by Robyn Banks
Last time I ranted about people in the corporate world who hold everyone to extraordinary levels of time management and efficiency because the God of capital accumulation dictates that it must be so. This week I want to rant about the flip side of that coin, self-care culture. You know what that is. Articles that pop up on your newsfeed such as ’10 ways nobody should make you feel’, ‘tips for looking after yourself’ and ‘How to get negative people out of your life’, right? People involved in this crap might call themselves ‘highly sensitive people’ and talk about other people as ‘energy vampires’ or as ‘toxic’. You know who they are.
This might sound all fine and dandy, if it wasn’t just as dogmatic and unyielding as corporate culture and also just as susceptible to replicating societal inequalities as every other movement. And the people who suffer most when others act on this ideology are the very people the movement claims to be protecting- people with mental health issues. If you struggle with low moods and feel that it’s important to keep negative or toxic people out of your life, think about how it feels to be struggling with low mood and characterised as a negative or toxic person.
It can make you act sometimes… well… like somebody with a mental illness.
The truth is that people with mental health disorders can be very difficult people. Depression and mental illness can make you selfish because being in internal pain draws your attention inward, the way you can’t stop poking a wobbly tooth. It can make you irritable, anxious, even paranoid. It can make you act sometimes… well… like somebody with a mental illness. I wrote last fortnight about the values promoted by the neo-liberal ideology and the difficulty that many people have meeting these obligations. But the culture of care growing around the fight against mental health taboo creates its own set of social obligations and codes of respect which can be just as inaccessible. In fact, it can be even more inaccessible- the struggles of existence in a capitalist society are well understood in many liberal circles, but not the struggle of trying to be a decent person.
The ideology seems to privilege certain types of mental health disorders over others. ‘Highly sensitive people’, for example, sit on the top of this hierarchy- despite this usually being a self-diagnosed complaint. Meanwhile, if somebody with a disorder such as borderline personality disorder, which can affect the way you behave and set your social gauge off kilter, upsets a ‘highly sensitive person’, they could well find themselves ostracised from support networks and treated like an abuser. The values championed by this movement- respect, compassion, valuing the self, the ability to assert and respect boundaries- are good ones. But I feel that they were set out as guidelines for people to learn in their own time, rather than as a dogma used to label others as good or bad people. And, just like many ideas of the good life which began as well-meaning and agreeable, such as many of the major religions, humans easily subvert a conception of goodness in to self-protection, isolationism and a moral soapbox.
I call this subversion “I don’t owe you shit.”
I can’t do a complete class analysis in the space I have left here, but I’d also assert that this community devalues the kinds of speech associated with people lower on the socio-economic scale- swearing, brash speech, and displaying too much anger can all be considered to contravene the concept of total respect and result in high levels of tone policing within these ‘safe spaces’- a warped kind of stoicism which leaves many with no place to vent the frustrations that come naturally with life. And then there’s another subversion of this ideology which is definitely more accessible the more privilege you’ve already internalised- which isn’t to say it’s never utilised by less privileged people, because it’s actually growing rapidly within the social justice movement- but it’s an ideology that finds itself in a strange dialectical relationship with neoliberalism rather than the oppositional one it tries to be. I call this subversion “I don’t owe you shit.”
As an opposition to neo-liberal ideology, which is concerned primarily with the public sphere and material resources, this is fair enough. You don’t necessarily owe somebody your time, your material things and you don’t owe an online misogynist the emotional and mental labour of arguing your right to safety. But when you relocate these values to the private sphere, the sphere of emotions and messy interpersonal relationships, you feed them after midnight. Because to have a meaningful relationship with another human being is to enter in to a social contract where we do owe people our emotional labour. We owe them explanations, closure, and consideration of their feelings.
I’m tired of seeing my friends in pain because somebody has decided they are negative and cut them out. I’m tired of seeing people who struggle with boundaries being made to feel like harassers for irritating somebody. And most of all I’m tired of the idea- stolen from communities of abuse survivors, where it’s used in appropriate context- that you don’t owe somebody any kind of an explanation for treating them like they have broken your rules. Especially if you haven’t been clear about what those rules are.
unless you’re a sociopath who really doesn’t understand how punching somebody in the face might upset them- it normally means you haven’t done anything wrong.
The phrase ‘you know what you’ve done’ haunts me from my childhood. Bullies understand the power of this statement to establish somebody as the other, to make the microcosm of social rules and regulations of high school in to a confusing and inaccessible inside knowledge, and- unless you’re a sociopath who really doesn’t understand how punching somebody in the face might upset them- it normally means you haven’t done anything wrong. What this phrase, along with a series of other social sanctions such as unexplained social ostracisation and silence, actually means (when you give the benefit of the doubt and assume the person saying it isn’t trying to make you feel bad) is that the other person hasn’t taken the time to process their own hurt feelings in a way that nurtures the growth of both people in the relationship.
It’s fine to be emotionally driven, to be sensitive, to wear your heart on your sleeve, to get angry and to get upset. What isn’t okay is treating either your own feelings, or somebody else’s feelings, as a moral failure on their part. What isn’t okay is that a community designed with outcasts in mind regurgitates the same strict adherence to complex and stoic social rules except this time, the penalty for failure isn’t just being a ‘weirdo’- it’s being an abusive, toxic or negative person. And if you expect ‘respect’ from others to the point that you don’t feel as though you have to deal with anybody else’s emotions, if you sanitize the rollercoaster of human relationships to the point of removing its humanity, don’t be surprised of you become an island.