How you can handle haters
Reading time: 11 minutes 23 seconds
*Trigger warning: This week’s article mentions suicide and depression
When I was 14 years old, one evening after school, I was downstairs and the phone in the hallway rang. I picked it up and was greeted with silence.
At the time, I struggled a lot with my mental health. Indeed, I battled with suicidal thoughts. The one or two friends I hung out with were distancing themselves from me as I got mocked and jeered at school. I felt desperately alone like I didn’t belong in this world.
Picking up the receiver, I heard a young girl’s voice. “Hello, can I speak to Owen?’
“This is me speaking” I replied.
Her name was Michelle. She went to a different school than me but lived in the area. She shared that she was nervous. She got my number from the phone book. She’d seen me around. She had a crush on me.
I struggled hard to believe she was real. I had never had a girlfriend. Not even close. I was socially awkward, clumsy, and nervous around anyone I didn’t know well.
This couldn’t be real. How could she find me ‘cute’?
Michelle called me again the following day. And the day after that. We had amazing conversations. I could be myself with her. I spent an extra minute in front of the mirror every time I went out.
Every time I left the house or on the way to school, I kept looking around. Was she there? What did she look like? Had I seen her before? Would I see her soon?
Then, on a Saturday afternoon, Michelle called again. She told me how handsome I was. We spoke for a while and I finally gathered up the courage and asked her if she wanted to meet up. I stuttered through it but finally did it.
There was a pause in the conversation as I held my breath.
Michelle giggled. I heard more laughter. A group of people laughing. She mumbled one word through the laughter.
It was the last word I ever heard from her as she hung up. I never did find out who she was.
This was not my first or last experience of bullying. Indeed, for most of my teenage years, I found myself bullied in different ways. But this hit hard. This is the first time I’ve ever spoken about it. There are certain lessons I’ve learned that can be useful in helping anyone who is dealing with it to cope better.
The New World of Online Pain
Some would argue that since the invention of social media, bullying has gotten even worse.
In 2006, Megan Meier, a 13-year-old from Missouri, received a message from a teenage boy named Josh. They developed a relationship. Megan, who was already on medication for depression and struggling for help, seemed to perk up around her parents. While she had not met Josh yet in real life, he understood her. He was the real deal.
Except that he wasn’t.
Instead, it was a fictional MySpace account created by the mother of an ex-friend of Megan’s. This was an example of ‘catfishing’, creating a false identity to deceive others.
Three weeks before her 14th birthday, after a particularly nasty message from ‘Josh’, Megan killed herself.
Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that 14.9% of adolescents have been cyberbullied. 13.6% of adolescents have made a serious suicide attempt. The term “cyberbullicide” has been coined to describe suicides directly or indirectly influenced by online aggression.
Things are getting worse, not better.
As the world has moved online, there is no way we can prevent cyberbullying. But we can empower more people to change how they experience it.
We can do this by understanding why people engage in it, what they get out of it, and how to best respond to it. We need to unpack the psychology of cyberbullying. We must give victims the power to transform how they feel and respond to it. There are fundamental strategies that can help you deal with haters.
Cyberbullying and Trolling
Let’s start by defining the terms.
Cyberbullying is repeated and targeted harassment, intimidation, and humiliation of an individual online with the intent to harm or hurt them.
Trolling is the act of deliberately provoking others for amusement or to cause disruption. Sometimes it’s funny and comes from a good place. It’s banter between friends. Other times it can be malicious and designed to bully someone. Both types of attack often come from what we call a keyboard warrior.
Keyboard Warriors and Cancel Culture
A keyboard warrior is someone who starts fights and attacks others from the safety of their computer or phone. Some of them bully and harass. Some of them pick fights. Some of them try and ‘cancel’ someone famous or semi-famous.
Cancel culture is the tendency some people have in today’s world to try and stop people from being listened to by destroying their reputation. If someone has a big platform and is inciting hate through that platform, canceling them can seem like an appealing option. The problem is that, like many things with good intentions, it has been hijacked and used as a weapon to destroy anyone you don’t like so that you can signal your virtue and values to the world.
