One of the best things about blogging and freelance writing is all the wonderful people I meet – both in person and virtually. Readers connect with bloggers because they empathise and relate to our experiences. Bloggers share a lot of themselves – anecdotes, struggles, happiness, advice.
The level of personal information we share is different to most other occupations. What I share with readers as a blogger is completely different to what I share with my colleagues in my day job. And I am always aware of the knowledge-power imbalance between bloggers and our readers.
Sometimes I meet readers in the street and they are excited to meet me and they recite the stuff they know about me, and then I realise I don’t know anything about them. And it becomes awkward because all I can say is hello and thank them and ask them a little about themselves in our brief encounter.
When I write my blog, I share a lot of intimate information about what it’s like to look different and have a chronic illness. I receive wonderful emails from readers telling me that until they read my blog they thought they were alone. It’s a real privilege.
I am not your health professional
But sometimes I feel the pull from readers who want more than I can give. I’ve received emails of desperation – asking for advice about treatments and fundraising and even suicide prevention.
I’ve also had messages from people who want to meet me – even just to prove their situation is worse than mine. While I take these emails very seriously, I can’t be responsible for helping everyone who asks. I always acknowledge these sorts of emails – but I tell the person who wrote the email that I am not a doctor or counsellor and suggest they seek professional advice.
Occasionally the person has written back to me a few weeks or months down the track telling me they did seek professional advice and their life has changed – and this makes me so happy. But there are times I just have to take a step back from direct contact.
We need to set boundaries for ourselves as bloggers. While we give so much of ourselves to our readership on our blog, we might not feel so comfortable in a one-on-one situation.
There are also time and emotional constraints on how much we can give our readers. I don’t have the emotional stamina, time nor professional qualifications to give everyone the advice or support they are seeking. I have had to set boundaries about how much I can share with my readers.
If I feel like a reader’s question is out of my depth, I tell them and direct them to somewhere that might be able to help – a support group, Lifeline or a doctor. I’ve created a separate Facebook page where people I don’t know can contact me.
There’s a disclaimer on my blog about me not being a medical professional. And in some extreme cases, I’ve shown emails that I feel scared or overwhelmed by to people I trust – to share this emotional load with me and to alert them that I don’t feel comfortable. I’ve also emailed the extreme cases back to tell them I don’t feel comfortable being in contact with them.
Sarah Wayland, academic, writer, health advocate and a bloggy friend of mine, has given me some advice for setting boundaries as a blogger.
"I think it is important to acknowledge that to share is to be vulnerable – if we honour that then we honour the feelings that come from allowing others to hear our voice. Protecting ourselves is two fold – it has to be physically and emotionally. Being clear about what is safe to share prior to sitting down and writing is key to your protection," Sarah says.
She advises to step back. "Step back when it’s not being helpful. I know in my own professional and personal world I run the risk of being bombarded with the stories of others and I lose sight of my own goals.
"Stepping back is an exercise in mindfulness; it allows us to observe how we are thinking and reacting to the world around us. It quietens down that internal narrative that, when overwhelmed, can be destructive."
Bloggers need bloggy support
I have connected with my writerly friends to seek advice about setting boundaries. They’ve been an excellent source of support because they understand the power of sharing our stories and social media interaction too.
Sarah Wayland also advises bloggers to seek help through support groups (such as blogging communities) and community groups; and if necessary; crisis lines. Finally, Sarah told me to choose what I reply to and how much I want to give carefully.
"If someone is pressing you for more details and you don’t feel safe in that sharing then pull back. I think that most of us know that our online self has different shades to our real life self – we are under no obligation to share if it doesn’t feel right," Sarah says.
"The underlying issue with the conversation about sharing and boundaries is often about values – if we are clear about what information we value as sacred to us and our inner circle then the idea of navigating boundaries can become easier."
How do you set blogging boundaries? Does your personal life and blogging life intersect?
(This post was originally written for Kidspot.)