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Social Media Self-Care: Setting Boundaries on Facebook

I admit it. I get a lot of my news from social media. I’m not just talking about the latest in cuddly animal videos (though my feed is certainly at the cutting edge of documenting the hilarious antics of our fuzzy friends). I truly mean that a significant portion of what I read and watch about our current world comes to me via Facebook and Twitter.

Facebook is where I first heard about Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Charles Kinsey, and the Pulse nightclub shooting. I learned about how Latinx teenager Gaspar Marcos lives and works as an unaccompanied minor each day. I first read breaking news about sexual exploitation and corruption in Oakland Police Department from friends who thought it was important to share. It’s where I hear about Oakland City Council Meetings, and positive actions like the WNBA protest, Stephen Colbert crashing the RNC, and online petitions to end conversion therapy.

smartphone-982555_640Reading Facebook, to me, is more than just reading headlines. It’s also where I learn about births and new families, friends’ moves, marriages, divorces, and career transitions, and tropical vacations that inspire me to save money and dream big. Without Facebook notifications, everyone would think I’m a jerk for not remembering their birthday.

Social media is also where my friends share how their personal narratives intersect with the headlines. I have read how scary and traumatizing my friends’ experiences crossing the border from Mexico to the US were, and how retraumatizing it is to have landed in a country that threatens every day to “build a wall” and deport these same beautiful, brave people. I read how the marijuana initiative on the upcoming November ballot connects with the ironic and troubling fact that my friends’ family members are currently in prison for possession of marijuana. My friends who straddle multiple identities name how hard it can be to talk with family members about current events, because their families or familial communities are not supportive of some parts of who they are. Social media can become a cultivated space for chosen family, a space where it feels safe to speak our minds with supportive people.

I love this interconnection of personal narrative and current events. I love reading commentary from people I know, who inform me of important and pressing issues that I wouldn’t have known about if I didn’t have friends whose lives these issues directly impact.

Facebook helps me feel powerfully connected to other people. I learn about their legal battles with landlords over 800% rent increases; their work to help queer and trans kids of color find solidarity and community; and from friends who are poets, writers, and thinkers wondering, How can we thrive and cultivate connection in this world where there is so much divisiveness and fear?

As I’ve been waking up to social injustice over the last few years, it’s been really important to me to make sure my social media is a place where I feel safe. Social media can’t feel like work to me. I do enough of that already.

For a while, I used social media as a clearinghouse for all kinds of friends and people I met. It used to feel very important to me to keep contact with friends and acquaintances, regardless of their values. I cared about the kids, the connections, the old relationships from high school and college, and the people I knew who were famous (or soon-to-be famous). If someone said something hurtful or that offended me, I felt it was my job to help “educate” that person. But, surprising to no one, all that ever did was make me feel frustrated, stressed, triggered, and overwhelmed. Some people just don’t want to be convinced by someone who comes across as a know-it-all, apparently.

I still understand and believe in the importance of healthy debate with opposing perspectives and views. But I have felt myself heading towards burnout. In order to feel like social media is a warm and supportive space, and not just another Reddit forum, I now have come to consider Facebook like an online living room. The people I’m connected with are folks I would invite into my home for a lively conversation, even if I don’t agree with them. These are people who can tolerate difference without shutting down or becoming antagonistic. These folks don’t insult each other when they disagree. They listen, speak, listen some more, and think deeply about issues that impact their friends and community. They can speak from the heart and from the mind. They can help me see things differently and are willing to do the same. These are all skills I’m cultivating in myself, and it’s important to me to have good examples of people on a similar journey of growth.

To that end, here are a few things I’ve found helpful when setting self-care boundaries on Facebook:

  1. Think of your social media as your living room. Whom would you invite to a party? Whom do you like hanging out with? Is it cool with you if your racist or homophobic uncle hangs out with your queer friends, and if so, do you have any limits to how your uncle is allowed to engage? Or would you prefer a different kind of party entirely?
  2. Consider having two Facebook accounts: One for your chosen family and friends, and one for the people you might not actually invite to your living room, but have to stay connected with for other reasons.
  3. It’s really awesome to have a forum for keeping in touch with people you care about whom you don’t have much time to see on a daily or weekly basis. That said, if you’re feeling unsafe, or like someone’s crossing lines with you or your friends, you can totally block people whom you aren’t able to “unfriend” so you can’t see their posts. Like that racist uncle or your coworker that you feel guilty about unfriending, they won’t even know you’ve blocked them.
  4. If you’re hoping to help change or open people’s minds around racism, social justice, sexuality, or anything that can be a triggering topic, first consider how much energy you have to devote to this long and arduous task. If you have enough capacity for it, make sure you also have your safer spaces where you can get self-care and replenish.
  5. If you end up getting into an argument, first consider the connection you already have with this person. Are you already on the same page about racism, but not about gender? Start there, and try your best to understand why they believe what they believe. As long as you are both staying open and taking care of your triggers, there is a good chance you’ll be able to really talk about your differences respectfully, and even learn from each other in the process.
  6. If you engage with people who trigger you or read triggering articles or posts, keep in mind your own trauma response. Be honest about how you feel. If it’s something written by your friend, focus first on your relationship, secondly on the politics. Utilize your self-care and emotional de-escalation skills. If that still doesn’t work, you are totally allowed to block or unfollow the person. It can take people a very long time to change, even if they really want to. You get to decide if you want to hang in there while they change, or take a break from the friendship for a while. Don’t feel guilty for setting a boundary.
  7. You don’t have to read all the articles or watch all the videos.
  8. Watch at least one cute animal video per day. (This might be the best advice any mental health provider could ever give you.)
  9. It’s really ok to take a social media break every once in a while.

Facebook, and other social media, is such an awesome way to stay connected to friends and current events. It’s a beautiful way to feel solidarity and connection with people you can’t be physically present with, and to meet babies and pets and look at pictures of cats with laser eyes. But if you’re feeling burnt out or overwhelmed, it’s important for your own well-being to keep this space full of voices that can help you support your own capacity for resilience, openness, growth, and connection.

Molly Merson

Molly Merson

Molly is a relational, psychodynamic psychotherapist in private practice in Berkeley, CA. Molly works with adults and adolescents of all genders in approaching uncomfortable feelings, working through stuck patterns and creating room for joy and desire.

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