When Wallflowers Attack

Back in graduate school, my group therapy professor once said to me, “early risk-takers are often scapegoated by the group.”  This comment came on the heels of yours truly taking a risk in the group, a group of psychotherapists in training.  I learned two things in that group class on that day.  The first was that early risk-takers are often scapegoated.  The second was that we therapists can be just as cruel with our comments as anyone else.

This is something that many of my supervisees encounter when they start to put themselves out there, especially on the interwebs.  They are stunned when the blog post they write elicits comments that are sometimes shocking in their nastiness.  They are confused as to why this happens, and what to do about it.  If you are beginning to use social media to build your psychotherapy practice, write newsletters, prepare a public speaking campaign or just write a blog, this post is for you.

The internet has made it easier to be both impulsive and anonymous, and emboldened some people to hurl invectives.  I call these people the wallflowers.  These are the people in any given group who are afraid to take risks or stand out, and resent those who are brave enough to do so.  They are quietly resentful, and more often than not envious of people who are not quiet.  I’m not talking about introverts here, but rather a particular group who stand on the sidelines seething.

These are the people who send you a nasty email at 2:00 AM criticizing your post for a spelling error, or the folks who text really ugly comments to you after you post something on a listserv they don’t like.  They’re the people who make personal attacks on your workshop evaluation in the guise of constructive criticism, or bait you in discussion groups by deliberately misconstruing your words.  Yes, I’m not making this stuff up, all of these things and worse have come at me by email, Twitter, Facebook, blog comment, and text message.  The majority of the time it will be behind the scenes of whatever arena you’re in, so that you can see it and the larger group can’t.  Consciously or unconsciously, wallflowers are counting on you not passing these barbs on to the larger group.  Nobody likes a tattletale.

So what do you do about them?

First, take a second and calm down, and note that the intensity of your response is probably an indicator that this is out of the ordinary.  Next, try to find a trusted friend or family member that you feel comfortable sharing it with, and ask them what they make of it.  Supervisors are often really helpful here.  Often they will react more strongly then you did, which gives you another clue its a wallflower attack.  Your inclination may be to try to learn something from the comment.  I’m going to say something that may go against the therapist grain here–Dismiss the comment and the wallflower.  Don’t bother trying to make this into a growth opportunity, there are plenty of other growth opportunities out there for you.  Don’t give this your energy.

In my experience this is very hard to do, because therapist wallflowers have a lot of skills to hook you.  They bring their therapeutic arsenal and try to come at you as a therapist, by analyzing or interpreting you.  Don’t fall for it.  Just because you both speak the same language doesn’t mean you have to have a conversation with them.  Therapy is a specialized and voluntary form of conversation, and anyone who tries to inflict this on you unasked is using their Jedi therapy powers for ill.

This is your reminder.

This is the price you will have to pay for being an innovator and a risk taker.  Early risk takers are often scapegoated.  You didn’t do anything wrong, you were just putting yourself out there.  And every time you do that, you will run the risk of a wallflower attack.  Don’t overprocess it, move on.  And definitely don’t let it stop you.  Remind yourself that the reason they had anything to attack you about is because you’re doing something they wish they could, creating.  Anyone can ping off a blog post, or fire off a Tweet in reaction, but it will only be a reaction, not a standalone.

Remind yourself that your ideas are precious.  I’m not trying to sound New Agey here.  What I mean is that the fact that you had something to put out there is not to be taken for granted or underestimated.  You could have not had the inspiration for that workshop or podcast, but you had it.  All over the world there are people who have not given awareness to ideas, throughout history millions of good ideas have never been expressed or seen the light of day.  Not you.  You did it!  And if you stop taking risks the wallflowers win, and the prize is one less idea in the world.  Yippee.

I know this can be hard to do, trust me.  And the technology we have today has made it even easier for wallflowers to attack.  It’s sort of like that sense of invincibility drivers get when they are encased in the protection of their cars.  Shake it off.  Share it with someone you trust for perspective.  Dismiss it.  Stay focused.  You can take time to smell the roses, but don’t get distracted by the wallflowers.


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  1. “Wallflowers” nice name…I suppose it’s better than “haters.” : )
    I get attacked much less than I used to. And, in direct counter to your advice, I often DO respond to those who take their time to criticize. I am nice. I am also assertive and often ask what they need from me or hoped to get by starting the discussion. Given that most are therapists, they are probably aware in my response that this is about THEM, not me and none has ever responded and none has ever attacked again.
    There are 2 camps on responding vs not. If the comment is merely cutting and not crazy, I respond. If it comes across as irrational or rageful I let it go. I don’t want wallflowers to feel they can flex their power over me with their words and (displaced) emotions. I find that no response can indicate a powerless stance and the wallflower will feel successful in silencing my words, so they attack again. Of course, there is no winning with crazy and those I can let slide : ).

  2. David Mott says

    Susan —
    You might be familar with Godwin’s Law (below); these are the crazies.

    Godwin’s Law
    As an Internet (Usenet) discussion or argument grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one. (Corollary: Once such a comparison is made, the thread is finished and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically “lost’ any argument.) [This can safely be extended to “Stalin” or “Communist”.]

    This Law is only a special case of the the more general fact that its easy to be extreme on the Internet.

  3. I like this post. Here is an idea – how about concisely inviting them to continue with a simple request like,

    “Anything else? ”

    “And? “

  4. Great post! I agree with keeping an eye on the intensity of my reaction — a good indicator that a reasonable conversation will not be ensuing. One of my faves is, “hmmm…that’s an interesting idea; I’ll have to think about it.”

    I think it’s important for a therapist to keep sailing their ship in the direction that is true for them, regardless of others’ opinions. My decision not to engage is just that. Grace under pressure; never let them see you sweat, and so on.

  5. I come to psychoanalysis by way of the theatre and business. The behavior I sometimes see among supposedly analyzed therapists is astounding. Sadism abounds. Sometimes I fight, sometimes I don’t.

  6. Inthe Trenches says

    Hi Mike,

    Thank you for this post. I actually do not blog myself or really post anything in a social media forum but found that this can also happen when working with therapists at your place of employment. I have had this happen and get caught in this trap of believing that you can talk with and work to find an understanding with these types of therapists, since after all they are also therapists. It is hard to let go of this expectation. However, I have found that there are some therapists that I will just have to accept that they are going to challenge me or try to stifle some ideas I have etc due to their own insecurities and inability/unwillingess to look at their own issues. It is frustrating, but your post has given me some insight into how important it is to accept this and keep on with my goals. Thanks!!

  7. This happens to all of us who blog and/or participate in forums, not just therapists. I particularly liked your insight about how the hateful stuff almost always comes outside of the forum where you have contributed the thoughts/writing being attacked. I recognize that syndrome.

  8. Barbara Jennings says

    Your post is uncannily apropos to a few exchanges I’ve been lured into in discussion groups. I feel like saving the transcripts for private study because one is a great example to “double bind” and the other of kooky narcissistic interchange. I have noticed it is extremely easy to upset someone in a post, simply by asking a direct question. I think I will try Wim Chase’s approach.

  9. I usually ask, “Are you still in High school or did you drop out? ” Almost always, they just go-away.

    • I also think you have to really be clear on what your mission and purpose is when making decisions about how to respond to anything. If you just want to entertain, the more drama the better, and you can be like a shock jock and just escalate people who criticize you. If you have other aims for your blog and post, let those aims guide how you respond.

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