On the Care and Feeding of Trolls

Warning: Contains obscenities, which is almost completely uncharacteristic for me. Just in case you care.

Photo from wikimedia commons

I got a troll on twitter. Just one, and it was mild, and I did not deign to reply. I chose instead to revert to my sister’s IRL approach (which she brilliantly came up with at 14, I might add.) “You’re not worth the effort it takes to open my mouth to insult you.” It’s a good one. It confuses them. “But you just… but…” Trust me, it works. Especially if it is finished off with a flouncing departure.

The problem on the internet is that there is no flouncing departure. There’s just another comment, and another comment, and a comment conflagration, and people taking sides, and crawling into bed thinking, “But that’s not what I meant at ALL! What is wrong with those people?!?”

Emulating my brilliant and funny sister, I read the comment, ignored it, and went on with my day. At least, that’s what I *meant* to do. But he had implied that I had an eating disorder (specifically overeating) and I found myself defending my food. Again. To myself, in my head. All day long. I made a couple of tweets about it, and then followed with four days of excessive exercise, avoiding food, not eating enough… All this yoga, meditation, therapy, reading, cognitive behaviour therapy, and one miserable bastard implies an eating disorder and I’m screwed up for days. And I never even *had* an eating disorder to start with. What’s UP with that?

Well, let me put on my academic hat to do a little self-analysis. Out there on the internet. Where somebody might call me names. Again. OK, a little risky, but hey, it only gets better if we do something about it, eh?

One of the main ways that we learn about “what we are like” is through external cues. This is called mirroring, although I can’t find the reference in which I learned about it. It was somewhere in the B.Ed., I think. Anyway in this ego-driven world, almost none of us get accurate mirroring. Either we are diminished (“How could you be so stupid?” “Aren’t you *ever* going to do this better?” “How many times do I have to tell you…”) or we are unreasonably boosted, (“What a *fabulous* job!” “You’re the smartest/prettiest/best kid in the world!”) Most of us get a bit of both, just to keep us on our toes. In either case, the disconnect between what we think about our selves and what is reflected back creates cognitive dissonance. As social creatures, we are susceptible to the external validation (positive or negative) and modify our own self-image to better correspond to what we hear.

One of the things that we are encouraged to do as parents in this day and age is to provide more accurate mirroring, so that we comment only on what we see and express our own experience, without judgement. “I see that you haven’t cleaned your room as I asked you to do. I am frustrated, because I would like to play a game with you, and I think that it would be irresponsible of me to do that when your room isn’t tidy.” “You did really well on that math test. I’m proud of you, because I know how much work you put in for that.” Here’s the problem: almost nobody talks that way. I mean, sure, when we put in the effort and we are committed to clear and non-violent communication, when we have a philosophical position regarding boundaries, and the moral autonomy of the person we are speaking to, when we’ve had enough sleep and enough to eat, and we’re centred, we might be able to pull it out after practising with our kids for a few months. Or years.

But somehow, even though we know all of those things, when we encounter, “What kind of stupid bitch are you?” (or, my personal favourite, “People like you shouldn’t be allowed to have children!”) on the internet, our inner child melts. It’s not just a diminishing or negating mirror; the troll provides a distorted evil-fun-house mirror, reflects back some hideous caricature and says, “My God, how can you even live with yourself?!?” And we might be able to pull it together enough to say, “Fuck off, you miserable troll!” but the damage is done. Because that nasty little voice inside us that looks outside to say, “Am I good enough? Am I OK? Is the world OK?” has just gotten enough ammunition to turn on us.

“Aha!” it yells! “See what I said? Not good enough! Not smart enough, not sexy enough! You are a failure!!! Oh, you are disgusting, you are a waste of AIR! Oh, and BTW, the world is full of horrible people, just waiting to attack you!!! You think it’s ever going to get better??? Give up, you stupid bitch.” (Oh, it’s just me? Never mind, then.)

On the off chance that it’s not just me, let me look at dealing with the inner troll. That is more of a problem. It’s very tempting to go back to the original source of the trouble, to try to change the distorted reflection, to flatten the mirror. We get into flame wars, call names, take sides, take positions, and look for other external validation to drown out the internal troll. “All those other people agree with me. I must be OK, after all.” But you can’t grab the voice in your head by the collar and say, “Shut. The Fuck. Up.”

As difficult as it is to flounce successfully out of the room on the internet, it is impossible to do inside.

So here is why it matters not to feed the trolls: You will never win. They will never say, “Oh, you’re right, I’m being a prick. I see the error of my ways.” Never going to happen, my friend. And it consumes your energy and provides more power to the inner troll. So here is a troll practice: Do not hit send. Walk away from the computer. Sit. Breathe. Listen to the inner troll. That is the one that matters. Stroke your own head. Cry for the loss of innocence, the self-hatred, the demons that haunt you. Hug yourself, find the people who will help you back out of the dark. Again. And again. If you must, seek the outer voices that will reassure you.

But do it behind his back.

Don’t give the outer troll the power to withhold. His demons are not your responsibility, but they are using yours to feed them.Starve them out. Take your power back.