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My recent social media mistake.

The other morning just a few minutes before I began my work day, I popped onto Instagram and saw that there was a follow request from one of my old high school teachers waiting for me.

I couldn’t recall if she was already on Instagram – I’m honestly not on it often – but I knew she followed me on Facebook.

Not thinking too much of it, I approved her “follow” because I like her so much and hopped into my 8 am meeting. 

A few hours passed and I was swept up all morning at work. 

Finally, at noon I took my lunch break, and, while I was wolfing down a sandwich, I opened up Instagram again to see a DM waiting for me from that high school teacher.

“Hello. How are you?”

My recent social media mistake.

Shoot. This was definitely not my high school teacher. 

She and I have stayed close since I graduated high school in 2004 and I know her well, know her speaking style, and knew she would never be so generic.

Quickly I checked against my other IG followers and sure enough, there was her “real” profile. 

The one that followed me that morning, the one I gave access to my private IG feed where I post photos of my daughter and husband, was a dummy. 

Quickly, I blocked that person, whoever it was. 

And then the thought that’s been keeping me company since 2004 when I got on social media came up again: 

“Was that just a bot or was it one of my estranged family members?”

It was such a uniquely relational trauma recovery kind of thought and experience that, after my chagrin subsided, I knew I had to share it with you in case, you, like me, experience social media as yet another complexity of coming from a relational trauma background.

Social media: yet another complexity in the relational trauma recovery journey.

Most of us have a complex relationship with social media for many reasons.

And, these days, almost all of us get followed by bots on social media from time to time – “Hey Aunt Jane, IDK but I think your account was hacked again?!”

And while no one likes when bots spam them, not everyone has to worry about someone they really don’t want to have access to them deliberately and under false pretenses attempting to get in touch with them via social media. Repeatedly.

That – the experience of having estranged or abusive family members you’ve blocked – deliberately trying to get in touch with you by posing as profiles of your accepted followers is, however, something some of us from relational trauma backgrounds might relate to. 

The reality is that social media is, for better or worse, like an extension of life, a second relational world we have to navigate these days.

And, as with life in the real world, the social media landscape is also a place where we’re forced or compelled to hold boundaries with people in our life. 

For some, both in real life and online, holding these boundaries feels low stakes. 

For others, like those of us who come from relational trauma backgrounds, both in real life and online, the stakes can feel higher.

The stakes can feel higher because many of us who relate to coming from relational trauma backgrounds often have estranged relationships with family of origin members.

Or, if not estranged per se, relationships who, quite frankly, we’d just prefer not have access to more intimate details and photos of our life.

And so, sometimes, the same level of vigilance we may have to employ in the real world – such as when considering whether or not to say yes to a cousin’s wedding invitation or whether or not to attend the funeral of a grandparent knowing certain others will be there – can play out in the digital space as well as the flesh and blood space.

The relational trauma recovery question persists with social media as it does in the real world: how do I keep myself safe and away from people who feel harmful to be around?

Upholding social media boundaries, making mistakes and moving forward.

You – like me – have probably already taken steps on social media to address that key question – how do I keep myself safe and away from people who feel harmful to be around?

Personally, I keep my personal profiles private.

I’ve blocked people. 

I’ve unfriended people. 

And I take a lot of care to verify that the people who follow me are in fact my real friends who I trust. 

If a follow comes through and it looks even remotely suspicious, I text or call that person to make sure it’s really them. 

I take extra care about who I allow to have access to my personal social profiles because that’s where I post photos of my husband, daughter, and our life together.

And both my husband and I are estranged from family members who we absolutely don’t want to have access to that content. 

So normally, I have strong and rigorous social media boundaries (as I do in real life, too). 

But that day when I quickly accepted a follow to my private IG (all my profiles are private except for my work ones), I made a mistake.

I rushed. 

I didn’t take the time to double-check.

I made a mistake and gave a dummy profile access to about 100+ pictures of me, my husband, our daughter, and our life together.

This is content that I don’t want those estranged family members to see and it’s painful to think that one of them might have seen it.

Now, I can’t prove it was an estranged family member or just a random bot, but the chagrin I felt imagining that, for four hours, an estranged family member did get through, was painful. 

And, as I mentioned, even as I sat with those painful feelings, I thought to myself, this is such a unique experience for someone who comes from a relational trauma background with estranged family members. I’m going to write about it.

I wanted to write about it to validate yet another nuance some of us might contend with if we come from relational trauma backgrounds.

I wanted to write about it, too, to illustrate how, even 15+ years into my own relational trauma recovery journey, I still make mistakes with my boundaries sometimes.

And I wanted to write about it in case my normal practice of being very careful of accepting follow requests and taking time to screen for the legitimacy of the follow, could feel helpful to you as you deal with estrangements or challenging family of origin relationships.

