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Baring It All Online: How I Became (And Then Unbecame) A Toxic Person

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Self-curation on social media is damaging. I learnt this when I turned vulnerability into something toxic.

Fair warning: this is my story. I don’t claim that this is some sort of universalised experience; not of the internet, not for women, not regarding vulnerability.

But being a woman online, let alone a vulnerable one, comes with a lot of baggage and often, a horde of people who have successfully added the patriarchy extension to their internet browsers.

Back in 2016, I wanted to fight this. I was desperate to. I was barreling down the highway of the internet, and I thought I was being an Empowered Woman with my brand of vulnerability. One where I shared the best and the worst parts of my everyday life without filtering them for the male gaze, or any gaze for that matter. 

I was sharing everything: my mental health, my politics, my increasingly militant feminist views, images of my body, snapshots of my mind, my poetry, and even my period.

My platform of choice was Instagram, where my stories numbered in dozens everyday, highlighting this issue or that. I was shouting out fellow creators and feminists, and I was sharing screenshots of posts I felt were relevant. My inbox was always lighting up because I was constantly in conversation with someone.

Yet, the best intentions can lead you down the worst paths, and in 2018, I discovered that my vulnerability became toxic; for others, yes, but also for myself.

By trying to be vulnerable online in the way that I did, I had exaggerated who I actually was to hide the reality: that I was just sad, depressed, lonely, and felt unloved. 

Between sharing every single detail about my life, and eventually quitting cold turkey, this is the story of how I became good, worse, and then better because of the internet.

The Problem With The Internet Is That It’s So Good, It’s Bad

The internet is a seducer, and an intelligent (and sometimes manipulative) one.

Ever since it became widespread, the internet was a space for people of various marginalised communities to use the voice they had, but were denied in the offline world. The ability to share one’s experiences is manna, and as much as I was extremely privileged in the socio-cultural ways of life, I had always been bullied and felt less than in my social circles.

So the internet drew me in with the promise of a voice; something I had long craved, and by the time I reached the age of 20, was desperate to possess. I wanted a space where I could be myself, and share my life without a filter.

And ironically, I began my journey of vulnerability on social media. Back then, I just wanted to feel like I was a part of something. It was feminism that gave me license to be vulnerable, and told me that it could be a strength.

I had always wanted to be cool (ugh), and in feminist circles, I was (in a way). People wanted to talk to me. They wanted to hear what I had to say. They shared my words, and gave me support. Some found help and solace in my inbox, I am somewhat proud to admit.

But the the vulnerability which I used to make me ‘authentic’ took a toll on my mental health; it irrevocably altered my sense of self. It gave me power and I used that power to become the worst version of myself.

How? When cancel culture took off, I was right there at its forefront. I so badly wanted to make sure I was hitting the right notes, so instead of resisting misogyny and educating others, I was too busy naming and shaming.

Feminism might have taught me that vulnerability could be a strength, but it also taught me that I could turn it into something toxic.

Having A Voice Online Is A Blessing And A Curse

I do not believe most people remember me fondly from back then. I do, and then I don’t.

My thoughts, opinions, art, ideas… it was all out there, and many around me found my extreme openness to be either annoying or frightening.

Annoying, because who the hell was I and why was posting every single thing about me? Frightening, because just as I was willing to share every intimate detail about myself online, I also had no qualms calling people out openly for their words and behaviours.

Offline, I would not have had this kind of power. Sure, I was still calling people out in person, but people usually just brushed me off as an uncool person with no real voice.

Online… Well, online I was all voice. I saw my vulnerability as a strength. I was on the right path, of course, because vulnerability is a strength. But in my misguided 20-something brain, I thought it made me good. I thought that the way I was behaving made me better than others.

In retrospect, if I had been more circumspect about who I was being online, if I had used vulnerability to be kind to myself and others by showing the reality of my pain, then perhaps my vulnerability wouldn’t have become a double-edged sword.

My internet demise was imminent.

The Epic Highs And Lows Of Being A Woman Online

When a woman shares too much, there is a sharp dichotomy of experiences that becomes apparent. It is the one between being vulnerable, and being made to feel vulnerable. 

Social media can give you permission to be yourself. On the other, it is easier to show your life selectively, curate yourself for the citizens of Instagram.

I wanted to present an honest show, and I was doing that in many ways. But I was vulnerable about issues, but not about myself.

Eventually, I felt as though if I didn’t post about every issue and call every small thing out, I was not being ‘authentic’ enough. I was an imposter if I didn’t bare myself online for the world to see, while hiding the fact that it was eating away at me.

Case in point: Once, on an anonymous forum, someone told me that I was (to paraphrase) a loud, annoying and attention-seeking feminist, and that I should stop pretending that I am oppressed.

Multiple things dawned on me in quick successions.

One: This was a callout, and I felt the absurd need to reclaim it very quickly, or else everyone would believe that this person was correct.

