Your Thanksgiving dinner will touch on politics this year. It’s inevitable. Because many of today’s hot-button issues are rooted in identity politics, even talking about ourselves is political now. For tips on how to navigate those conversations IRL, head here. But what about those conversations or comments that happen after you’ve said your goodbyes and sent your well-wishes? What about the debates that continue online, in your curated newsfeed and in front of everyone in your social network? You’d think by now, after a year living in the most politically divided time many of us have ever experienced, we’d know the proper ways to go about political differences online, but alas.
The answer to whether you cut that family member out of your social media network isn’t black and white. None of the psychologists, therapists, and family experts I’ve spoken to agree on the proper way navigate these differences. “Unless your relationship with a particular family member has become toxic, you don’t necessarily need to go as far as unfriending them on FB,” Dr. Gary Brown, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles, tells me. “A game changer for me is if they continuously post toxic and mean-spirited content that becomes truly offensive and hurtful to others. In that case, I would at least unfollow them, so you don’t have to consistently see hostile comments on your newsfeed.”
Unfollowing is the nice middle ground for wanting to distance yourself from a relative you don’t see eye to eye with. You remain friends; their posts just don’t show up in your feed. You can always catch up on their life by going to their profile. “Your Facebook community is your network,” Carlota Zimmerman, a career coach, says. “How you present to your network is how you’ll be perceived. If relatives and friends are bullying you—since that’s what this behavior is, it isn’t an expression of free speech, it’s a matter of bullying and shaming you—protect yourself by any and all social media means necessary.”
Of course, constant unfriending and unfollowing turns our newsfeeds into echo chambers where everyone shares the same opinion as you and the room for debate is off the table. Differing opinions help strengthen your own. “The question shouldn’t be to unfriend or not to unfriend, but rather how can I peacefully coexist on social media, with those who believe differently than me,” Tristan Coopersmith, a licensed psychotherapist and founder of Life Lab, tells me. Instead of letting our differences rattle us, it’s vital we question why we’re being rattled in the first place and strive for common ground. Differing opinions aren’t new; the way we go about making those opinions known is. We can fire off a status update or share an article and instantly inform our circle where we stand.
“It is clear that it is becoming increasingly difficult to simply debate policy issues, without people calling each other names, and that is coupled with a lack of assumption of goodwill on the part of those who may disagree,” Dr. Brown says. Unfriending a relative may cause more of a rift than unfollowing. How comfortable you are with handling that fallout, when and if it happens, is up to you. To better deal with these differences, Coopersmith suggests honing some self-assurance in your beliefs and opinions, “so that defensiveness is unnecessary because a quiet steadiness overrides the need to defend.” You can also have compassion for another’s viewpoints without seeing that compassion as a threat. It’s about recognizing the other’s right to differing opinions on anything.
Your sanity, however, is paramount. Renowned relationship expert Audrey Hope says, “Your relationship with yourself and your integrity is the prize, and if you lose some relatives in the unbuttoning, then so be it!” Taking care of yourself takes precedent. “If [a relative’s] posts become directed at you, personally, because you hold a different view, then you might seriously want to consider unfriending them completely,” Dr. Brown ultimately advises. “There’s enough toxicity going around. Do you really want to expose yourself to that?”