How I stopped letting hurtful Internet comments bring me down

It used to be that feedback was constructive, or at least had constructive connotations. The word called to mind a professor who gives notes to improve a paper, or the friend you can count on to tell you if those culottes are flattering. And for writers, specifically, it meant that if someone had an issue with an article you wrote for a newspaper or magazine, they’d pick up their pen and write a letter to the editor. Usually, thought would be put into this response, because the more articulate the sentiment, the better the chances that it would be published. Often, they would have to sign their name, per the publication’s requirement.

Nowadays, readers can share a comment with the click of a button, acknowledging their authorship only if they choose, their words not vetted with any dependable regularity. Opinions are just out in the open, in the abyss that is the Internet, for everyone to see. And sometimes, that collective feedback is really insightful and eye-opening. Other times, it’s deeply hurtful—especially when those negative opinions get personal.

I learned this the hard way after I started a blog, called Scotch and The Fox, with a friend of mine. We wanted to create a space for women to exchange honest anecdotes about life (career, breakups, anxiety), and just generally call attention to like-minded ladies who were strong and kind and funny and smart.

Around this time, I started working downtown, and every day walked six or seven blocks from the parking lot to my job. I met with all manner of harassment, from the seemingly benign but still presumptuous “smile!” to the downright vulgar “f*** me” (offensive gesticulations included). I knew I wasn’t alone in these encounters — they happen all the time to every woman — so I decided to write about it for the blog.

Shortly after I posted the piece, I noticed it was attracting comments. Usually, it seemed only local women read our blog; for one or two to respond was a lot. The street harassment piece, however, attracted dozens of comments, most of them condemning me for taking the harassment so personally. Some of them called me a self-righteous b****. Others suggested I should be grateful for the compliment. The consensus seemed to be that I was unworthy of feeling violated when I hadn’t been physically hurt.

I never expected a piece about how I felt attacked to leave me feeling so vulnerable (and once again attacked). I had shared my story so other people who felt similarly victimized could read it, hoping to start a dialogue with them about this problem in our city and what we could do about it. There were certainly a few positive comments from women who agreed with what I wrote, but of course those were drowned out by all the invective.

Not long afterwards, I wrote what was intended to be a lighthearted article for a popular website about the different types of guys you date in your 20s. In the comments section, one young gentleman said he felt sorry for the person I was currently dating because they had to put up with my “disgusting carcass.” There were others like it, and worse. I couldn’t believe the bile that greeted a humor piece about dating. As someone who had dealt with a lot of insecurity in the past, my initial reaction was to shut down. It seemed the more I shared my writing with the world, the more doubt crept in. Was it worth it if I was going to be insulted and exposed?

But the past few years had changed me. I’d grown stronger, and so I decided to plunge into the negative remarks head first, reading each and every one. I allowed these nasty remarks to wash over me, and I breathed each of them in. It became almost like a game. I’d ask myself, Are you an “evil slut dictator”? No? OK, great. Let’s move on. I admit: I cried a little. I drank some Scotch. I reached out to supportive people who would listen. But I knew that I had put my words out there for a reason, and that if I was brave enough to share them publicly and thoughtfully, I would never be dragged down to the level of someone spewing hate behind the aegis of anonymity. Yet if I was going to be a writer, I would have to accept that they came with the territory.

The experience tested me for sure. On one hand, I started to truly not care what other people thought of me. On the other, even if I didn’t internalize what these trolls were saying, it was toxic, and I felt emotionally exhausted, reading person after person put me down. The comment sections on other websites beckoned me: I would read feminist articles and immediately scroll down to see if other women writers were getting it as bad as me. And that exhausted me, too. Who were these people? Why did they hate any woman who spoke their mind? And why was I dignifying them by reading what they wrote?

That was what cinched it. I didn’t internalize the nasty comments, and I certainly didn’t need to keep subjecting myself to them. I’d learned my lesson: I can’t value the opinions of people I don’t respect. I had plunged into the shadowy depths of internet hate, and now I was free to go about my business, like every other sane person.

But first, I want to say this: I refuse to shut up because I have an opinion that not everybody is going to like. My thoughts and feelings won’t be silenced by strangers who feel threatened by them. And if someone’s not intelligent enough to respond thoughtfully to an article instead of launching ad hominem attacks, then they’re the ones who should be ashamed and embarrassed.

Healthy debate is welcome, but too often, the Internet acts like a shield, allowing people to say things to you that they would never have the courage to say to your face.  It’s cowardly, like any form of bullying. Trolls don’t dare to be enthusiastic or original, because there’s nothing original about negativity. What the world needs more of are people who are willing to stick their neck out and defend a worthy cause, seek authentic connections, inspire serious conversations, share unpopular opinions, and be themselves, for the sake of effecting positive change and raising awareness.

So if you ever find yourself on the receiving end of hostile or hurtful Internet comments, take my advice: Don’t read on. Know that it has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with the inferiority complex of the person on the other end. If you think it might make you more resilient to read what was said, you could be right. But you could also be devoting that time to your next creative endeavor. Don’t empower people with anger issues by giving them the courtesy of reading their thoughts, or letting their criticism prevent you from writing. You’ve got the byline, they’ve got an avatar they’re hiding behind. You tell me: Who’s winning?

[Image via HBO]

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