I was loud and annoying, and there was nothing particularly wrong with that, especially because women are often silenced in such ways. But I was also mentally fragile. I deeply wanted to be loved, and this person’s comment hit home.

In my self-esteemless mind, they were confirming what I thought of myself: unloved, uncared for woman.

If the people around me didn’t love me, maybe the feminists will celebrate me for reclaiming the words used against me. They did, but I was making my feminism about me, rather than the upliftment of others, and that was the first sign of toxicity.

Two: Being an empowered woman makes you free game, both for yourself and others. 

The internet’s dirty little secret is that either you succeed, or you will disappear. Whether out of choice, or from being forced. I was already feeling the first stirrings of imposter syndrome, and I was struggling, because I didn’t feel like I had control of my narrative any more.

Others were taunting me, but so was I, and this was destructive for my mental health. I felt like I had committed to this vulnerable persona, and that I was unlovable beyond it. This was because of years of self-esteem issues, but my tryst with this strain of vulnerability had pushed me over the edge.

Three: I was lucky I was able to simply introspect, because other women (as well as people of colour, LGBTQIA+ folk, and those with disabilities), sadly, face it in worse and frankly, more terrifying ways. 

Like being doxxed (having your personal details such as phone numbers, email IDs, addresses, etc. leaked), harassed, and driven off the internet. Sometimes, they are killed because they dared to be online.

Thankfully, I never had to experience the worst of the internet. I was able to escape after experiencing just the worst of myself. But once I escaped, it was just me and my thoughts, and no endless stream of notifications to distract me from the fact that I was becoming a terrible person.

Vulnerability Online Can Become Toxic

Taking up space matters when you belong to a class of people who have been long-silenced. My voice took up space, and it did matter. But the downside made me realise that there was more that mattered, if only on a personal level.

Namely, my mind, which was (no hyperbole) being eaten alive by the hateful way in which I was living. And as vulnerable and open as I was in my tiny corner of the internet, I refused to tell anyone about how much of an imposter I felt like.

Luckily, not every person who has similar experiences online goes through this same turmoil.

They don’t turn into unkind people, and they don’t turn into versions of themselves. Or they do, and they correct themselves quicker than I did. Or they are able to find ways to deal with the incessant barrage of hate they receive. I am always in awe and worried that they are able to sacrifice their personal space in order to, in my honest opinion, be revolutionary.

My revolution, it turned out, was leaving the internet, and then returning after altering the fabric of my relationship with it and with vulnerability.

How I Changed My Relationship With The Internet

I Acknowledged That My Mental Health Is Affected By Social Media

Being on social media, especially as a vulnerable, outspoken woman, can take a toll on your mental health

A lot of the content that exists on these platforms develops into personas; both, for you and for those you engage with. These personas can cause a lot of damage to your sense of self and peace of mind.

It’s important to realise that neither you, nor someone else can be fully embodied by a social media feed.

These should lead to one of two things: reconfiguring the boundaries of your vulnerability, or cutting back on social media in parts or in its entirety. 

I Accepted That I Was Not The Sum Of My Handle

Once you recognise that you are playing a part in the theater of social media, the next step is to acknowledge that you are not the sum of your social parts.

Your bio is not your biography. Your feed is not your life. Your followers are not a measure of your worth. 

For me, it was also about understanding that while my politics define how I engage with others, I am also a person. And forgetting that meant that when I saw myself as the embodiment of my politics, I saw others as the embodiment of theirs.

This dehumanisation is unhelpful in bringing about change, as I learnt from watching countless videos about this after I left social media.

I Actively Reconfigured My Boundaries

What I mean when I say this is that you do not ‘owe’ anyone a peephole into your life.

Vulnerability can also be measured, and used effectively, because it is a lifestyle, not a tool to bludgeon others (or yourself) over the head with.

Vulnerability is strength when it doesn’t turn into something that keeps you up at night. It might be courageous to want to stick it out in the wild, wild west of the interwebs; but it is also courage to leave when it starts to chip away at you.

When I returned to the internet, it was because I started work as a digital content creator. I still do not have social media, but I learnt that for me vulnerability is about being able to control my narrative and feel strong enough to share these parts of my life.

I don’t feel the urge to give away everything, and I don’t feel like rubbish when I don’t. Being online is no fun when you feel weakened by it, more so because the virtual world is as real as the offline one.

So if you are a woman struggling with how you are presenting yourself online, I urge you to take a step back and evaluate. You deserve to have the power over who you are becoming, and how vulnerable you are and with whom is a choice you get to make. Make it.

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Priyanka is a poet, a feminist, and an Ophelia conspiracy theorist. She can often be found yelling "Pray you, mark!" at rooms full of condescending men in positions of power. She believes that there is a tremendous dearth of tenderness in this world, and that we need to shift perspectives from acute compassion to chronic empathy. Trust her, she's learned that the hard way. She spends her life drinking coffee, playing with eyeshadow, and ricocheting between bawler and baller.

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