There’s no thesis to today’s essay. There’s no solution.

There’s just me sharing with you about a mistake I made in my life, the automatic place my brain went to when it happened, and being right there with you in the continued complexity of a relational trauma recovery journey, holding boundaries and protecting myself as an adult while I live my life.

I’m guessing, if you’re on this mailing list, making mistakes with your own social media boundaries might be something you can relate to as well.

If so, would you mind sharing with me in the comments below:

Has this scenario ever happened to you – an estranged family member attempting to get access to you through dummy profiles? Does social media also feel like a fraught landscape for you? What action steps do you personally take to uphold good, strong social media boundaries with estranged or painful relationships in your own life?

If you feel so inclined, please leave a message in the comments below so the 20,000+ monthly readers of this blog can benefit from your wisdom and perhaps feel less alone seeing their story mirrored in yours.

And, as always, until next time, please take such good care of yourself. 

You’re so worth it.

Warmly, Annie

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  1. Noemi Barabas on  

    I don’t do social media. Because of my abusive ex-husband. He has tracked me down even while on a trip to South America. By email. It disrupted a wonderful trip. He followed me to find where I lived after I left him. Day after day, month after month. He had his friends follow me too.

    Annie, your blog was the first semi public media space where I dared show up. I thought hard before doing it.

    What if somebody has a family member who is crazy like that? Where it isn’t just a threat to an emotional boundary but real danger should they be found? Should the social media info give away clues to their physical whereabouts!

    I often long to be on social media. I manually look up the pages rather than follow the people I like. Then I contact them to acknowledge or make a comment. And I don’t even know if he’s still alive, or in jail, or whatever. I carry too much dread to try to find out.

    But this gives me an idea. I could have my work place pay for one of those exhaustive internet searches about a person. Maybe I learn enough to at least start having a presence professionally.

    Thank you so much for this post!

    • Annie on  

      Hi Noemi,

      Thanks for sharing with us – I’m very sorry that you’ve had such an incredibly hard experience with your ex-husband. I hope you’re able to get the information you need to find some peace. In the meantime, take such good care of yourself.

      Warmly, Annie

  2. Jennifer on  

    I am technically estranged from one family member (an in-law) but not the rest of the family. However I am very selective with my social media “friends.” My most often used tool is actually the “unfriend” button. I used to be afraid of it. What of they take it personally? Am I cultivating my social platforms into homogenous feeds of people who think just like me? (Religion, politics, interests, etc) Am I cutting out people who might have changed? I came to this conclusion: social media for me is downtime. I get to pick and choose who and a bit of what shows up in my feed. I am in control of that! In real life, we can’t control every situation or interaction. But in my phone time, I GET TO CHOOSE. That is where I have ultimate control. I liked how you indicated the 2 separate realms of social life- online and in the real world. Navigating them does have 2 sets of norms. I struggle in the real world more than online. So I make my social media MY SPACE, where I can eliminate hostility, people who argue just to argue, and people who stir up bad feelings for me. If I choose to reconcile or address past situations, I’ll do that in person, not online. Hope the icky, anxious feelings have subsided for you!

    • Annie on  

      Hi Jennifer,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. You’re absolutely right, who we let into our social media is our choice. I appreciate you sharing your insight! Sending you my best.

      Warmly, Annie

  3. Anonymous on  

    Recently I’ve been feeling sad because nobody understood the anxiety I have around not letting my mother find me on social media and other places. Reading this made me feel so validated.

    • Annie on  


      I’m so pleased that this article resonated with you and I hope it made you feel a little less alone. Please take good care of yourself.

      Warmly, Annie

  4. Vicki on  

    Hi Annie
    For the sake of my own mental health, I have to stay away from social media. There are too many triggers for me there.
    2 years ago I had to confront an issue where 2 people (one extremely close to me) crossed a major boundary with me on social media. I even went to see a therapist over this issue. I’m happier being off of it and have time to fill my day with work, taking walks in nature, reading and seeing people.

    • Annie on  

      Hi Vicki,

      Thanks for sharing this. In our society, it can be easy to forget that being on social media is a choice and that there IS life offline! I hope you continue to enjoy those walks in nature and visits with friends.

      Warmly, Annie

  5. Joanne on  

    I completely understand and have been there! I no longer participate in social media of any kind and haven’t for 11 years!! I guard my privacy like a hoarder, lol. For me, it’s not worth the drama that would likely follow. Calls, texts, emails or FaceTime works just fine for me. My situation was so awful, friends know NOT to post pics of me on any social media. I just won’t chance it. And that’s fine. Not participating in social media has NOT damaged me…

    • Annie on  

      Hi Joanne,

      Thanks for your comment. Having friends that support your decision to stay off of social media is fantastic. I appreciate your sharing what has worked best for you!

