Trouble in paradise

I’m pleased to say that I am in no physical pain my friends. This last surgery has lived up to its reputation as being easy and quicker to recover from. My troubles for this week have not been caused by someone slicing me open with a very sharp knife. That was a walk in the park compared to some serious emotional distress I’ve been exposed to in the past few days. I was bullied online in a breast cancer support group. Sharp intake of breath. A place where I had opened myself up to strangers in a way I haven’t ever done, turned into a very unsafe space very quickly. I’m not going to go into details because it’s very long and tedious, she said this, she said that. The context was organising for a Christmas gathering for the region which I had helped out with. A disgruntled group wanted a different kind of event and were very vocal until the event changed to their liking. When others wanted to be included they rounded on them aggressively and then seemingly gloated of their victory with in jokes and ridiculing statements. Eventually the admins stepped in and sorted it all out but it got very ugly for 24 hours. Things move so fast on the internet.

I decided to leave the group. Recovering from surgery and being terrified to check my phone were becoming mutually exclusive. I chose my health. But it has not left my mind for long which is why my friends, I find myself writing this out because my coping strategies aren’t cutting it so far. I’ve moved through lots of different reactions and emotions: fear, anger, guilt, rage, sadness, despair. I’ve tried thinking my way through it, could it have gone down differently? Could I have intervened earlier and with more skill? Was I the bad guy? So far none of this has stuck. I haven’t moved forward much at all.

Today I began to think well perhaps this is just the product of standing up to bullies. An unpleasant side effect for defending yourself or others. Something to be endured. I felt better for a little while, confident in my self righteousness. But it didn’t fit, like socks that slip down into your shoes and make you feel slightly uncomfortable all day. It has forced me to come at this in a very different way. What does Heidi the social scientist think of all this? I think the bullies felt like the oppressed group. At first they probably were. They weren’t getting what they wanted and they were fighting for it. They perceived themselves as powerless. They quickly formed an in-group of similarly perceived powerless people. Once there was an in-group, favouritism was inevitable. People in an in-group will see more similarities between the members of their in-group than the people they perceive to be outside the group. After that the dynamics were fixed and it would have been almost impossible to steer it differently. We became the out-group, other. Their self-identity as a group was also imbued with justice and righteousness so any criticism or attempt to include more people was treated as a threat.

However once they had achieved their goal. See I’m even doing it as a write. Seeing them as a out-group, a ‘they’. In actual fact ‘they’ were a group of individual women coming to this conflict with an entire narrative of their own, loosely thrown together by a fast moving and random sense of togetherness. I also suffered from the oh-so tempting action of forming an in-group when threatened. Anyway, at some point the event was changed and at this moment, power shifted to their advantage. Their self-identity changed without them consciously realising or acknowledging it. Their statements and comments became more overtly and clearly bullying.

When I drew attention to this behaviour, the commenters were defensive of the bullies. They made excuses for them. They explained that it was my interpretation of the comments that was the problem, not their intention. The in-group was still in full effect and becoming entrenched. I find this very interesting how a self-identity formed so quickly and got made rigid by perceived challenges to the group. But it made me feel depressed that this could happen in such a normally supportive space. But then humans are humans, even if they have a deadly disease. The self-identity of us all as breast cancer sufferers got splintered. The larger in-group shattered.

I do think this all could have played out differently though. If we had remembered we are all special little butterflies and not formed an identity as a group, then it would have been much easier to resolve potential conflict. Conflict is normal. Conflict can be sorted through if people show empathy, compassion then listen and compromise. Sadly, forming groups is normal too. It is one of humanity’s strengths but can sometimes be one of our deepest failings. The original conflict can become fixed into a story of justification for bad behaviour, its ‘heroes’ defended and canonised. I’m not saying folk songs will be written of the Battle for the Breast Cancer Xmas Party but remembering we’re all human beings with differing needs and wants is a better way than ‘us’ against ‘them’. Because there’s one big thing that makes us all one big in-group. We’re all going to die, some sooner than others. But our time is limited and I for one don’t want to waste another moment of it fighting some fake enemy for imaginary power. There it is. There’s that feeling I’ve been striving for all week. Peace.

11 thoughts on “Trouble in paradise

  1. Paula

    Honey, you’re one of the sweetest and wisest people I know. I have seen in the past how incredibly well you handle people in crises situations and how you never ever act defensively or with any sort of prejudice but always respect the other in a very empathic way. If you had all been face to face, would it have gone this way? I don’t think so.
    These women should unite and not behave in such petty, insulting ways. And, NOOOO, you shouldn’t have done anything differently. You did well to choose your battle and walk away. Let them troll someone else next.
    Love you.

  2. Sokari

    A horrible experience. I agree with Paula, it’s not your doing and you did great by disowning the group and removing yourself but the bitter taste remains. Wrap yourself in the love of family and friends Heidi to cleanse yourself of this xxx

  3. Kat

    A very quick response but I agree you did nothing wrong here. I just saw you volunteering to help organise when no-one else was stepping up, and then getting burnt because of it.

    I am currently spending a week with my mother, and every time she says something annoying or hurtful or critical I repeat it in my head as if it’s been said in a high squeaky helium voice. It withdraws all the venom and is also quite entertaining! Worth a try if things are going round in your head. 😉

    Your bosom buddies have got you Heids.

    big love xxxxxx

  4. Paula

    Hey, that’s pretty amazing advice from Kat. I am so totally going to start using the “helium voice” strategy. An epiphany, thanks :-)))) laughing really is the best antidote, I’d say.

  5. Heidi

    Thanks wonderful buds. Your words have brought me loving, warm and cosy feelings today. At least this internet space is solidly safe and it’s all because of you. And YES I am with Paula, that helium voice thing is a revelation!!! xxx

  6. Roberta

    I totally agree with Daphne. And you of course. Reread those last three lines you wrote and just leave it at that. x

  7. Julie Chadwick

    Oh Heidi, so brilliant, and so nuanced and thoughtful. I love how even in the midst of this and the high emotions involved you’ve stepped back and analyzed what is happening. It is so confusing and I have felt this same sense of despair at online (and human) dynamics so many times. You captured this perfectly and I love how you summarized it at the end. All my love darling.

  8. Karen

    Hello love, so sorry to hear that you were exposed to that hurtful situation in what should have been a safe and supportive online environment. It’s quite shocking to see how these things can quite frequently blow up online. I hope you are doing ok, and are beginning to recover from that experience. You sound like you have been able to step back and see it for what it is. I hope the trauma of that is settling now. Sending you lots and lots of love. xxxxxxxxxxx

  9. Mike

    So sorry to hear what you’ve been through. It must feel very upsetting. I know how things like that can take over your emotions and your time, constantly going over it all in your head. The internet can be so amazing, but unfortunately, as you say, when people stop being compassionate it can get out of control very fast. Without the immediate face to face responses of each other empathy can just go out of the window. I’m so sorry you were on the receiving end of this. You are an amazing person who has shown so much love and empathy to everyone throughout your life. You’re doing the right thing by taking a step back from it all and not wasting your energy. Lots and lots of love x x x x

  10. Letty

    Well I love being in your online in-group (go Brighton Vegans!) Heidi. So sad you had this additional upset. Bitchiness is horrible, so natural to get stuck in overthinking it but such a waste of time. They are stressed so you got their worst. I hope you can find a kinder group (sometimes you just gotta switch mates innit!) whatever happened, just know it wasn’t you, or about you and we all love you.

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