Saturday, July 13, 2024

Sadfishing: What It Is and How to Respond

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Even if you haven’t heard of “sadfishing,” you’ve probably already observed it. It might be a video on your timeline with a caption reading, “when it rains, it pours,” or a quote about loving oneself and putting one’s needs first. Perhaps it’s a friend in the group chat who frequently complains about their dating life or job.

Sadfishing refers to the phenomenon of posting overly emotional content online to garner sympathy or attention. It’s a type of emotional manipulation, but not every person who overshares on social media is sadfishing, so it’s important to recognize the difference between attention-seeking and genuine calls for help. You don’t want to ignore a friend who’s struggling, but at the same time, you don’t want to enable behavior that can impact your own mental health.

Below, PS spoke to two psychologists about why people engage in sadfishing and how to address the behavior.

Experts Featured in This Article

Lienna Wilson, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist specializing in cognitive-behavioral therapy for anxiety and related disorders.

Patrice Le Goy, PhD, LMFT, is an international psychologist and licensed marriage and family therapist.

What Is Sadfishing?

We’re accustomed to seeing people’s highlight reels on social media from luxury vacations to perfectly organized pantries. Sadfishing is essentially the opposite, and occurs when people “post details about emotional difficulties to get sympathy,” says psyhologist Lienna Wilson, PsyD. “Instead of compliments, they’re fishing for attention.”

Examples include photos or videos of a person crying or posts about a recent breakup or job loss. “Sometimes they’ll leave things a bit vague or share a long, detailed story about why they’re feeling down or seem to hate their life,” says psychologist Patrice Le Goy, PhD, LMFT.

When a post withholds context and details, it could be that the poster is looking for validation but doesn’t know what to say. Conversely, they may be trying to build a case and get you on their side when they do end up sharing the full story. “Perhaps it’s something they’re not able to process on their own and are looking for feedback like yes, the person who broke up with you was awful and they don’t deserve you,” Dr. Le Goy says.

Why Do People Sadfish?

Some people engage in sadfishing because they’re used to sharing their life online — the good and bad. A 2022 study in the Journal of American College Health found that people tend to share emotional posts when they’re feeling insecure about their relationships. Being raised in an environment without a reliable and supportive caregiver can contribute to the development of an anxious attachment style. “As a result, people engage in this type of reassurance-seeking behavior because they’re afraid of being abandoned,” Dr. Wilson explains.

Another reason for sadfishing is a lack of social support, according to a 2023 study in BMC Psychology. An individual may turn to social media if they don’t have real-life support from friends and family members. Other findings suggest that sadfishing is associated with stress, alcohol use, and reliance on denial as a coping strategy, according to a 2024 study in Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking.

The dark side of sadfishing is when someone is deliberately manipulating others to get a reaction. “Getting likes or engagement on social media activates the reward center in the brain and gives them a dopamine hit,” Dr. Le Goy says. In other words, it makes them feel acknowledged.

Seeking Support or Attention?

A friend who regularly posts sad updates isn’t necessarily sadfishing. “There are a lot of genuine people who don’t have social support or have never learned how to ask for support from their real-life friends,” Dr. Wilson says. “Sadfishing is regarded as manipulation because it’s often ambiguous.”

You may come across a sadfisher with a “victim personality type,” meaning something is always wrong but they’re not looking to change, Dr. Wilson adds. If you cut off communication or try to set a boundary with them, however, they may accuse you of being a bad friend.

In contrast, someone who is genuinely seeking help will post about a specific problem and ask for advice, Dr. Wilson says. So, one way to spot the difference between attention-seeking and support-seeking is by offering help and seeing how they respond. A friend who is seeking attention will probably dismiss your suggestions and continue sadfishing.

Another way to identify sadfishing is by inviting your friend to move the interaction offline. If they decline to speak with you and continue venting about the problem online, they may not be looking for a real-life connection. Someone engaging in this kind of behavior may be more preoccupied with whether people are engaging with their content rather than resolving the problem. For instance, they might ask, “Didn’t you see my post?” rather than saying, “I’m struggling and would love to talk about this,” Dr. Le Goy says.

How to Respond to Sadfishing

It’s hard to know from social media alone if someone is going through a crisis or just happened to have watched a sad movie. Start by asking yourself if the behavior is new or a regular occurrence.

“You don’t want to ignore someone who is genuinely struggling,” Dr. Le Goy says. “If they make comments like, I don’t want to live or I don’t deserve to be here, you should take that seriously.” But this doesn’t mean you need to answer every post or go back and forth with them.

Just because your friend initiated the interaction online, it doesn’t mean you need to respond on social media. Similarly, you may feel obliged to reply in a group chat because you don’t want to seem like the one friend who isn’t answering. Dr. Le Goy recommends texting your friend directly or inviting them to have a phone call or meet face to face. Here are some examples of what to say:

  • I saw what you posted. Would you like to talk about it?
  • I care about you and it’s hard to know when you’re struggling because you’ve been posting a lot online.
  • If you need me, I’m here for you. But I’d rather talk in person and make sure you’re getting the help you need.
  • I see you’re struggling. Have you considered speaking to a therapist? I’m worried about you and want to help.
  • I don’t know that it’s helpful to you if I keep engaging with you on social media. Maybe there’s something else you need right now.

Keep in mind that your friend may not be receptive to support that doesn’t come in the form of likes and views. If they try to make you feel guilty, Dr. Wilson recommends challenging these feelings by asking yourself, “Am I helping my friend by responding to sadfishing or do I feel inclined to respond because I’m feeling guilty?” Your friend may require more support than what you can provide whether it’s from a family member, partner, or a mental health professional.

It may be tempting to respond right away when you see sadfishing, but it’s important that you learn to sit with uncomfortable emotions. Dr. Le Goy suggests taking a step back and acknowledging what you’re feeling through self-reflection or journaling rather than hitting the reply button.

Nandini Maharaj , PhD, is a trained therapist with a master’s degree in counseling and a doctorate in public health. Her writing on health, wellness, relationships, and dogs has been featured by PS, Self, Well+Good, Business Insider, Apartment Therapy, American Kennel Club, and more.

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