Out On The Couch
The Trauma Impact of Cancel Culture
Over the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, community relationships have shifted to a location primarily online. The centrality and importance of technology-mediated relationships is now an established interest within the fields of social work and psychology (Trepte et al., 2017, Okdie et al., 2018) along with social and relational conflicts like cancel culture. Technologies such as dating apps, social networking platforms, collective chat channels and mutual aid networks became primary tools for connection during months of quarantine.
Cancel Culture & Digital Relationships
The prevalence of online communities as sites for disclosure and support is a call for therapists to consider new ways of assessing and engaging clients about digital community social norms. Therapists also transitioned our work to online platforms. We experienced our lives in quarantine parallel with our clients’, growing more reliant on technology to mediate resources and professional community.
Relationships mediated by technology have been shown to decrease isolation, loneliness, and anxiety (Juvonen et al., 2021) and to satisfy unmet needs for belonging (Iannone, 2017). Best practices for evaluating the impact of online social interactions and relationships on client mental health are quickly emerging for providers. Specifically, we are tasked with engaging clients in conversations about harmful experiences with online social presence and connection.
As I have continued to use telehealth with my clients this year, a few key questions have emerged. As therapists, how do we position ourselves within a larger understanding of digital community membership and online social relationships? How do we hold space for the experience of losing online community? Do online relationships hold the same value, quality, and importance as in-person relationships? How do our personal views and values impact our capacity to engage with clients who are experiencing relational trauma from the loss of online community?
Digital Community and Belonging
As you read this, I am curious if you can recall experiences of the last few years in which clients (or maybe your own community) experienced a fragmentation due to a public call to cancel someone. How did your community hold this experience? Did this impact your client’s sense of connection to their community? What was your response? Therapists are currently tasked with both understanding the nature and meaning of online relationships, while also supporting individuals impacted by online community fractures. Here, I will suggest strategies for strengthening our digital literacies to meet these unique challenges. I will define digital literacy as well as a few key tools to affirm our knowledge about digital communications. I will also suggest best practices for trauma-informed approaches, specifically through use of Cultural Betrayal Trauma Theory (Gómez, 2019) to develop clearer understanding and response to harm and experiences of online cancel culture.
Digital literacies are “the various skills, competencies and knowledge about information communication technology (ICT) and our capacity to apply this knowledge within our work and personal spheres” (Iordache et al., 2017,p.6). Essentially, digital literacy is our ability to engage with technologies and to understand the complex dynamic present between technology and human behavior.
As LGBTQ2S+ therapists, we have a unique imperative to join our clients in session with strong knowledge about the impact of online relationships. We understand the power that can come from “finding our people” and not feeling alone. Because of this, we have a crucial need to develop our capacity to understand the potential of ICTs to positively transform or situate harm within clients’ lives. What forms of digital communication do your clients engage with? Are they using online dating apps? Social media chats? Do they share joyful or upsetting text message threads in session?
Digital relationships have their own intimacies. In fact, social scientists studying online intimacies have found “a number of factors may influence the way in which intimacy is expressed and perceived by users in interpersonal exchanges online” (Lomanowska, 2016, p.139). These factors include the type of online platform being used, prior familiarity with the people being engaged, and the social parameters of the platform (Lomanowska, 2016). Therapists might consider: are their clients meeting an online acquaintance for the first time, or have they met in-person before? Will this be a 1-to-1 conversation, or publicly available on a platform with a large audience?
You may already be thinking about a particular client or set of clients who have disclosed about their relationships built online. This may also bring to mind the intense emotional and psychological connection they have felt to online support networks. You may also be thinking about your clients’ anxiety or grief regarding community conflicts or social media call-outs. This year I supported multiple clients in coping with both the rapid development of online romantic connection and the devastation of distancing from individuals who they never met in person. Digital intimacies are subjective, but without a baseline understanding of ICTs, therapists can miss opportunities to attune to their clients’ socioemotional needs in these relationships.
You may want to consider the addition of some of the following questions in your assessment of client’s social connections, sense of belonging, or sources of stress.
Engaging with Clients about their Online Relationships May Sound like:
Understanding Cancel Culture and Online Social Belonging
In the past two years there has been a rise in writing and attention placed on cancel culture. As a trauma therapist, I had multiple clients engaged with political organizing communities share with me their anxieties about being “canceled” in their online communities. Navigating vulnerability, discernment about disclosure online, and the nuances of activist projects became a central theme in much of my work. With the increase in popularity of social media, the relationship between online self-disclosure and social support has emerged as a relevant topic (Trepte, 2017, Valkenburg & Peter, 2007) for clinicians as well.