      Warmly, Annie

  6. Tiffany Mitchell on  

    Yes, the “dummy profile” was utilized by my parent. It didn’t involve social media. The parent asked the church for my new address, citing concerns that I was unable to be reached or that something was wrong with me. My church, against policy provided the information and the parent was in route to my home before 8 AM on a Tuesday. This is very disconcerting because I wanted to prevent a surprise ambush of accusations. My parent told me “God” was behind her actions. Couldn’t be. God wouldn’t go against church policy. God wouldn’t insist you “stop by” when you have my number to call first (thereby crossing my boundary). I could have told you I was absolutely fine via phone. The ambush was met with other accusations that I’d lied. It left me feeling distressed and trapped. I had a slight speech impediment following this trauma. For a while, I didn’t safe in my home. Then, I read an article. This article suggested that I take this position: “So what if they know?” The victim and author wanted people to know that you can’t let trauma win or paralyze you further. Live life. Be careful, but live life. Call the police, if necessary, but live life. And, that’s what I’ve done ever since the incident.

    • Annie on  

      Hi Tiffany,

      Thank you for taking the time to comment and share your experience with us. I think your advice to “Be careful, but live life” is excellent. Sending you my very best.

      Warmly, Annie

  7. Ami on  

    Hi Annie!

    I wanted to leave a comment here because I really felt for you reading this recent newsletter, and just wanted to leave you the biggest virtual hug.

    I’m so sorry you had such a scare on your social media, but as you say – even with holding the most disciplined boundaries, it’s only human for life to happen every once in a while and something to slip. All we can do is learn from the mistake, move forward, and hopefully find some space to forgive ourselves for the slip up too. 🙂

    Please try not to put yourself down about what happened, and I will be keeping my fingers crossed that it was nothing more than a social media bot – they really are everywhere at the moment! So in my layman’s opinion, the odds are very much in favour of this being the most likely explanation.

    A big hug to you again and take care,

    Ami 🙂

    • Annie on  

      Hi Ami,

      Thank you for taking the time to leave your kind incredibly comment! I hope you have a wonderful week ahead and please know that I’m sending you my very best.

      Warmly, Annie

  8. Anon on  

    My account has been private for years and I try to keep my life as private as possible. However, using social media healthily has been a struggle for me. My battle is with setting boundaries with myself and NOT looking up estranged family members’ accounts and comparing my life to their feeds. Working on my self-esteem after years of abuse is one of my priorities now so that I can combat the urge to compare myself to my estranged family.

    • Annie on  

      Hi Anon,

      Thanks for taking the time to share this. You’re not alone in struggling with using social media in a healthy way. I’m glad you’ve made building up your self-esteem a priority – you’re so worth it! Take good care.

      Warmly, Annie

  9. Ivy on  

    So glad you shared this. For many years I felt embarrassed or ashamed of these protective, vigilant feelings around social media and all sorts of points of possible contact in the real world that others take for granted. “What am I, paranoid?” I would say to myself. I’ve come a long way and I know that my concerns are valid, but it was still such a relieving, affirming feeling to read your words about it. I hope it helps others who are still grappling with those feelings. I have had some downright scary experiences where strangers who have befriended my estranged family have crossed major boundaries and gotten involved with my personal social media and still then, I feel that it’s hard to describe to those without a trauma background how these “wacky” behaviors feel so threatening.

    Two notes come to mind in this discussion. One, I see a lot of folks saying they have cut out social media entirely and for them, great! I’m happy they’ve found a good solution but for myself, social media is important, and I want to share a bit about that. Having moved to remote places for years at a time, social media is my bridge between far away friends and communities and a lifeline to keeping me in tune to the pulse of my local community and all the vibrancy and details of my neighbors and local businesses. I am always connecting people and ideas and social media is part of that. In addition, the visuals of people and activities I enjoy and treasure are a major source of happiness in my days. We get to have good things. We deserve to enjoy good things. The work of drawing boundaries while allowing us to still have these things is worthwhile. So if social media isn’t for you, great! But if it is, I hope you feel you can still have it, somehow.

    Two, on a related note, while those of us who’ve survived trauma may be vigilant, we still have to grapple with the agency our society gives certain people. This is not as often in our control. For example, if someone walks into your workplace and says they are your mother, they will likely get access to you and your personal details without hesitation, no matter how unsafe that person is. I don’t have any answers here, either. I just want to recognize that is a challenge and it’s reasonable that it might make some of us feel cautious.

    • Annie on  

      Hi Ivy,

      Thanks for your comment, I’m so pleased that this post felt affirming! Such great points about how we deserve to enjoy good things and that the work of drawing boundaries is worthwhile. Sending you my very best.

      Warmly, Annie

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