A moment that changed me: I realised I had become a masochist – and quit Twitter
In March 2009, I type in “twitter.com” and sign up for the next 12 years of my life. I am 20, in my first year of uni. I have three friends and hate it here. But, on Twitter, I can talk to real music journalists, my longed-for future people. Two years later, I move to London to work at NME. My social awkwardness makes life in a new city feel like dredging the Thames with baggy tights. On Twitter, however, I have blossomed into a magnificent little chaos magnet. Even on sad, drunk Friday nights in, my phone-sized kingdom glitters.
Real life improved, often thanks to Twitter. It led me to John, still my boyfriend 10 years on, and many of my closest friends. Thanks to being a woman in a male-dominated field, the odd viral review and little talent for discretion, I ended up with 60,000 followers. I didn’t take it that seriously, but acing my first popularity contest felt like winning Miss World, if she had bad posture and trigger-happy thumbs. Visibility brought better jobs and gave me a platform to retaliate against music’s many dirtbags. The mute button silenced reply guys and trolls, and I hadn’t searched my name in years, ever since John likened that always-upsetting habit to self-harm – an overstatement that nevertheless rang true.
But I was blind to the fact that I was still a masochist. I didn’t consider my articles complete without a reaction. Twitter, teeming with peers, mattered more than a general comments section. I let approval smother my self-loathing and I was convinced that criticism bounced off a hide already calloused by spending my adolescence on message boards, where I was told I looked like “Lily Allen’s gangrenous older sister”. Evidently, it wasn’t water off a duck’s back: the stickiest criticism spawned brain fleas that lasted weeks.
I often read that it was good to leave Twitter, which seemed like advice akin to getting up at 4.30am for hot yoga: in principle, sure, but actually I’m really happy here in the rat cage! It wasn’t until Twitter made me feel especially glum – a mixture of diminishing highs and the criticism that accompanies being mildly prominent and wildly fallible – that I realised how totally I relied on it for my self-esteem.
One evening this year, spiralling down the self-hatred helix after agreeing with a subtweet aimed at me, I deactivated my account. You can’t simply delete it, you have to complete a period of deactivation, presumably because Twitter knows it is addictive. I was certain I would be back the next day. But I stayed off.
It is refreshing to be private for the first time in my adult life
There was no immediate relief. In fact, I felt worse after quelling the squirts of dopamine that had intermittently sluiced my rotten internal landscape. One evening, as I cried into my dinner, John made me outline my self-image. In brief: my best efforts always fail and I must punish myself into being better. He was horrified. I thought everyone felt that way. Clearly, the only bits of Twitter I took seriously echoed that view.
This revelation illuminated other self-destructive behaviours. How would I ever help myself if I didn’t believe I was worth it? Commence Project Self-Esteem: Entry Level.
I read the behavioural scientist BJ Fogg’s excellent book Tiny Habits. I learned that people change only as a result of feeling good; you can’t bully yourself into it. I am especially self-flagellating when stressed; learning how to rest was a start. After publishing my next big piece, I still found myself searching Twitter to see if anyone liked it. But, after gorging on feedback one morning, a new neural bouncer stepped in. “Snapes,” she said, “you’re barred.” I didn’t check the responses to that article again and told friends about my pathetic achievement. Picture the anime butterfly guy meme: is this … acting in my own best interests? If I stopped this behaviour, I wondered, what else could I tackle?
There was an adjustment phase. Disconnecting from praise briefly made me apathetic about work. What was the point? I had to get reacquainted with why I do what I do. I won’t miss the nightmares about logging on to Twitter, although I don’t take for granted that, as someone with a staff job, I can quit without experiencing the anxiety around “disappearing” that a freelance colleague might feel. My focus improved. It is good to abandon the flimsy awareness that can pass for seeming informed on social media. I know that extolling life offline runs the risk of looking like a scold. I still envy committed tweeters. If I could have rational fun there, I would be toasting my brain on the hellscape with you.
It is refreshing to be private for the first time in my adult life, too. I am not pinpointing the specific circumstances that prompted me to quit, because someone on Twitter would mock me for being a whiny little baby. I know the rules! But fervently attempting to be nicer to myself has taught me that sometimes you have to treat yourself like a whiny little baby, to ask yourself: what is the precise cause of distress behind this inchoate wailing? Does baby need a rest? Reprieve from the horrors of daily life? I can’t offer the latter, but I can confiscate the magnifying glass.