Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states
My attention is once again focused on the Internet and the way people attempt to communicate their ideas, thoughts, feelings and experiences. What is interesting is that when controversial issues arise, so does the amount of vitriol in individual postings and E. Mails. Whether the issue under discussion is abuse, alcoholism, sexuality, mental illness or modes of treatment, there are times when extremely angry statements are made.
Communication has to do with attempting to enlighten, inform, present and make public, news, opinions, facts and ideas. The mission of Mental Help Net is to help and inform the public about issues of health and mental health. This includes providing a venue through which interested people can join a community effort to exchange experiences and problems, while also gaining some help.
Yet, here, on Mental Help Net, there is a lot of expressed anger about a variety of these issues. Sometimes anger is directed at the mental health professional who has posted an article or at a regular visitor to the site who posts an opinion or experience, and is met with hostility in the form of derision. What is surprising, to me at least, is that sites like Mental Help Net, are meant to be helpful, informative and supportive.
I have wondered why this happens? I have come up with a number of possibilities.
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1. Many of us felt very unheard when we were children. Parents, teachers and other adults who dismiss childhood concerns, opinions and wishes, unwittingly cause these children to feel erased. That is not to say that just because a child might want something they should be given it. Rather, the experience of feeling listened to has to do with being taken seriously enough to be given reasons why decisions they may not like have been made. In addition, it is always important to listen to children when they are asking questions or giving explanations about something they learned at school.
2. People who enter adulthood with the awful thought that they are invisible and unimportant can become very angry as well as hopeless. In fact, there is a direct relationship between childhood experiences and future depression and anxiety. A recent study showed that adult anxiety and depression are transmitted to children and not only through genetics. Rather, parents who are going through an episode of depression and anxiety are not able to be there for their children, causing them to feel neglected and unimportant. As a result, self esteem and confidence suffer.
3. Although we live in a democracy here in the United States and other nations are also democratic, there is a lot of discussion that society has become massive due the size of the world population. In other words, many people come to feel like they are mere cogs in a huge and impersonal wheel. This is another form of feeling invisible, disenfranchised and alienated.
4. Many of us have had varied experiences with school, whether we dropped out of high school or continued on to finish PhD’s. These varied experiences include the fact that many of us were made to feel wrong, in error, stupid and intellectually limited as a result of the ways we were treated by teachers when we did not do too well in school.
5. Too often, there is the perception that if someone is “not with me, they are against me.” In this I am referring to the disussion of opinions and point of view. Perhaps that is a result of some of the factors discussed above but it makes the interchange of ideas very difficult.
6. As part of #5 there is often an earnest wish to change the mind of the other person if they hold another opinion. If the other person is viewed as being “wrong,” then the effort to change their opinion is in the service of showing them the “right” minded way of thinking.
7. Some people insist on their own point of view because it becomes a “fight for survival” or a way of not being, once again, negated or made invisible.
8. It is known that perceptions are colored by feelings or emotions and those emotions are often shaped by experience. Therefore, for some, it becomes impossible to hear a conflicting point of view because dearly held perceptions are ingrained by powerful emotions. Under these circumstances, it is hard to admit that someone may entertain differing ideas.
9. Of course, no one likes to be told that they are “wrong.” Yet, that is often the attitude that shapes some of these Internet discussions. By believing that someone has told me “I am wrong, I hear that I am stupid or incompetent for believing something shaped by my experience.” This attack on the credibility of an individual serves to make them very defensive. That is what leads to anger and the impossibility of a real interchange of experience and ideas.
10. This type of intolerance sometimes permeates marital relationships. For example, if a husband and wife go to the movies together and one enjoyed the movie while the other did not, if the discussion takes the form of “well, I do not understand you, how could you have possibly liked that movie, it was awful and you have terrible taste, an argument permeated with bitterness will follow.
Have you ever participated in the perception experiment with the ambiguous figure of an old hag that, when viewed at from another angle, looks like a young woman? Most commonly, people will clearly see either the old hag or the young woman. Who’s perception is correct. The answer is that both perceptions are correct. However, once perceived as a hag or young woman, it is difficult to view the other point of view unless someone demonstrates how to ignore the outlines of the one in order to see the other.
Another perception experiment is demonstrated in the picture at the top of this article. Do you see a white vase? Do you see the profile of a black lady on the left. Do you see another black lady on the right? It can be very difficult to see the ladies if you have first seen the vase. In the same way, it can be difficult to see the vase if you have first seen the lady.
Much of life is like that. That is why “eye witness testimony” is no longer considered to be absolutely correct in criminal trials. Even when a crime is being witnessed, people often report very different points of view of what really happened. This is part of the reason why DNA evidence has become overridingly important today. DNA is cold, hard fact, not influenced by point of view.
This is also why families, wive and husbands, teens and parents, nations and others argue with each other. It is very difficult to even perceive that another person may have a different perception than your own.
All of these factors and more are further complicated by the nature of the Internet. After all, the Internet is anonymous. Just the fact that people are holding discussions with one another without being in voice contact renders the entire interaction anonymous. Voice inflections, non verbal gestures, facial expressions, tones of voice and other factors that form important aspects of human interaction, are absent by the very nature of the Internet. More than a few people have understood and commented on the fact that this anonymity has made it easier for people to behave more aggressively than they would if they were in the same room with the other people.
There may not be a conscious and deliberate attempt to be insulting toward others on the Internet. Rather,the Internet serves as a vast blank screen onto which people project their feelings and attitudes. The process of projection onto this blank Internet screen distorts the internal mental image of the anonymous person with whom we are interacting.
Using myself as an example and depending on the issue being discussed, I have been viewed as: 1. A paid advocate for drug companies if I say anything positive about psychiatric mediations, 2. Someone who himself must be circumsized if I report on research indicating that adult circumcision “may” help stem the tide of sexually transmitted diseases” in other parts of the world, 3. An intolerant and prejudiced person if I report the fact that schizophrenia is a disease of the brain, 4. An inept and dangerous therapist if I say anything positive about Alcoholics Anonymous, 5. Just another insensitive man and incompetent therapist, if I advise a woman, married to a Bipolar man who has been abusive, to wait and see if things improve because he has only just been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and is starting medication, 6. Homosexual when I counsel tolerance toward people who are gay, whether men or women, 7. Obviously never been married or had children because if I were, I would not write some of things I do write, and etc. etc.
How can I be all of these things at the same time? Easy, because its all projection.
Not Only the Internet:
Just to state what should be obvious, it is not only on the Internet where these distortions and misunderstandings occur. They occur in daily interaction between people, whether they are spouses, friends, within the family circle,in work groups or in any type of social situations. Whenever we are with other people,we bring with us our past and present because they profoundly shape us and our sense of what to expect. This is why human communication is so difficult.
However, I am in no way hopeless about communication and relationship. Quite the contrary, in my opinion, there is nothing more important than human interaction and communication. There will always be obstacles to smooth communication because it is imperfect at best. However, we thrive through communication and interaction because people need one another. It is my goal to work through the misunderstandings, distortions and miscommunications that occur as we talk to each other on the Internet and in person.
In the service of understanding, I want to make it very clear that communication is as difficult for me as for everyone else because, I, like everyone else, am subject to distortions and emotions that cloud understanding other people.
Your comments, your communications, are encouraged.
Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, PhD
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