The happy side of social media features photos of our best selves doing fun things. But it can also have a dark side: Being a sounding board for offensive thoughts and controversial ideas. For some people, photos or thoughts posted years ago—things that had already been forgotten—can come back to bite them when they’re unearthed by a prospective employer, date, or new acquaintance.
To think that could happen to you can be a frightening idea, but these fears are not rare. In fact, an earlier YouGov poll found that 57% of Americans who use social media say they’ve posted or texted something they regret. And 16% keep making these regrettable mistakes weekly. One in 7 said they made a comment that “may have offended many people.” And while it’s reasonable to suspect that many of these people don’t want their posts to reach the wrong audience, those fears can even afflict people who don’t believe that their past social media activity is harmful. For many, the mere thought that someone could potentially unearth something they regret—even something they’ve forgotten themselves—is enough to trigger intense anxiety.
In this article, we’ll discuss where that fear comes from, how it may (or may not be) connected to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and how therapy might be able to help you work through these worries.
Is it normal to be afraid of my past social media posts?
If you have a fear that people—your friends, family, or employers—will find your old social media posts and hate you for something you’ve written, you might have a good reason. Maybe there are photos of you wearing something insensitive or maybe you’ve shared a lot of ideas that you’re ashamed of now.
If that is the case, then—to be perfectly honest—it might be completely reasonable for you to have this fear. Working on yourself with the help of a licensed therapist can help you confront the person that you were and work to educate yourself and grow to be the person you want to become. What’s more, if you’re asking yourself this question, it means that you likely find those actions or words abhorrent now; assuming that those posts do not represent who you are today, you might take some time to find and delete them. Leaving them out there for people to consume might only cause more offense.
However, it’s important to acknowledge that if a fear of someone finding your old social media posts is causing you a lot of distress or keeping you from engaging socially the way you would like, then it could be rooted in a mental health disorder called OCD.
What is OCD?
OCD is a chronic disorder where you have repeated, distressing thoughts, images, urges, sensations, or feelings (called obsessions) and use repetitive physical or mental behaviors to neutralize them (called compulsions), according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). About two to three million adults in the U.S. have OCD, says the International OCD Foundation.
The disorder often fixates itself around a specific theme. For example, someone can have Contamination or Harm OCD. When it comes to this fear of someone finding something you’ve said in a social media post, this may come from a subtype of OCD called Real Event OCD, says Patrick McGrath, PhD, Chief Clinical Officer at NOCD.
“Real Event OCD” relates to events in your past that have already happened, but you carry uncertainty about what you did or said, or about what might happen as a result. Due to worry, fear, or anxiety, you then spend an unreasonable amount of time trying to figure out your doubts, find absolute certainty about your worries, or seek reassurance from others that you did not act in a socially insensitive way.
“While you can always go back and edit or erase old posts, you’d never have a guarantee that someone didn’t take a screenshot of it. What if something somehow came to light? What if it was worse than you remember? Living with that doubt and insecurity can feel like too much,” says Dr. McGrath.
The tricky thing about these fears is that it is technically possible that posts you’re not proud of could be exposed—even if it isn’t likely. OCD will often put a magnifying glass on the worst-case scenario, causing a ton of anxiety in the process. Yes, someone could have taken a screenshot of what you once said and they could be saving it to use against you. As it turns out, learning to accept and live with these uncertainties is the key to managing any theme of OCD.
Symptoms of Real Event OCD
When intrusive doubts or uncertainty cause distress or anxiety, that’s where compulsions kick in. Reassurance-seeking is a common theme across compulsions in Real Event OCD. Here’s what that can look like, according to Dr. McGrath:
- Asking friends or family if they ever read any posts of yours that they thought were insensitive. This is not a one-off question, but it is a repetitive question, and you’re asking multiple people who are close to you, and most likely asking them over and over and over, as reassurance can only ever offer a temporary solution.
- When this reassurance-seeking becomes a priority to you, it can take up a lot of your time or dominate conversations, or even create tension that damages a relationship.
- You’re searching online to see if anyone has ever reposted one of your social media posts. Given just how vast the internet is, this will be a never-ending search. You might take this a step further and call people to ask them if they screenshotted any conversations you’ve had or your posts.
