A while back I wrote part 1 of the lessons I learned from going viral. Initially I intended to write part 2 directly afterwards. But as I sat to write it I found that the words wouldn’t come. My thoughts were a jumbled mess. I couldn’t work out exactly what I wanted to say. So I stopped. (Because I’m an introvert and I like to clarify my thoughts before I express them.) So here we are with part 2; the other lessons I learned from going viral.
BE VULNERABLE AFTER THE FACT
The piece I wrote is extremely vulnerable. It strips you bare of the bullshit narrative that surrounds motherhood and reveals a raw and ugly truth that lies at the heart of many women’s experiences. I wrote that piece in the early hours of one morning, typing away on my phone after breastfeeding my son. The rest of the house was asleep and I was angry, exhausted, awake, and alone.
Anger is a creative fuel for me. Most of my best writing is done when there’s fuel in my belly and something is fighting to get out; to be given air. I knew I wouldn’t sleep until I’d given voice to that bubbling energy so I wrote myself an email, speaking all the words that had been overlooked or ignored in the preceding weeks and months.
For a while, I did nothing with the email. I thought of it as a cathartic experience that had been written for me and me alone. Then, a few months later, I was writing the curriculum for ‘A Visible Woman’ and it became apparent that it needed to be shared there, so it found its way into the program. Finally, a few months later, one of my students asked me if she could share it more broadly. It was then – maybe 8 months after I’d written the piece – that it became public.
And this is the pertinent point; by then I didn’t feel angry or depressed or even stressed. I was completely happy and content in myself. My baby was sleeping through the night and I was in a totally different phase of motherhood.
There were two big lessons for me from this:
- This is the best time to post because when people started attacking the piece, I wasn’t in a vulnerable place. Being in a happy place when it went viral meant that it didn’t bring me to my knees when a woman told me to ‘SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP’ (yes, she made sure it was in caps so I wouldn’t miss it).
As a writer, there are times when expressing myself feels like peeling off a layer of my skin. I feel that exposed and raw when it’s done.
I rarely, if ever, publish at that point. Instead, I wait. I wait until people’s responses – positive or negative – won’t either rub salt into my wounds or act as a bandage to them. I don’t want the salt and I don’t want to rely on bandages from other people. I want to be healed in myself first.
So I wait until I feel strong and confident and like I’m sharing the piece not just as a form of personal expression but as something that will connect with other people’s experiences.
When people criticised the piece I was on holidays with my family at the beach. I was having lovely lunches with friends and loving my kids and having lots of fun. That served as a buffer. A healthy buffer from the pain I felt when I wrote the piece and the pain that it subsequently exposed in others.
- I used to think that I should publish as soon as I’d written a piece. Particularly the pieces that had a strong emotional core to them. I thought – subconsciously – that the benefit in the piece was in sharing it soon after I’d written it. Batching work and saving pieces to publish later felt like interrupting the flow. On some level, I thought that the energy with which a piece had been written needed to be shared immediately in order for people to catch it.
I’ve since discovered that’s not true and it’s actually a block to leveraging my work and expanding my reach (something I’ll talk more about in a future article).
I realise now that the energy with which something is created extends well beyond the time it’s written (look at some of the big spiritual cannons, or your favourite piece of music, or the works of Jane Austen. Two hundred years after her death, I’m still laughing and cheering right alongside her as Elizabeth Bennett and Emma Woodhouse navigate the crazy societies they’re a part of).
As to ‘I’m not depressed, I am enraged’, a year after I wrote it people are still connecting with it. In fact, I saw a bunch of comments on it just this morning.
WRITE PIECES THAT ARE ABOUT MORE THAN JUST YOU
‘I’m not depressed, I am enraged’ received loads of positive comments, invoked some thoughtful debate and discussion, and provoked some awful criticism. Some of it was aimed at me personally and some of it was aimed at women, mothers, society, you name it.
Mothers speaking up – and piercing the veil of society’s story that motherhood is a gift in every moment and should be appreciated as such – challenges a lot of people. It challenges women in particular. Women who are buying into the story of the perfect mother and who subconsciously feel as though their very life depends on the maintenance of that story.
People also don’t like hearing about women’s anger. In fact, they hate it. It goes against our collective story of how women ‘should’ behave and it prods people to acknowledge an emotion that makes many feel deeply uncomfortable. So rather sit comfortably with another person’s anger, they lash out at them. Blaming them for making them feel something they don’t want to feel.
When those strong reactions came through, a few things helped me:
- I decided when and if to actually read the comments. Admittedly it’s a bit like a train wreck which you can’t turn your eyes from and there were times when I was just watching out of sheer fascination that something I’d written could provoke such a strong emotional response. Mainly though I was very conscious about when I was reading the comments and why.
Many people would say ‘Just don’t read the comments’ and for the main part I think that’s great advice. But in this instance I wanted to see the comments. I wanted to see how people were responding to the piece. It was a research project for me – I wanted to see this level of visibility in action. I wanted to see what stripping yourself bare and then exposing yourself to people does to a world that armours itself at every turn for fear of people seeing ugly truths. I wanted to see what buttons it pushed in myself and in others.
