You’ve heard it before. Maybe you have even said it, or some variation. “Detox the negative people out of your life.” The basic tenet is that we all deserve happiness, we all deserve to be around people who make us feel good, nobody deserves to be abused, and we have a right to control who we do and don’t allow into our inner circle. Sounds healthy, right?
The problem here is that while abusive people are always toxic, “toxic” or “negative” people are not always abusive. Sometimes people get poisoned, and that makes them “toxic” for a while. But with treatment, care, and support those people can get better and become whole, healthy, happy people again-something they deserve too. Or, everyone can just detox them and they can stay toxic and embittered forever.
When you google “detox negative people,” page after page of results pop up. How to detox negative people out of your life and feel good about it states that a toxic person is “a person who complains and dumps their problems on you but doesn’t do anything to change their situation.” Removing negative people from your life says, “A positive attitude is contagious, but a negative attitude spreads like wildfire. No one wants to be around someone that is constantly negative and complaining. These people are toxic, and it is reasonable to remove them from your life.” How To Tell When It’s Time To End A Friendship writes, “you put in most of the effort. You invite, call, and initiate almost everything to keep the friendship going.” In all three of these examples, and many more, people who feel poorly more often than they feel well, or who don’t employ “normative” social tools-no matter the reason-typically meet the standard of “toxic” and are therefore worthy of being detoxed. I have a major problem with this.
Why The Detox Negative People Fad Hurts The Mentally Ill
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I was recently hired to join the Healthy Place dot com blogging team, as a co-author for Trauma! A Ptsd blog. I’ve been reading the blog for a while and I’m really happy to be writing for it now, but the reason I bring it up here is that I had to create an introductory video. I thought it would be fine. I put on a nice dress and asked my husband to film my 90 second video when I needed to leave the house for an appointment in ten minutes. Of course, I ended up not getting it done then. When I replayed the video, I realized I looked super bitchy. My movements and facial expressions did not at all convey how I had actually been feeling, and I came off sounding snotty when I meant to sound inclusive. Of course, it’s because of flat affect. Flat affect is a symptom of PTSD in which survivors have difficulty showing emotion. Instead of looking happy, we look angry or solemn. If the survivor is female that often translates to bitchy.
Imagine someone engaging you in debate-something I really like to do-with a friendly, smiling demeanor. You know this person just holds a different opinion than you and wants to discuss it, not fight or insult you. Now, imagine the same debate from a person whose face isn’t showing emotion, and whose expression may therefore be interpreted as angry. It seems super combative, right? So by those standards, the second person is more likely to be considered toxic, when she’s done nothing differently than the first person, besides have a traumatic reaction that causes her to appear less happy. I’ve been detoxed by a lot of people these past ten years, and I’m beginning to truly realize it hasn’t always been fair, and it hasn’t always been my fault. Even though I’ve always said that, I internalized a lot of these actions and began to truly believe that I’m a bad person undeserving of friendship and support. Well, I’m not. And maybe that friend you’re getting ready to detox isn’t either.
Chronic Negative Thinking Can Be A Symptom Of A Mental Illness
I recently had a chance to sit down with Susan Collins, a clinical psychologist and research assistant professor at the University of Washington, to ask her some questions about happiness for an article I’m writing for another publication. During that interview she told me that, “People who are depressed tend to stay depressed…We start to get used to the way we experience the world, even if that’s a darker view.” She explained a phenomenon she’s encountered repeatedly, in which patients actively try to keep their lives from changing, even if that means continuing to seek negative partners or environments. “People who are depressed,” she explained,” tend to feel more comfortable when they’re depressed, even if they’re not actually comfortable.”
So people who have histories of depression, trauma, or other negative experiences and emotions actually become habituated to negativity. It is caused by changes in the brain, and it’s a phenomenon recognized by the medical community. It is not a symptom of being immoral or abusive; it’s a sign that someone needs help. Would you detox your best friend for crying when she has cancer? If you wouldn’t, then why would you detox her for replaying a negative pattern that she is physically incapable of breaking on her own? A “person who complains and dumps their problems on you but never does anything to change them” might actually be a person who is stuck in that thinking and needs supportive help to get out of it. Abandoning her will only reinforce those patterns. Remaining her friend and providing firm but gentle positive support will help her break free from the negativity in which she is stuck. If our doctors can recognize this fact, why can’t our friends and family?
Surrounding Yourself With People Who Only Lift You Up Is Self-Centered
Your friend is constantly depressed. She always looks at the negative side of any situation. You come home exhausted by the way she hyper-focuses on self-criticism, and reacts with anger or sadness to simple misunderstandings. You decide that, while there were valid reasons you became friends in the first place, she is no longer serving your goals. She brings you down and contributes nothing but negativity to your life. She needs to go. You detox her, and surround yourself with uplifting people while congratulating yourself on ensuring your future success with these strategic moves.
