Being attacked on social media is terrifying. It doesn’t have to be a nightmare

When you do anything that involves creating, making, marketing or selling something, there comes a time when you get criticized. Sometimes it happens via email or a DM. Other times, you’re the main character on Twitter for the day. That can be scary.

I know, because on the weekend it was my turn.

It started with a simple tweet noting that I had used a similar phrase in a dozen headlines over the past year. It went viral when Twitter did what Twitter does. The original tweet had over 5 million views and a million engagements. A few hundred thousand tweets, retweets, and notifications later, I was in the middle of everyone’s worst nightmare.

By the way – and this is important – getting immersed on social media isn’t the same as getting canceled (whatever that means). It’s more like dropping your tray of food in the high school lunchroom and everyone is pointing and laughing at you, which is awful enough to even think about now, but it’s not the end of the world.

For most people, you’ll never find yourself in a situation like this, but you probably know what it feels like to be criticized by the public. It sure is terrifying, but it doesn’t have to be a nightmare. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to prevent it from becoming one.

1. Don’t panic

Before you respond — or even think about responding — consider this: The Twitter crowd is a lot like a group of hungry sharks. It is attracted to blood in the water. If you start splashing around, it just attracts more sharks.

Emotionally it’s overwhelming, but the less you panic, the better you can follow the next few steps on this list. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that it’s just Twitter. It could definitely be worse. By thinking clearly, the goal is to prevent it from becoming just that.

2. Admit if you’re wrong

If you are criticized, first consider whether it is justified. Let’s face it, we all do stupid things sometimes. You may not mean it that way, but it happens. If so, admit it, fix what went wrong and move on.

In my case, when you lined up the articles, the sentence really stood out. It might just be a handful of the thousand-plus articles I’ve written in the past two years, but it certainly starts to look repetitive when you look at them all together. That in itself is not wrong or unethical, but there was no point in discussing it. It was a bad look – there’s really no getting around that.

It wasn’t much fun admitting it, but admitting what you may have done that led to criticism goes a long way in covering up an otherwise painful situation. It also has the added benefit of being the right thing to do.

3. Don’t be defensive

The worst possible thing you can do is get defensive, even if the criticism is completely unjustified. Fighting back may feel good right now, but honestly, that shouldn’t be your goal.

Your goal should be to determine what part of the criticism is justified and find a way to get off the stage as quickly as possible. That’s the only way it ends well. Arguing or getting angry won’t get you anywhere. No one is at their best when they get mad and post to Twitter, so it’s probably worth waiting to get back on Twitter until you’re no longer mad.

4. Ignore the Trolls

Most of the people piling up when you become the main event are just there for the entertainment. Disheartening as it may be to think that there are people who thrive on the misery or misfortune of others, welcome to social media. Your best bet is to ignore trolls completely. If you choose to participate, do so with people who are reasonable – that’s actually more people than you think.

As for the rest, I suggest you mute the trolls – especially the ones who keep coming back hoping to get a response. Blocking them is just giving them the little dopamine fix that comes from thinking they got under your skin.

Muting them has the same benefit for you (they no longer exist for you) but they don’t get the satisfaction. I don’t know who first said you shouldn’t let anyone live rent-free in your head, but they were clearly thinking of Twitter.

You can also choose to ignore the whole thing altogether. You could just shut down your social media accounts. That’s definitely an option that would work for a lot of people. In my case, I decided it made more sense to concern myself with what was happening. That’s probably terrible advice if you’re still on “don’t be defensive,” but it does work if you’re sober and willing to join the conversation.

5. Have a sense of humor

No one wants to be the butt of someone’s joke, especially not online. If you’re there, though, you might as well have a laugh. Besides, a sense of humor has a way of humanizing you in front of others as well. You won’t believe how quickly people stop trying to make fun of you when they see you as a person, especially if someone doesn’t take themselves too seriously.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not Inc.com’s.

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