On the turning away.

Several months ago, a young friend of mine joined an internet forum for people with social anxiety. She joined the forum because she has social anxiety, and she wanted to meet people who could understand her predicament and help her find ways of overcoming it. What she found when she got there was something else entirely.

What is going to follow is my interpretation of what she experienced there. I’m not an expert. Neither’s she. We’re playing Chinese whispers. Any of this may or may not apply to other fora. This blog is, therefore, worth precisely what you paid for it.

The people she interacted with turned out to fall into the following categories:

  • People who identified with their social anxiety. They could offer and liked to receive commiserations, but couldn’t offer nor wanted to consider any kind of solution. If anyone managed to improve their symptoms by any means, they tried to convince them that those improvements were imaginary or temporary. Any people who significantly improved or, heaven forfend, recovered, had been fakers all along.
  • Vulnerable narcissists, who, although they appear to be sensitive types, are as self-preoccupied as grandiose narcissists. Although they may suffer from anxieties in social settings, those anxieties are largely due to the fact that the world is failing to rotate around them with sufficient gusto. 
  • People who believed that the common bond of anxiety was enough to include all participants of the required gender into their dating pool, and were mortally offended when told that their intended felt differently.
  • Low-level and charm predators who’d found the mother lode: a place that encouraged tolerance of social blunders, brimming with people who weren’t confident about their ability to interpret social situations or handle social conflict, who didn’t want to draw attention to themselves, and who were uncomfortable saying clear “nos” and enforcing boundaries. The organisers might as well have written “here be silent victims” on the door.

I am not saying that there weren’t people on that forum who were, like my friend, people with social anxiety looking for solutions. That would seem statistically unlikely. It is far more likely, given the most common symptoms of social anxiety, that a selection bias was in play. Genuine sufferers were there but weren’t being as vocal in open conversations or as ready to start private ones. The result was, however, that the bulk of the interactions my friend was having were not only not as advertised, but actively anti-useful to her.

I began to feel very concerned about the toxicity of the environment she had entered when she started to ask me questions like “What does it mean when a guy sends you unsolicited dick pics and insists you should Skype?” “What does it mean when you tell people that you are finally starting therapy, and they tell you that it’s not worth it?” “What does it mean when someone is friendly towards you when you’re having a bad day, but if you’re having a good day they try to make you feel bad again?” That’s the sort of predicament who makes me wish that we could make “asshole” an acceptable technical term, because sometimes getting into the finer points of someone’s motivations and behaviour requires way too much time spent rolling with pigs in mud, or a crystal ball I can’t seem to find.

I don’t know precisely why that specific boy might have sent those specific genital shots, and I can only imagine what he wanted to say or do over video chat. However, that behaviour smacks of a lack of respect for my friend’s consent, which makes him potentially dangerous and definitely non-OK. I don’t know precisely why those specific people were acting like crabs in a bucket; but I know it’s not a behaviour I want around me, particularly if I’m genuinely struggling with a serious issue. I could spend a lot of time interacting with said people, trying to work out their underlying psychology. But, yannow, I don’t want to (though I would have enjoyed a few moments alone with Dick Boy, because predating on predators is a hobby of mine). While it could arguably improve my understanding not only of their nature, but of human nature in general, chances are that I could have a more edifying, more useful, more enjoyable, healthier time doing just about anything else.

The experience did benefit my young friend, but not in the way she had anticipated. She learnt how to walk away from certain people in a low-value, lower-stress environment. She learnt how to walk away from an environment that, regardless of how it was advertised, was ultimately toxic. Hopefully that practice will prove useful to her if she ever needs to do the same in real life, with people she actually knows.

It did leave me wondering about the rest of us, though. How often do we take too long in turning away from well-intentioned failures?

I’m definitely guilty of buying into the stated goals of a group/community/organisation to the point of brushing under the carpet their actual achievements (or lack thereof) for way longer than it was good for me. I can remember countless occasion of groups palpably failing in their stated goals, yet still managing to convince themselves that they’re succeeding; or continuing to preach that their methods are sound, and the failure is due to external factors that somehow don’t require a re-adjustment of said methods. I keep seeing groups and individuals who absolutely believe they’ve found A Better Way Of Being, whether it’s through diet, fitness, art, spirituality, self-defence, whatever; and continue to bang on about how much Better their Way is, even though their lives are demonstrably made worse by it. And I/ we/too many people buy into it.

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