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“Everyone has three lives: a public life, a private life, and a secret life”, novelist  Gabriel García Márquez told his biographer. I don’t think he was on Twitter! We all know the lines between these lives are blurring.

More and more, celebrities and ordinary punters have taken to posting their traumas, sorrows and anxieties on Twitter and other social media. What possesses someone to share the most intimate details of their physical and mental health with total strangers?

Some people seem to want to outdo each other in the personal misfortune stakes.

Editor Rob Harkavy asked me: “I understand that it’s good to talk directly to friends and family but that is not quite the same as revealing details of highly personal struggles to thousands of strangers. Is it an offshoot of the “oppression Olympics”, where some people seem to want to outdo each other in the personal misfortune stakes, or something else entirely?”

I’m a Harley Street therapist specialising in anxiety and trauma and this article gives you my take on this type of behaviour. First, though, a disclaimer: I encourage everyone to get the help they need in whatever way they see fit. Do not suffer in silence. If you have to post on social media to take the first step then that’s your best strategy.

Anxiety, depression and loneliness are on the rise, even more so during the Pandemic. Most people have an innate need for connection, belonging, attention and approval ­– but many of us don’t feel worthy of this, sometimes because of our trauma history. Being seen for who we truly are can be terrifying but also incredibly validating and healing. 

Being “vulnerable” and “authentic” is very fashionable. Research professor Brené Brown speaks about the benefits of vulnerability: our lives become richer when we can feel more deeply. “Tell the story of who you are with your whole heart, this is courage. The courage to be imperfect.” Brené Brown may be regarded as the queen of vulnerability but even she cautions against “oversharing” especially in a professional context. 

Oversharing can turn into ‘sadfishing’, where people will post about their unhappiness in the hope of getting attention, likes and messages from people online. 

Some things are best discussed with a trusted friend or mental health professional, not on Twitter. 

Is it a genuine cry for help?

Sadfishing can become a way of getting attention and validation. And for some, it’s even a way of earning a living. “I am a survivor, buy my book, come and watch me speak.”. When we have achieved true post-traumatic growth, there is a sense of: “this thing happened to me, but it doesn’t define me”. This is not to say what happened to them is ok, but they are no longer haunted by it and can live their lives.

Posts saying “I’m not doing too well. Please say hello” may get thousands of likes and replies. But how sincere are they? Can they help?

We are all craving attention, connection, and validation, especially during the pandemic. It’s always a good idea to ask for help if you’re struggling. It is probably is easier to type a post than to pick up the phone and call a professional, a helpline, a family member or close friend and say, “I need help. I’m not doing too well.” I think that’s a lot more difficult. Sending a text can work and some helplines will communicate that way. 

There are cases of influencers and entrepreneurs being “authentic and vulnerable” to sell cosmetics. “I struggled too with depression and debt and now I have the secret formula, buy my program and you too can be a winner like me.”  

Much of this “sharing” is downright cynical and manipulative. “If I talk about mental health no one can call me out”, is the idea. But it’s hollow. Worse, it appears to send a signal to others that sharing the most intimate details of your mental or physical health or business struggles online, is the right thing to do. Instead, use your own judgment.

Once information is in the public domain you have no control. What you’ve shared about your mental health becomes part of your digital footprint. Future employers and government agencies may get hold of this information. 

Celebrities can definitely help raise awareness and gives others permission to discuss their issues and these Tweets seem helpful and self-contained:

Sue Perkins on her anxiety:

Peter Stefanovic on being bullied:

Post like these do very well on social media. So do mysterious and cryptic ones: “Oh no, not again!” or “Friendship has to go two ways”. They can be emotionally exhausting to follow, and prompt responses like “You ok, hun?”

Young people will see their favourite influencers getting attention and may be tempted to post about their own mental health. Not only might the young person not get any likes or comments, leaving them feeling more isolated and desperate, they can also be subjected to trolling and accusations of attention-seeking. Showing their fragile state on a public platform can even put them at risk of being groomed.

One reason people may overshare is trauma. Traumatised people can have boundary issues and impaired judgement around what is appropriate or safe behaviour. And many of us will have regretted posting while under the influence.

A post can be the first step to getting help, but you also need to take action. Just talking or posting about mental health or trauma will not help anyone heal. Self-care and self-regulation are much more long-lasting.

Opening up can be cathartic: a friend came out about his HIV status in a video on Social Media. He felt so much lighter and the reactions were positive. He is often irritated when he sees blatant sadfishing – he says: “If you have a problem you’ve got to sort it out.”

Another friend was interviewed about his suicide attempt and the response on social media was also overwhelmingly positive. 

Speaking your truth can be liberating. I’ve helped many a client to share their story and speak their truth in sessions and even on stage. It’s all about the motivation and level of detail.

“I’ve never told anyone that”, my client told me the other day as we worked on a memory of sexual trauma. People sharing things with a trusted professional who’s equipped to deal with their innermost secrets can be the first step in healing.  

I hope everyone gets the help and support they need.

About the author, Olivia James.

Olivia James is a fully qualified coach and therapist working out of Harley Street in London.

Visit Olivia’s website here.

Follow Olivia on Twitter and Facebook.

Need help?

You do not need to suffer in silence, and seeking professional help is always a better idea than advertising your problems on social media. Help is out there and we can’t possibly list all the wonderful charities, helplines and groups that are there for you. But, for starters:

The Samaritans are available 24/7. 116 123

Suicidal thoughts? Contact SOS Silence of Suicide. 0300 1020 505

16 or under? Get in touch with Childline. 0800 1111

Worth a watch. GMB discusses “sadfishing”.

About the author

Olivia James

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