Social media, conflict, and my emotional paralysis

emotional paralysis

By Mark Schaefer

It’s been a long time since I started a blog post with “this is going to be weird,” but … this is going to be weird.

At the top of my blog I have “Marketing, Strategy, Humanity” and this one is focused on humanity. My own humanity, specifically, and how I’m struggling with blending it with the jarring truths of a social media news stream.

My mind game

When there is something horrific in the news, I play a little internal mind game. I imagine myself in the middle of the tragedy. What does it sound like, smell like, feel like? What if I was the one who was shot or starving, or trying to find my family in an endless refugee camp?

I do this weird thing because I want to try to understand our world on an emotional level. I don’t want to read about deep suffering and then just turn the page and see how my favorite football team fared. I want to feel the world as much as I can. I want to feel true empathy.

This has become more difficult in the social media age.

It seems that the pace of disasters has quickened and the amount of “on the ground suffering” is being exposed at unprecedented levels now that everyone with a smartphone is recording history.

My emotions can’t keep up with the tragedies, the images, the suffering.

Struggling for a response

I consider my role as a leader seriously. It’s something I think about. I have been provided with an amazing platform to encourage, nurture, and help people. I do my best to set a good example.

And when tragedy strikes, this is an appropriate time to demonstrate leadership.

But when the hurricane pummeled Puerto Rico and the Caribbean I love, I said nothing.

When the mass shooting took place in Las Vegas, I said nothing.

When women were crying out with their disturbing #MeToo stories, I said nothing.

I felt deeply but could not find the right words. I could not find any words.


The empathy conflict

Here are typical social media responses to these tragedies.


“My thoughts and prayers are with you Las Vegas (Mexico/Paris/…)”

“The #MeToo stories. I see you.”

But what does any of that really MEAN? What does it mean to say “thoughts and prayers are with you?” What good does it do? Is it real or is it checking a box? (OK. I used the #MeToo hashtag. Now where is that funny cat video?)

“Thinking” about people who are suffering in a crisis … is that really the best we can do? When people have lost their homes — maybe their lives — these responses  just seem too simple and superficial.

There is conflict between my empathy — the deep feelings about a situation — and my ability to say anything true and meaningful. I can’t bring myself to post something just to post something … just to check the box.

There is also the whole social media issue of faux outrage — people competing to be more outraged by an injustice than the next person. It is just so sad and self-serving. I don’t want to ever be in that camp either.

Emotional Paralysis

I want to emphasize that I’m not demeaning or diminishing anybody who says something positive or productive in a crisis. Maybe even “thoughts and prayers” is all we can summon in a situation and I understand that.

Like any leader in a crisis, I think it’s important to show transparency and even vulnerability. I need to push myself to do that but frankly it has been exhausting to consider. For example, when I was reading the #MeToo stories I was so depressed to learn of what happened to women I thought I knew well. I just did not know what to say.

During a crisis, the sadness of the social media stream sometimes seems all-encompassing. I feel so deeply when I see endless photos and videos of human suffering … and I am literally emotionally paralyzed.

I’m not suggesting any action or solution. I don’t have one. I just thought I would put this out there to see if anybody else feels the same thing, and how you’re coping.

Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.




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