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Sadfish in Troubled Waters

Express News Service

We all know at least one sadfish in our life. They strive for attention and thrive on sympathy. They have
a talent for emotional exhibitionism—the dramatic use of language, exaggerated claims about their battles and a display of perennial victimhood.

Even though sadfishing as a behavioural trend has been around for long, its current breed—mostly youngsters—has made social media its abode of sob stories where the consolatory ‘you ok, hun?’, ‘I hear you’, ‘need a hug?’, ‘love and light’ offer solace. What’s the problem? Their ambiguous noise for attention drowns genuine cries for help.

Spot them

The use of sad, sombre emojis is a sadfisher’s greatest tool to be noticed, especially the pensive, worried and downcast face, in addition to the crying cat or simply the loudly crying face that’s meant for immediate attention.

“There is a deep psychological phenomenon at work here,” says Delhi-based clinical psychotherapist Dr Uma Shankar. “Those with a histrionic personality disorder, a condition in which an individual’s self-esteem is dependent on an intense need for validation, play out in this attention-seeking behaviour. These people can go to any lengths to get notice and feel appreciated,” she says.
How does it start?

It commences with confusing, mysterious and inconclusive statements such as ‘today is a sad day’, ‘nothing can cure my soul’, ‘misery feels like home’, ‘so many snakes in my life’, ‘sadness lasts forever’, or the most explosive strategy—exiting a social media platform, almost like falling off the map.

According to mental health experts, adolescents and young adults are more likely to indulge in such behaviours. “Youth between ages 11 and 16 are prone to loneliness, given they’re still finding themselves and may feel lost in the process, fuelling their need for acceptance. Sometimes the home environment doesn’t give them that, or at least not in the way they expect it.

At other times they are unable to express themselves openly altogether,” says Shankar. A ubiquitous sense of loneliness pervading the lives of youngsters today due to heavy use of social media, reluctance to socialise in real-life settings, feeling misunderstood, being shy, introverted or plain indifferent, makes things worse.

“Kids who find it difficult to articulate their feelings or aren’t able to navigate the matrix of emotions that comes as part of growing up, often feel misunderstood and look for acceptance online among strangers,” says Shankar.

Sadfishing can tune selfish too. Case in point, when style and fashion icon Kendall Jenner spoke about her ‘debilitating’ struggle with acne in 2019, she struck a chord with millions of teenagers who identified with her plight and found comfort in her words. Jenner’s social media handles were flooded with love, sympathy and praise for her openness.

Later, it turned out to be an endorsement for a skincare brand. It was at that time that London-based journalist Rebecca Reid coined the term sadfishing, a play on the word catfishing, which means faking one’s online identity to trick people looking for love.

Fear factor

Those with an anxious attachment personality (there are four main attachment styles: secure, anxious, disorganised and avoidant), tend to be insecure about their relationships, hence, look for security outside their relationships. The more anxious one is, the more manipulative sadfishing tendencies they’ll display.

“Their fear of abandonment plays out aggressively in some cases, wanting reassurance, safety, bonding and belonging,” says Mumbai-based psychotherapist Dilraj Singh, sharing the case of a 26-year-old economics student Sunaina Rana from Mumbai, who used to put solitary posts on Instagram and Facebook struggles.

“One day she announced her ‘departure’ on a popular social media platform, without saying anything more. This naturally drew a lot of attention and her friends began to call her frantically. She didn’t answer any of the calls. Two days later, she activated her account and put up another post saying, ‘glad to know at least some of you love me’. As a child, she had been the ‘unpopular kid’ in school and was often mocked and excluded from playgroups. This unmet need for acceptance manifested in fishing for approval both offline and online.”

Help the vulnerable

Not everybody is out there to seek attention. Some people are going through deep struggles and don’t know where and who to reach out to help.

“If you know a friend who is going through a personal struggle or find something that they’ve posted that is uncharacteristic of them, reach out to them privately. This will reassure them. Make yourself physically available for them and give them a patient listen. Show interest in wanting to know what they’re going through. Ask questions and listen actively to what they have to say.

Instead of wallowing in their pain and encouraging it, offer solutions such as therapy or visiting a life coach. For immediate support, you may want to inform their parents or guardians,” says Gurugram-based relationship coach Akhil Narang. Whether sadfishing for instant gratification or out of a real need, the best antidote to loneliness is a real-life check-in.

✥ Drowns genuine cries for help
✥ Can make youngsters vulnerable to online trolls and bullies
✥ One can be taken advantage of, especially basis the information they put out in an emotionally fragile state
✥ Can expose one to further manipulation by other sadfishers online fighting for attention
✥ Remember, anything put on social media today will last forever. Expressing distress injudiciously today can be a cause of social or professionally embarrassment tomorrow.

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