Although much has been written about the ills of social media, I have a sense that HSPs feel the lows (and highs) of online life more acutely. I can only speak for myself, of course, but I do believe that high sensitivity, accompanied as it usually is with empathy and a deep sense of conscientiousness, only heightens the experience of being involved in social media.
An analogy from real life: as I write this I’m sitting in the car in a car park as I wait for my son to finish his gymnastics session. For the last half hour it’s been quiet, but just now a man has pulled up beside me, the radio blaring. He then proceeds to have a loud conversation on his phone. I feel my nerves getting jangled; I begin to pick the skin around my thumb nail as my stress levels increase, tearing away at the skin as I quietly, anxiously, run through my options. I consider moving the car but then worry that he’ll get offended. Heaven forbid I offend someone with my need for peace and quiet. I tell myself to sit it out – after all, I will lose some precious writing time if I move the car. I remind myself that he’s no doubt unaware of my discomfort; the level of noise emanating from his car is his normal.
Minutes pass. Eventually, I can’t take it anymore. I move the car.
And there, in a nutshell, is the problem of social media for this HSP.
There are many people in this world; many of them use social media. They’re simply going about their everyday lives, expressing opinions, sharing news, what they’ve eaten for dinner, cat videos, whatever. There is nothing wrong with this. But what it ultimately results in is a lot of white noise. And many HSPs, me included, are very sensitive to noise. I have to remind myself that this sensitivity is okay. I am not at fault or broken. I just have a different level of tolerance for noise compared with others.
Life is challenging enough without the extra added (artificial) noise of social media. There are many times I’ve considered leaving Facebook and Twitter entirely. I mainly stay for two reasons: my publishing work and the core group of friends and supporters who value what I have to share and seem to actually care about what I post. You see, that’s another stress of social media for me – I feel bad for posting stuff about myself, knowing that I’m simply adding to the white noise and possibly increasing other people’s stress levels. It makes me scared to post; makes me want to run away and hide and keep silent. But when my friends respond in a positive way to something I’ve written I feel a deep well of gratitude in my heart. Being seen in this way means a lot. Because it speaks to a fundamental drive in humans: connection. E.M. Forster was right when, all those years ago, he wrote “only connect”. It’s as good a creed to live by as any.
On a practical level, then, how can an HSP navigate the noise and avoid overwhelm (as well as manage the addictive qualities of social media)? Well, like with the car guy, I will either have to tolerate it or protect myself by imposing boundaries. Tolerating it for more than only short periods of time will only lead to high stress levels though (and the skin off my thumb) so imposing boundaries has to be the way to go. So I put together the following list of things I do to help me manage my life on social media.
1. Write down why you’re there. As with most things in life, when one goes about a task with purpose, it is far more likely to be a successful venture. So before I go on social media I make a note of what it is I came there for, be it work or to post an arty/writing update on my own page, or to respond to a message/connect with a friend. It helps to keep me focussed, away from proscratination, and in and out of there before the noise gets too much.
2. Minimize “idle scrolling”. There are days when I simply don’t have time to check my feed at all (those are good days – right? – because it means I’m busy with important work such as admiring autumn trees, or busy at work/creating). Some days I easily lose an hour to scrolling through my feed. This usually results in me becoming overwhelmed by various emotions. So I’ve begun to limit the time I spend scrolling through my feed. Yes, I sometimes feel bad for not checking in with all my friends and responding to their news, but I also figure that if they’re true friends they’ll understand.
3. Curate your feed. Because I work (mainly) in the book world I have gained many lovely bookish Facebook friends. But as with any given group of people there is a certain percentage who are far more vocal than others. They post incredibly frequently and so their updates have a tendency to live at the top of your feed. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being vocal, but as with the car guy, sometimes it’s all a bit too much. I still want to be connected to them via Facebook, but a little distance is necessary. That’s when the unfollow button comes in useful by making one’s feed that little less noisy.