The Justification of Trolling
Sometimes the haters pretend not to be hating. This is the most insidious form of bullying.
Most people see what they are doing as justified. Nobody sees themselves as a bully.
They say things like: ‘I’m only kidding’, ‘I’m just playing around’, and ‘They made a big deal about nothing’ when they troll or bully. This is textbook ‘gaslighting’.
Sometimes, they’ll claim ‘He deserved it.’ ‘She needed to be stopped.’ when they try and cancel someone.
Other times, they say that they are just sharing their opinion online but it gets more personal than that. And it’s easy because many of them stay anonymous. Online harassment is a way for us to attack someone from the safety of our basements.
“I can express my anger at you because of what you represent to me. I can take out my emotional pain on you. Because I’m not happy with me. And somehow it doesn’t feel as cruel when I type it. At least, to me, it doesn’t.”
To the other person, it often feels worse.
When Lori, the mother of Megan’s ex-friend, was asked why she created ‘Josh’ she said it was in response to Megan spreading rumors about her daughter. She wanted to teach Megan a lesson. She wanted to get her back.
We justify hating or trolling because we see ourselves as fundamentally good people.
Why Trolls Troll
As a thought leader, you are always going to risk getting people who feel that they know you and that can be a good and bad thing. I have experienced many trolls, and keyboard warriors, and even experienced stalking on occasion over my career.
It could be as simple as someone trolling my online ads, posts, or TEDx talk, or a nasty email or social media message. Sometimes it can even get serious and the person can get obsessed and fixated on everything they love or hate about you.
Millions of people attack others online. Why?
- Sometimes, they’re having a bad day.
- Sometimes, they’re taking out their anger on the world.
- Sometimes, they resent you for having something they don’t.
- Sometimes, they see you as a representation of something they hate in the world.
- Sometimes, they are seeking validation.
- Sometimes, they want your attention.
Everybody tells themselves a story about who you are. They convince themselves of a reality that makes their actions okay and they resist the urge to look at it any other way. Their identity is at stake. The affirmation that it is alright to do it keeps them from stopping.
Cyberbullying as Therapy
So why does cyberbullying happen? Because people are hurting.
It was in 1959, that Charles Eads first shared that popular quote: ‘Hurt people hurt people’. It continues to resonate all these years later because it fits so well. We’re scared in this world. Scared of the many things outside of our control. Scared of not living up to our potential. Scared that we’re not good enough. We’re scared and we lash out. In the words of the great philosopher ‘Yoda’:
“Fear leads to Anger. Anger Leads to Hate. Hate leads to Suffering.”
The reality is that most attacks come from fear, anger, and pain or suffering.
Sometimes, it’s true, that people get perverse pleasure from making others feel bad. It makes them feel powerful. It makes them feel better than you. It makes them feel stronger than you. It makes them feel good that they have your attention.
But behind this behavior is their dirty little secret.
It is only because they feel powerless that they crave power so much. It is only because they feel lesser than you that they need to feel more than you. It is only because they feel weaker that they need to feel stronger. They only need your attention because they feel insignificant. Every attack is a psychological clue to how that person feels about themselves.
I rarely engage with trolls or bullies. My philosophy isn’t actually to hate the haters anymore though. Instead, I understand that the person is doing therapy on themselves. To the point that it impacts my reputation or business, I take whatever action I need to take. But in terms of allowing it to impact my life, I’m much better at moving on and ignoring it because of how I’ve learned to think of it.
They are doing what they feel they need to do. That doesn’t make it right. That doesn’t make it fair. But I have to do what I’m here to do which is to get more people to believe better.
That means allowing myself to be sucked into arguing with keyboard warriors is a waste of my time and doesn’t serve my ultimate goals. And it’s not about you. It’s about a construction of you that they’ve invented in their head that you can’t do anything about.
The Girl from my Area
When a troll strikes they aren’t always aware of the consequences of their actions. I’m pretty sure that my fictional crush Michelle is out there somewhere with, at most, a vague recollection of the incident. But if I had ended my life after our last conversation, I’m sure it would have played a significant role in her life.