So I chose not to turn away. I chose to engage and connect and be in the experience. But I did so on my own terms and at times when it felt good to do so i.e., when I was feeling resilient and at peace in myself and able to react from a place of clarity and equanimity.
- Although I’d initially written the piece for myself, I was very clear about why I’d decided to share it. I shared it because I knew it would benefit other women. I knew it spoke to something that other women were experiencing and facing alone. Perhaps not every word rang true to their experience, but much of it did and that’s why I was sharing it publicly.
What that meant was that each time someone was really awful in their criticism, I didn’t feel personally offended. I felt inspired to keep speaking up about a woman’s right to feel angry about the ways that the needs of new mothers are invisible to society.
Because the piece was about far more than my little experience, I felt like I was speaking on behalf of the sisterhood when I responded to some of the criticisms. I felt like I was supporting and speaking up for all women who had experienced something similar and who felt that they couldn’t find the words to express themselves.
That made the criticisms much easier to take. In fact, they didn’t feel like criticisms at all. They felt like flies I was swatting away in pursuit of a much bigger goal; the goal of changing the way women speak to each other and to the world about motherhood.
CHOOSING VISIBILITY IS A GIFT YOU GIVE TO OTHERS
Seeing how many women were positively impacted by the piece – including the 7,300 people who shared it – I’ve come to the conclusion that it would’ve been selfish of me not to publish the piece; to choose invisibility after being asked to be visible.
I’ve reflected on the fact that had I chosen to prioritise my own fears (of exposure, of being judged, of being criticised), many women would have missed out on the benefit of reading it. On one thread in which the piece was shared, a woman said to me, ‘Thank you so much. You’ve literally saved me.’ Of course that’s my deepest wish as a writer. That someone, somewhere will benefit from my words. That the time I spent writing and sharing will have made a positive difference to another person’s life.
When I choose invisibility, I can’t share that gift. I can’t make the positive difference I want to make to other people’s lives. When I choose invisibility, I’m choosing me and my fears.
When however I’m choosing visibility, I’m choosing to support others, to benefit others.
This knowledge now fuels me everyday to keep working with women on visibility blocks and to keep overcoming my own.
IT’S NOT PERSONAL
And this brings me to my final lesson; some pieces you write are not about you. You think they are at the time but when you allow yourself to be truly visible in your work, they become something more. Something well beyond the individual. They voice a collective need for expression. And you become merely the conduit for that expression.
Lots of people had conversations in the comments of that post which had absolutely nothing to do with me. They were having conversations amongst themselves about motherhood and newborns and society’s role in supporting women through that journey. Even though this was all happening on my facebook page, these conversations didn’t expect or require my input. The piece had well and truly become public property at that point and what people did with it was far beyond me and my personal experience.
So if you’re going to put your work into the public domain, know that you have to be willing for it to be commented upon and criticised and praised and everything in between. And ultimately you have to come to peace with the fact that none of that is your business.
Once you release something into the world, the piece has a life of its own. It will be judged by others as good and bad and you can’t pin your hat to any of it. All you can do is know that in that moment you spoke as cleanly and truthfully and with as much integrity as you could. After that, the myriad ways that people choose to interpret your work is really outside of your control.
BE SURE TO DO SOME CLEARING
The final thing to say about the piece is that although I traversed the whole experience with a good amount of awareness and clarity, in good humour and excitement, the fact that I’d chosen to engage with so much of the feedback meant that I knew I’d need some clearing support afterwards.
I knew that whilst the comments weren’t personal, I still wasn’t immune to them and to the significant amount of negative energy some people had thrown at the piece. In fact, I noticed that toward the end of the viral phase I was starting to feel anxious when I saw a notification that someone had commented on it. I’d lost that feeling of resilience and wholeness I’d had for much of the experience.
So I booked some time to see Kate – my wonderful friend and kinesiologist – who spent a session clearing out a whole raft of negative energetic arrows that had been thrown at me during that time. (Words can be used as weapons and more than one weapon had been used against me in order to silence the message I was conveying.)
When you’re similarly called upon to be a conduit of a potentially controversial message, please be sure to call on the energetic and emotional support of a professional. Not just a friend or your partner or a family member. A professional. Especially if you’re a sensitive and intuitive and introverted person. You may well have many tools of your own – I do too and I used them liberally through the whole viral phase – but at such intense periods of time it’s important to also put yourself in the hands of a professional.
Don’t hold onto that wounding any longer than you have to. It’ll affect what you choose to write in the future and it’ll deeply affect how visible you allow yourself to be.
The aim of allowing yourself to be visible in this way isn’t to walk away more armoured than before you had the experience. The aim is to walk away more expansive, more confident in being seen and heard, and more inspired to share and speak more. That’s what the experience brought me and it’s what it can bring you too.