4. To unfriend or not to unfriend? Ah, now there’s a question! With an ever-growing number of friends/followers and friend requests I do wonder about this. After all, some people, on becoming my friend/follower proceed to have zero interaction with me (apart from asking me to like their page or whatever). And the sheer number of virtual friends I have on Facebook boggles my mind! I mean, in school, I had a couple of close friends and that was it. It was emotionally manageable. For the time being I’ve decided to not curtail my list of friends by hitting the unfriend button, but I may well change my mind about that. Interestingly, the people I have the most positive interactions with are the people I know in real life. (Barring the few not-quite-met-in-real-life writer friends who remain steadfastly inspiring and lovely.) So this is one I haven’t quite made my mind up about, but I think it’s safe to say that it’s always worth thinking carefully about who to friend (or not) in the first place.
5. Set some ground rules. I know I can easily get addicted to computer games, so I’ve had to set a rule: it’s always a no to requests to play Candy Crush (or whatever). My whole life would pass in a blur if I was to ever start playing this. Likewise, my tiny bank account would empty tout-suite if I donated to every friend’s birthday fundraiser. Again, I feel bad that I can’t donate, but I’m sure people understand.
6. Impose a curfew. From past experience I know that ‘just hopping into an (apparently lighthearted) conversation’ before bedtime can lead to a lot of stress. Miscommunication is rife on social media. Crucially, social media doesn’t present you with the all-important body language of the person you’re engaging with. In real life HSPs are very good at picking up on these visual cues and sensing/intuiting people’s feelings (whatever face they’re presenting us with). On social media you get nothing, well, apart from emojis. (I can see their appeal – they certainly have their uses – but they’re not a substitute for the myriad and subtle emotions a real human being can express through their body.) So, 9 p.m. is my limit. Otherwise I may well end up going to bed full of unexpressed and not-worked-through emotions. Not good. Cue staying up half the night… (In addition to my self-imposed curfew I also try to stay off social media most Saturdays to keep this time for family only, if possible.)
7. Be mindful of how you message. Ah, now this is one I know I’m guilty of not always doing. Sometimes I need a quick response to something and so I pop a message on messenger or send a direct message via Twitter. But I also know that publishers (me included) find ourselves somewhat deluged by these kinds of messages. Email really is a much better way of communicating when it comes to work stuff. So, one to remind myself of – use email when possible!
8. Beware the troll! Thankfully, I’ve had a fairly sheltered online existence so far, but it hasn’t totally left me immune to the dreaded troll attack. Naif that I am I didn’t think someone would actually go out of their way to throw some outrage my way re: what I choose as my writer’s label. But they did – you can read about it here. And just the other day in a totally innocuous public thread (where I had mentioned that I’m writing a novella) a complete stranger made fun of my “novella” (the scare quotes were his). Now, I must admit that I was rather taken aback about this, but then I had a little chuckle when I told my husband about; he was mightily impressed that this person thought I’d invented a new category of novel. Indeed, I may well add this to my CV. Anyway, the point is that even though I *think* I have a pretty good handle on minimizing overwhelm via social media, every now and then they’ll always be someone who pops up and gives you a whack on the head. The key thing is to not feed the troll. (Better to use the energy on writing a blog post about them…!)
9. Group dynamics. Groups can be a great way of meeting with like-minded people who are working on similar projects. But sometimes groups become so large and cumbersome, or your interests change and shift so that you forget why you ever joined in the first place. Stay in groups that are positive and supportive, and quietly leave the ones that are noisy and no longer chime with you.
10. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” (Kurt Vonnegut). As with any human interaction, kindness is key. Social media has the power to amplify the unkindnesses and to make this HSP sometimes want to run a mile. But there are so many kind people out there. It’s worth finding your tribe online to connect with them and to share some much-needed philia. Just remember to be kind to yourself. Sometimes it’s a kindness to stay away if the noise is too overwhelming or you find yourself slipping into the horrible black hole of life/career comparison, outrage and unkindness.
So… for the time being I’m sticking with social media (with the above guidelines) but I do remind myself that this can always be reviewed. Social media is a tool just like any other man-made tool. And it’s worth reminding myself of that. It’s simply one way of communicating with other people. But there are other less overwhelming communication tools out there – remember the telephone? Letter writing? When I can I try to phone friends and colleagues or write; I find these ways of communicating enriching rather than overwhelming and I always appreciate getting phone calls and letters back.
I would love to hear from others HSPs about how they handle social media and to compare notes! (p.s. I don’t have a smartphone and don’t receive social media notifications in my email inbox. Another thing that helps me cope.)