compounds what I’m already feeling. What makes it even more difficult is that a lot of people—wittingly or unwittingly—use social media to ask or even coerce others into fulfilling their need for visibility. Having that need is natural and unavoidable. But making others meet that need is unsustainable.
Compared to what people with bigger followings get—especially if they are women—I don’t get a lot of people showing up to argue with me. But I get some, and my perception is that it’s been happening more often in recent months. The overwhelming majority of the time, when someone responds to me in a way that feels argumentative, I think what they are actually saying is “I feel unseen, and I wish to feel seen.” Which, again, that’s a natural and understandable way to feel, which I also feel. I try very hard to keep this in mind when answering people, to give them as much grace as I can while also maintaining my own boundaries. Most of the time, it goes fairly well. I think people seem to come away from our interactions satisfied that they were heard.
It bears pointing out, of course, that much of my ability to interact this way is because I am relatively privileged. Being a cis straight man who is not, for example, worried about my livelihood means that people treat me better as a baseline and that I have fewer stressors. That, in turn, means that I have more available emotional capacity to hold space for other people.
Still, my capacity to hold space for others’ emotions is not unlimited, and more and more often I find myself feeling depleted. I think that a lot of people just do not think about what they are asking of others. That is, I suppose, me trying to give people the benefit of the doubt and not assume that people are purposely trying to take advantage of others. I know that happens, too, of course. But I prefer to think that most people just don’t know how to manage or take responsibility for their own emotions. After all, it’s not something that most of us are taught how to do. I certainly wasn’t. I am fortunate to have had the resources and opportunity to work through these things with a therapist. And, obviously, even with the years I spent doing that learning and work, I still backslide and slip up sometimes and put my emotions on other people.
I do wish that more people could be more aware of what it is that they’re doing when they try to make others hold their emotions. I do wish that people could be more considerate. Then again, I know it’s harder to be considerate when you’re going through it. It is difficult at best and sometimes completely impossible to be emotionally aware and responsible when your own emotional reserves are depleted. I know that, and I think about it a lot. I try to give people as much grace as I can, not least because I have always appreciated it when people have extended me the same consideration when I wasn’t at my best. I am not entitled to your grace, which means it is precious when you give it to me anyway. But I still get depleted after a while. I get tired or frustrated or angry or sad. As I know that I, too, have made other people tired or frustrated or angry or sad when I’ve tried to make them hold my emotions.
And something that I want to be clear is that usually when I have asked someone to hold my emotions, I haven’t said that that’s what I was doing. More often I said it was about justice or right/wrong or speaking out/calling out or something else about them and not me. The thing is, the fact that it was, at root, about making someone else hold my feelings doesn’t mean I was wrong about it being about justice. It doesn’t mean I was incorrect in what I said about the behavior or words I was calling out. I don’t mean that I’m infallible on morals or justice. I have certainly been wrong about that kind of thing many times and I’m sure I will be again. I mean that the emotional motivation and the intellectual/moral motivation can coexist, and one can feed the other. That is, it’s not merely a justification to say “this is about justice” when I am trying to make someone else see me. Both things can be true at the same time, I think. I’m saying this because I want it to be clear that I am not telling people not to call out injustice and I am not saying that all call-outs or arguments are emotionally motivated, and I am not saying that emotionally motivated call-outs are inherently invalid.
What I am saying is that I think it is helpful to recognize the emotional components of our actions. I think it is helpful for others and for ourselves. It’s helpful to others because when we are aware of our own emotional processes, we tend not to inappropriately burden others as much. It’s helpful to ourselves because it helps us be more intentional in our actions. And I think it’s helpful in general because the more we take responsibility for our own emotional processes, the less we deplete other peoples’ emotional reserves, and the more they can respond with grace and patience to others. It helps the general temperature come down.
I know that in the middle of an ongoing crisis is not the time to be asking people to do more. Again, when we are in crisis and our reserves are depleted, we just don’t have the capacity left to hold space for others. I know that. But I know that not everyone is equally depleted right now. I am very tired lately and not at my best. But I still have enough capacity to keep trying to be aware of my emotions and to keep trying to be gracious to others. I think that if I have some capacity left, then surely there must be others who do as well. And maybe those aren’t the people who need to hear all of this. Maybe those people are more likely to already know all of this. But I hope that if there are people who aren’t completely depleted and who haven’t heard this stuff before, or who could use a reminder, then this discussion might be useful to them.
Moreover, it’s been my experience that my own reserves of emotional energy have become deeper and easier to maintain the more I keep this perspective in mind. The more I practice emotional awareness, the more I’m able to be gracious and kind to others. Possibly this is because when I’m aware of what’s going on with myself, I’m better able to determine what boundaries I need and better able to maintain those boundaries
If you can’t do this right now, it’s okay. I’m not criticising you or calling you out. I also don’t mean to make it sound like I have it all figured out. And I certainly don’t mean to suggest that injustice doesn’t exist or shouldn’t be addressed. Just, this is stuff that I’ve found helpful for myself. So, if you’re able to make use of it, I hope you will.