- You check and recheck your social media accounts to feel 100% sure you 100% deleted everything that could be controversial. You feel better momentarily, until your doubts creep back in and you return to check again, “just to be sure.”
- You worry that someone else is putting something on social media and pretending to be you. It seems far-fetched, but the hint of uncertainty feels unbearable.
- You might worry about posts on social media accounts you don’t even have, but go search anyways, “just in case.” (One of OCD’s favorite phrases!)
- You may completely delete all social media accounts—and still, you worry that someone took screenshots before you deleted them.
Keep in mind that if you have OCD, you will never truly find the reassurance that you’re desperately seeking. OCD just doesn’t allow for that. “It’s the doubting disorder,” says Dr. McGrath. That’s why it’s never surprising that OCD can take things really far. “It may get to the point where you’re paranoid about people finding your text messages, voicemails, and your phone records,” he says. “Nothing is too ridiculous for OCD. As long as there is a ‘what if,’ that’s good enough for OCD,” adds Dr. McGrath.
How ERP therapy can help
The correct treatment for OCD fears, including those surrounding actual past events or actions, is Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy, also known as ERP.
ERP is a form of therapy in which your therapist will work with you to trigger your obsessions and fears in a planned and structured manner, and you commit to resisting the urge to engage in compulsions to feel better. Compulsions are the fuel that keeps OCD going—by actively resisting compulsions, you can interrupt the vicious cycle of OCD.
One way your therapist might work with you on this specifically, says Dr. McGrath, is by encouraging you to open up your browser and not give into the temptation to start searching your social media history. Or, alternatively, they might have you read news articles about people whose offensive posts did come to light, and who faced serious consequences.
You can expect to feel anxious and distressed while this is happening, but with practice, you will learn that you can not only survive those feelings, but learn that anxiety (and all feelings) can dissipate with nothing but the passing of time.
Another exercise your therapist might have you try is writing a script about your worst-case scenario, says Dr. McGrath. Maybe you’d write about how a high school friend finds a past post of yours where you were mean to someone, and you get “canceled.” Because of that, you lose your job, you lose your house, and your family now hates you.
What a tragic outcome! “This is the level of fear a lot of people with OCD reach,” says Dr. McGrath. And while writing this down likely stirs up a host of anxiety-riddled emotions, doing so helps you confront the “what if” fears. “Is this worth all of the time, energy, and effort you’re putting into it? Or are you only doing these compulsions to feed your OCD fears?” he asks. The answer: It’s all in service of your OCD.
The scary truth is that it’s not hard to find examples of people being canceled for their social media posts. But it’s important to recognize that people who have this type of OCD fear “are generally the least likely of all people to have done anything that caused this to happen,” Dr. McGrath says.
Here’s what that means. Remember when we mentioned earlier that if you have said or done mean, hateful things online, then you have a valid reason to be worried about your past actions? You’d probably delete things that don’t represent your beliefs today, make a necessary apology, and then move on.
Well, OCD tends to grab onto the things that you fear the most. So, if you’re really working hard to be a kind, socially conscious individual, OCD can swoop in with intrusive triggers that stick with you, precisely because you care so much. What if you’re a terrible person? What if you really did something that you don’t remember? What if someone is creating social media posts pretending to be you, and they’re saying really awful stuff? What if you get “canceled”?
In the end, your therapist will also work with you to focus on how you’re more resilient than you give yourself credit for, adds Dr. McGrath. “OCD likes to tell you that you’re a horrible, awful person. But just because OCD tells you something doesn’t mean it has to be true.” Remember: feelings are not facts.
It can be helpful to take a step back and ask yourself: Would you suggest that everyone else take the same steps you are with your social media? Most likely, the answer is no. “If these compulsions protect you from something so horrible and dangerous, why wouldn’t you ask others to do the same thing? You wouldn’t. Our job is to help clients understand that they can face this fear, and learn they can handle it,” Dr. McGrath says.
Where to start therapy
NOCD can connect you with licensed therapists who are specially trained in ERP therapy. Using NOCD’s virtual, live, face-to-face platform, your therapist will provide a safe space to confront your OCD fears, allowing you to work through them so you can gain back your time, relationships, and feeling of confidence & security again.
If you are experiencing obsessions and compulsions related to fears surrounding past social media activity, schedule a free 15-minute call with NOCD to see how you can get help.