So what is cancel culture? Hervé Saint-Louis (2021) writes that “…cancel culture’s origin stems from many online and off-line forms of public discourse in the public sphere. Cancel culture refers to the cancellation of individuals through online denunciations which results in the ostracisation and shaming of people” (para.22). Online cancel culture utilizes tactics of shaming that may be triggering to bystanders who come from family environments in which shame was used to control and take power over others. I have found it useful to use a trauma-focused lens when clients are disclosing or processing about witnessing an attempt to cancel a community member. In her book “we will not cancel us: and other dreams of transformative justice” (2020) adrienne maree brown speaks to the dynamics of intragroup cancellation, specifically to how cancel culture is a reification of systems of punishment. Later, brown illuminates that acts of public shaming do not transform, but rather reinstate harm within marginalized communities (2020).
In parallel, Cultural Betrayal Trauma Theory (CBTT) provides a “contexualized framework for examining how within-group trauma in minority populations (e.g ethnic, sexual, gender, religious minorities) may be harmful because of the societal context of inequality” (Gomez, 2019, p. 238). CBTT is a useful frame for unpacking the experiences of Queer, Trans and Gender Non-Conforming , Black, Indigenous, Mixed, People of Color clients who have shared about disappointment, hurt and harm within QTGNC online communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is important to note that “betrayal trauma refers to relational trauma independent of post traumatic stress reactions” (Freyd,1996 in Gomez et al., 2015, p.167). Relational-cultural approaches that emphasize connection and healing through the therapeutic alliance offer a QTGNC-affirming frame for holding these traumas.
A CBTT-focused perspective utilizes the language of betrayal to understand how breaches of intracultural trust impact marginalized communities. For example, QTGNC BIPOC communities and other activist communities that use online platforms as primary tools for intimacy and trust building may be especially susceptible to this loss of trust. One incidence of such a breach might include a client who is experiencing intimate partner violence turning to a member of their community for support and being met with disbelief in their experience or minimization of its impact. Breaches of intracultural trust may stem from not being supported by key bystanders who share a client’s identity, or culturally-based responses that minimize the impact of such experiences. Additional examples of cultural betrayal include seeking mental or physical health support from a provider of a shared cultural background, and experiencing stigmatizing or shaming behaviors from the provider; or experiencing a breach in confidentiality within a shared cultural community.
Questions for Mental Heath Providers
- As therapists how do we position ourselves within a larger understanding of digital community membership, online social relationships, and the subsequent loss of these?
- Do we value online relationships and hold them as containing the same quality and importance as in-person relationships?
- How might our own views and values then impact our capacity to engage with clients who are experiencing emotional trauma due to the loss of online community due to cancel culture or call out culture?
Cancel Culture and our clients: A Brief Case Example
In 2020, I had multiple queer and trans BIPOC clients share their fears about not attending street-based protests. Large-scale Black Lives Matter protests and healthcare workers demonstrating in response to the COVID-19 pandemic were happening throughout the world. My clients with chronic illness, previous arrests and protest traumas, as well as those who were family caregivers, assessed that their voices would be best used within online organizing, mutual aid network leadership, and direct donation. I heard from multiple clients that they feared they would be judged or directly canceled regarding their choice to not attend direct actions.
We explored the fear, noting that it was rooted in a concern about no longer belonging, or being perceived as “not committed” enough. Through a trauma-informed lens, we were able to identify that witnessing call-outs of community leaders and out-group experiences due to trans or queer identity informed their anxieties about how they may be perceived. Memories about “being left behind,” “not being included,” or “not being seen as a real activist” surfaced. Together we were able to work through these past experiences and better understand the cognitive and somatic messaging they were carrying.
In particular, it was useful to note clients’ fears about being perceived as betraying their community by not attending, and how frequently social media played a role in this. Some sessions, we would talk about Instagram images of protest, Facebook photo banners, and online performances of activism as a method for “ensuring that people know I’m committed.”