Michelle wasn’t the reason I was miserable. I was miserable because of my mind. But this incident would have been a contributory factor to the decision I might have made. And that’s not what she would have wanted. I expect all she wanted was to have a laugh and look cool in front of her friends. It was just a prank.
Megan didn’t kill herself just because of ‘Josh’. She was already depressed and already considering suicide.
I’m not looking to blame suicide on other people. Suicide is almost always a multifactorial problem. It’s a combination of several elements. Depression looms large as being perhaps the biggest contributing cause. But bullying plays its part.
I used to get angry at trolls. I would imagine them sitting in their mom’s basement and typing furiously on their keyboard one-handed with their angry face. It took the sting off how I felt but I had one problem with it. It made me think of them as another species. What kind of person gets off on saying horrible things to others?
I fell into the habit of polarizing and the out-group strategy of dehumanizing them.
All these years later, I have changed my mind. When we let ourselves understand their motives, we can allow our shared humanity to take the sting away.
To me, haters don’t hate you. They hate ‘at’ you.
This is an important distinction.
When someone hates you, it’s about you. When someone hates AT you, it’s about them.
How to Handle Trolls and Cyberbullies?
So, what do we need to do to handle trolls, cyberbullies, or keyboard warriors? How do you handle haters?
Here are some suggestions:
1. Stop thinking of them as ‘Hating You’. Start thinking of them as ‘Hating at You’. It’s a subtle difference but feels a lot different.
2. Acknowledge your feelings and remember that it is okay to feel the way you do.
3. Separate the useful feedback from the negative intention. See it as an opportunity to turn them into a false antagonist.
4. Understand that behind their provocation lies pain, fear, and a feeling of lesser than.
5. Starve it of oxygen. Hide or delete the comments or messages and block the person. Don’t get caught up in the drama.
6. Remember how little it actually matters. They are one of eight billion people expressing their need for therapy with a cry for help in the form of aggression.
From Victim to Therapeutic Aid
In the complex world we live in, there are many trolls, bullies, and those who want to attack. Many people are counting on us to succumb to their hate, sniping, aggression or passive aggression. Many people are willing us to fail not because of who we are but because of the story they are telling themselves about us.
We can’t change that story. Only they can do that. But we can decide to no longer allow other people’s opinions, feelings, or attacks to define us.
The trick is to remember where these assaults come from. One of the most important things that can make the world a better place is understanding each other better. It is about recognizing that while we might admonish people for their behavior, we can also seek to understand it.
It means that we don’t have to accept what a person does to comprehend better the motives that led them to take action. That we can become near impervious to their efforts to unravel us and we can do so by understanding how to play the game. Effectively, they are pushing buttons and trying to get us to feel things. Our job is not to allow those buttons to work.
It is easier to do that if we are healthy in how we feel. It’s a tougher ask to someone struggling with their mental health. And it’s an even tougher ask for a teenager struggling with their mental health. But we have to try. Because those who attack usually do so because they feel hurt themselves.
They are self-subscribing to a form of therapy where they try and feel better by hating at us. And they don’t even know it.
If I could go back to my teenage self in the aftermath of the Michelle incident, I would tell him that he would get through this and things would get better. One day, he wouldn’t be feeling so alone. One day, he would look back at this and while he’d remember it, it would feel almost like it happened to a different person.
I was lucky. Megan wasn’t.
Since then, there have been so many Megans. This isn’t okay nor can we stop this effectively by trying to prevent cyberbullying. It happened before we went online. The internet just made it easier. Instead, we must educate ourselves and those who know and love to become mentally stronger. We need to help them to learn that understanding actions doesn’t mean accepting intentions.
The key is to understand so we can tell ourselves a new story. A story where we are the hero of our own life. Where we get through the painful situations and actively become our own best friend. A story where we have our own back and where we allow any pain and suffering that someone tries to inflict on us, serve to make us stronger and more resilient.
Let me leave you again in the words of my favorite poet, Rilke when he said:
“Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Hope you found this useful. Feel free to forward to anyone you know who would be interested.
P.S. If you want to read more of my Inner Propaganda newsletter articles, you can find them all here.