(Image description: Grey rocks by an ocean or a seafront. A hazy sky in the distance)
Most people who are reading this article right now will also travel to a host of other online destinations using other digital highways. Most common among those destinations are social media sites like twitter, Instagram, facebook, tiktok et al. A pervasive and troublesome feature of these digital enclaves is the presence of trolls who purposely incite negativity and cause some serious psychological and physical stress. Trolls on social media can range from annoying to vicious and their impact can stretch from bitter provocation to actually causing serious damage to a person’s emotional, mental and physical wellbeing. At the center of all trolling behaviour is a cycle of unpleasant as well as abusive interactions and a desire to implicate another individual in a spiderweb of negative reactivity.
Social media companies need to consider the boundary-setting they need to uphold in order provide safer habitats for sharing of ideas as well as engaging in difficult conversations without employing manipulative tactics. Apart from that, it is important for us to know our legal rights around cybercrime when it comes to online vigilantism and extreme abuse. However, what might also help us in dealing with such entities is understanding the psychology of defense in such exchanges. A lot of online trolling is a clear cut case for malignant narcissism. A malignant narcissist uses others as a bait and builds their own self-image by tearing apart other people. In such situations, no amount of persuasion for a rational conversation will hold water because the person on the other side of the engagement isn’t interested in understanding you, they are only interested in destroying you. The Grey Rock method emerged from within digital communities to safeguard and protect themselves from abusive and manipulative individuals and exchanges online.
Originally coined by the blogger Skylar, this term is a good example of how lived experiences can inform our awareness and approach of dealing with psycho-social disturbances. A common challenge when dealing with someone hellbent on abusive narcissism is that it can tug at our deepest insecurities about ourselves. If an abusive partner constantly highlights a fault in our behaviour or our physicality, we feel the need to explain in order to correct what we assume is an error of perception. After a while, we get trapped in this cyclical interaction. A narcissistic boss can constantly point out errors in your work despite its exceptional quality to keep you tethered to the routine of criticise-and-combat. The same behavioural pattern is visible among online trolls as well. As per the Grey Rock method, one of the more effective ways of dealing with this form of malignant narcissism is to stop contact completely. To stop becoming bait. To not offer explanations and rebuttals. To just quit cold turkey.
Of course, there are umpteen practical implications of whether this is a feasible approach in parts of our personal and professional life – you can’t completely cold-shoulder your boss or parents on most days. What it does mean and further can be adapted to is to not invest more time, effort and energy in combating the narcissistic allegations against yourself. To not drown yourself in a tidal pool of accusations and confrontations. I am not suggesting that the onus of safety lies on the recipient of narcissistic abuse but the Grey Rock method can be used as an interim safety measure to protect your own sanity. Malignant narcissism thrives on being the focal attraction of any interaction whether good or bad. In fact, after a point, it seeks psychological control through rising negativity. Part of this is tied into the satisfaction of being entertained by other’s misery or at least, feel a level of control over them. Complex psychological reasons underline such personality patterns and I will write about those on another day.
What “grey-rocking” does for the person who is the recipient of harmful behaviours is divert power back to them and allow them to secure their agency in an untenable situation. It is akin saying – No, I will not allow you to use me for your gratification. Skylar who first wrote about the Grey Rock method after coming out of a long-term abusive relationship wrote the following –
“There are grey rocks and pebbles everywhere you go, but you never notice them. None of them attract your attention. You don’t remember any specific rock you saw today because they blend with the scenery. That is the type of boring that you want to channel when you are dealing with a psychopath.”
As a mental health practitioner, I err on the side of caution before drawing out overarching categories for “psychopaths” et al. However, I also understand that the person who wrote this is not trained to assess behaviour and is mostly talking from a place of pain at having experienced the severity of emotional harm. It is also pertinent to note that I am not in favour of shrinking or diluting a person’s experiential realm or enforcing some (mal)adaptive bleakness on their personality just to be safe and sane. The way I look at the Grey Rock method is mostly through the lens of disengagement and detachment. Everyone online doesn’t need your attention and/or your concern, more so when they are orientated to use it against you. When we are taunted on twitter by accounts whose profile picture is an egg or within family whatsapp group where a certain unrelenting toxicity prevails at times across generational divides, we are not obligated to engage, explain and pacify or even offer our righteous anger. We are not obligated to feed the trolling. It is ok to be monosyllabic, unresponsive and fundamentally lethargic in these exchanges. Do not hold yourself up to any higher standard than that.
On the flip side, the proof of this pudding is also its expiry date which means that this technique works well but soon it makes you question if you are turning into someone boring and spineless at times. I did question this with myself particularly when dealing with certain politically extremist trolls. There is a level of self-compassion that needs to be built with diligence to stay the path. Apart from this, sometimes the Grey Rock technique can feel like a cop-out. You do occasionally feel like the onus of sanity rests with you not with those who are aggravating you. For a little while, I found it hard to stomach that I couldn’t retaliate against someone who was wilfully choosing to pile on me.
However, the Grey Rock method does work in quite a few manipulative and narcissistic exchanges and helps you safeguard your own psychological boundaries. The key lies in assessing through practice where it is effective for you and where you need something sturdier to protect yourself.