Often questions about shame emerged as clients recognized how much they were working to not be publicly shamed for their choices. In his work on shame and the social bond, Thomas Scheff (2021) posits that “shame is a result of threat to the bond” (p. 97) and explores how shame is the most social of our basic emotions. Cancel culture, it seems, has the potential to unlock deep wounds of socially located childhood shame for many BIPOC QTGNC individuals. It can threaten social bonds that developed as a means of survival and belonging – a particularly heightened need in times of crisis,such as a global pandemic. While mutual support, sense of belonging, and cultural community can come from online relationships, the digital literacy required to navigate social media and build resilient responses to harm is key to sustaining these communities through community breaches and potential experiences of cancel culture. Therapists must draw from trauma-informed approaches to healing when clients perceived to have stepped outside the social norms of online culture are experiencing shaming and community isolation. Online social norms may include expectations about the depth and forms of personal disclosure considered acceptable on personal social media pages, norms regarding the content of personal images shared visually, or acceptance of use of the block feature now available on many social media platforms.
Building our Capacity
Debriefing the experience of witnessing community cancellation can illuminate behavioral and attitudinal patterns regarding conflict, punishment, shame, and coping with strong emotions. adrienne maree brown writes “we won’t end the systemic patterns of harm by isolating and picking off individuals” (2021, pg.8). The author, brown, offers a nuanced understanding of the emotionality of betrayal and response. As QTGNC providers, we can strengthen our practice through asking more about the experiences of clients within online social communities.
Online relationships offer both the potential for intracultural social intimacy, increased vulnerability, and personal disclosure during crisis (Blose et al., 2021), as well as the potential for intracultural betrayal trauma. It has become clearer to me that this poses a twofold need for LGBTQA2S+ therapists: firstly, to develop digital literacies to better attune to clients who use online communities as primary spaces for social engagement, as well as to also locate supportive frameworks for trauma-informed approaches to cancel culture within online spaces. Therapists have a unique capacity to engage with digital culture and to develop best practices for supporting a larger vision of healing community incidences of violence and harm. If you are working to strengthen your digital literacies and to locate a framework that feels right for your practice, please consider some of the resources below.
- Reflection Questions for Digital Literacy in Social Work
- Digital Capabilities Statement for Social Work
- The Mental Health Effects of Cancel Culture
- We Will Not Cancel Us: and other dreams of transformative justice
Learn More about working with Transgender and Non Binary Clients
Blose, T., Umar, P., Squicciarini, A., & Rajtmajer, S. (2021). A study of self-disclosure during the Coronavirus pandemic. First Monday. https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v26i7.11555
brown, adrienne maree. (2020). We will not cancel us: Breaking the cycle of harm. AK Press.
Gómez, J. M. (2019). What’s the harm? Internalized prejudice and cultural betrayal trauma in ethnic minorities. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 89(2), 237–247. https://doi.org/10.1037/ort0000367
Gómez, J. M., Lewis, J. K., Noll, L. K., Smidt, A. M., & Birrell, P. J. (2016). Shifting the focus: Nonpathologizing approaches to healing from betrayal trauma through an emphasis on relational care. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 17(2), 165–185. https://doi.org/10/gg5ndn
Juvonen, J., Schacter, H. L., & Lessard, L. M. (2021). Connecting electronically with friends to cope with isolation during COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 38(6), 1782–1799. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407521998459
Iannone, N. E., McCarty, M. K., Branch, S. E., & Kelly, J. R. (2018). Connecting in the Twitterverse: Using Twitter to satisfy unmet belonging needs. The Journal of Social Psychology, 158(4), 491–495. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224545.2017.1385445
Iordache, C., Mariën, I., & Baelden, D. (2017). Developing digital skills and competences: A quick-scan analysis of 13 digital literacy models. Italian Journal of Sociology of Education, 9(1).
Lomanowska, A. M., & Guitton, M. J. (2016). Online intimacy and well-being in the digital age. Internet Interventions, 4, 138–144. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.invent.2016.06.005
Okdie, B. M., & Ewoldsen, D. R. (2018). To boldly go where no relationship has gone before: Commentary on interpersonal relationships in the digital age. The Journal of Social Psychology, 158(4), 508–513. https://doi.org/10/ghdx75
Saint-Louis, H. (2021). Understanding cancel culture: Normative and unequal sanctioning. First Monday. https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v26i7.10891
Trepte, S., Masur, P. K., & Scharkow, M. (2018). Mutual friends’ social support and self-disclosure in face-to-face and instant messenger communication. The Journal of
Social Psychology, 158(4), 430–445. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224545.2017.1398707