As a denizen of the internet, I tend to pick up on the trendy trends of typing hands millions of miles away around the interwebs. So do you. It’s normal. I’d be shocked if a kid from PA didn’t know whether they lived in Steeler country or Eagle country, even if said kid approached football with the complete blase attitude of someone who is too tired to deal with it. It’s culture. And since we live online (at least, I do), it’d be weird to not notice the trends of internet culture. Anyway, I say all of this as a preface to complaining about an internet thing, namely an internet self-help thing that has bothered me for like two years. And I’ve reached the last straw.
I’m tired of the internet telling me to cut out negative people from my life as if it is a magic cure-all to my social ills.
I was reading a HuffPo article this morning on loneliness and ways to overcome it. The article poses loneliness not as the result of being alone but more as a compounding of mild depression and anxiety without ever actually saying that it is compounded mild depression and anxiety. Because the author uses the catchall term loneliness to describe actual mental health conditions with real names, he gets away with a condescending tone that might cause actual damage to people actually struggling. In one paragraph, he says that loneliness may have chronic routes in childhood abandonment or abuse and that therapy can help, but then he comes back around shortly to say that:
Life is too short to waste on suffering from core loneliness. Please heed to my suggestion: Open up, take a chance and access the hidden part of you that deserves true and loving companions. Heal your childhood wounds. Learn to love yourself and eliminate loneliness from your life!
This frustrates me to no end. If someone has diagnosable depression and/or anxiety, which is what he is noticeably really talking about throughout this entire article, they aren’t wasting time or life on suffering that can just be healed up if they talk about their feelings once. These are medical conditions that can require lifelong care and treatment from professionals, including talk therapy and medication. Learning to love yourself will not cure depression. I absolutely adore myself. I think I’m the bee’s knees. Yet I still suffer from social anxiety and occasional bouts of crippling depression. And these conditions make it difficult for me to function as a totality, not just in getting to know people. When I am depressed, I have to try to do things like shower and brush my teeth. That isn’t loneliness.
But what it is, is negative. When you are struggling with a mental illness like depression or anxiety, everything is cast in grayscale and shadows. The dark and difficult questions of life are constantly bubbling to the surface of your conscience, whether you want them to or not. One of the symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which most people make fun of as a need to keep things orderly, is obsessively dwelling on graphic and horrific things like rape and death, imagining either yourself or loved ones in those scenarios, and being unable to think about anything else. It’s not like you want to spend three hours obsessively thinking about all of the ways your mother could die tomorrow; it just happens that way. And when that is what is on your mind, it can be difficult to maintain a facade of happiness around your more mentally-stable friends and family.
So what does the author of this HuffPo article suggest to cure your loneliness (aka mental illness)? He’s got a list of eleven steps, hooray! The bottom of the list is even a suggestion to consider therapy. But way before that, making it into the top five at number four, he says:
Weed out the toxic relationships and create space in your life for relationships that fuel your spirit. You can’t grow lovely succulent vegetables with a large patchwork of weeds.
Because people are plants. Yeah, that makes sense.
Early in the article, he also said:
Paradoxically, lonely people believe they are essentially unworthy of healthy and mutually respectful relationships with loving, affirming and mutually giving individuals. They imagine that if they were to tell someone they are lonely, it would scare them away. Therefore, they are attracted to people who, like themselves, are similarly lonely, needy and insecure. As a result, the self-fulfilling prophecy is actualized. This sad but dysfunctional dynamic is the thesis of my book, The Human Magnet Syndrome: Why We Love People Who Hurt Us.
You guys, he wrote a book on this topic. He wrote a book on this topic. He is obviously a genius master when it comes to the art of understanding people.
EXCEPT, here is the problem with telling people to get rid of the “negative people” and “toxic relationships”, as this and so many other self-help posts on the internet want you to do. Are you ready for it? YOU ARE THE NEGATIVE PERSON!
If everybody cut out the negative people from their lives, then everybody suffering from a mental illness would automatically be out in the cold. I have been accused of being a negative person in the past, and I have been dropped as a friend for this reason. I can guarantee that this is not how people should be treating their friends with mental health problems. If you are genuinely lonely, genuinely depressed, and you think that cutting the negative people from your life will solve your problems, you are wrong.
Also, I would like to draw a strong distinction here between “negative people” and “toxic relationships,” because this article and most others like it use the terms interchangeably, and they are not. “Negative people” is a (hilariously offensive) short hand for people whose negativity can be exhausting and incomprehensible for people who have never struggled with those things, and these people are more than likely to be dealing with a mental illness. Toxic relationships are ones that actually harm you. By equating the two, this author and others like him are saying that being mentally ill in the presence of your mentally healthy friends is tantamount to being a violent, abusive person. Toxic relationships are ones of abuse and power dynamics, and while I’m not saying that mentally ill people are immune from being the abuser in a toxic relationship, I am saying that they are not the same thing. Of course people should break free of their abusive relationships. I have been in abusive relationships, and you should definitely kick those people to the curb if you can.
I guess what it comes down to is this: Loneliness can be a symptom of depression and other mental illnesses, which can be treated medically by licensed psychologists and psychiatrists, and if you are struggling with that, this is what you should pursue. But you should never, ever cut someone out of your life because they too are struggling. Before you know it, you’ll be the most negative person in your group, and you’ll be the next to go.
Because there’s no such thing as a negative person. There are only people who are struggling and need compassion and love.