Here’s the thing. Friendship is not supposed to be a business transaction. You don’t strategize your friend groups, and if you do, you’re the toxic one. Everyone has ups and downs, and if someone is battling a mental illness or injury, those downs may very well be darker and longer than you’re used to. We all need mentors and supports and people who will help further our goals. It’s not wrong to attract those types of people in your life, but it’s self-centered to expect that kind of support and not be willing to provide it. If you’re a positive, affirming person, then you might be your depressed friend’s mentor, whether you know it or not. If you detox her because she’s not furthering your life, you’re behaving in a selfish, reckless manner, and not being a friend, or a good person, at all. Now, you can set boundaries. You can tell her that you can’t be her only support. But detoxing her because she isn’t serving your goals? That is incredibly cruel and selfish. If that’s the reason behind your friend-detox, you seriously need to do an inventory of your priorities.
Negative People Aren’t Necessarily Toxic People
Look, I know it’s important to rid truly toxic people from our lives. Many of the articles that teach you how to do that acknowledge, after listing common symptoms of depression, PTSD, and other mental health conditions, that toxic people are also those who intentionally manipulate us and use our good intentions to harm us. While repeated negative symptoms and resistance to change are symptoms of mental illness, manipulation and harm are symptoms of abuse. Nobody deserves to be abused. We should all learn to have the strength and knowledge to rid ourselves of abusive people. But first, we need to stop conflating mentally ill people with abusive people.
I am a person who tends toward the negative. I’ve had a lot of experiences that brought me to that point. I was the product of an affair, and when I was a child, my half-brother used to tell me I was a mistake that shouldn’t have been born. This had a profound impact on my self image, which led me to use drugs when I became a teenager. My involvement with certain members of the drug community allowed me to accept low standards of treatment-like being lied to, stolen from, and talked down to-as normal, so that when I entered into an abusive relationship, I didn’t even realize it was abusive until it was too late. The violence that transpired during that relationship physically changed my brain to the extent that I have permanent brain damage known as PTSD. My thoughts tend toward the negative, because that is what life has shown me and what my brain is used to. I can work on it, but I will probably always have a darker-than-average outlook. I’ll always have suicidal thoughts, and moments when I get triggered. I will always need a measure of support and compassion.
Does that make me abusive? No. But people have treated me like it does. Friends have abandoned me because they were sick of “hearing me talk about suicide and doing nothing about it.” What a statement. I’m not sure if they meant going to treatment, but it sounded to me like they were challenging me to attempt suicide. Which I did, a number of times. On other occasions, friends stopped talking to me because they disapproved of my drug use. Ironically, addiction and PTSD-the disorder I was self-medicating-are now known to be exacerbated by social isolation. So those people who detoxed me were doing me a huge disservice. They had an opportunity to help me become the kind of person they would want as a friend; you know, the person they befriended before the abuse and addiction changed me, but instead they just abandoned me. I’ve heard similar stories from many, many people in the mental illness community.
A Fad That’s Embraced By The People It Most Hurts
The saddest, and most ironic, part of the “detox negative people fad” is that it is championed by the mental illness community. People with one or more mental illness feed right into this fad. I get it. Having a mental health condition leaves us more vulnerable to abuse. Because we can’t always use our own senses to gauge situations, we rely on the direction given to us by others, which opens us up to manipulation. When you have been used, abused, or manipulated even once you don’t ever want to experience it again. When it has become a chronic issue in your life, you become super wary. Cutting people out who we confirm or suspect may do some of those things feels empowering.
The problem is, of course, that when something feels good and merits results, we want to repeat it. If you cut an actually abusive person out of your life, your life will improve. And you crave more improvements, so you seek more people to cut. Now, you’re cutting out people who are very sad, very anxious, or who ask for help far more than they give it. Maybe you detox people who share your same disorder, or who act as you do, or did in the past. That is not fair.
People going through a mental health crisis cannot reasonably be a main support to someone else going through a mental health crisis, but that doesn’t mean those two people can’t be friends, or support each other. Those of us with mental illnesses need more community, not less. We shouldn’t be breaking ties with one another because some fad tells us it’s good for us. Dividing up the mental health community is good for nothing but strengthening stigma.
Think Before You Detox
If you consistently feel like crap every time you hang out with a particular person, it might be time to “detox” them from your life, but before you actually do it, think. Consider the situation and examine your feelings. Are you feeling heavy around this person because she is acting in an abusive manner toward you, or because her talk of abuse triggers you? If it’s the latter, try having a conversation with her first. Tell that you’re also a trauma survivor, and hearing about her trauma brings up issues for you. You wish her the best, but you can’t be a support in that way at this time. Maybe you can do other things when you spend time together? If your friend is, in fact, mentally ill and not toxic, she’ll listen, and stop talking about those memories around you.
You should also check and make sure that the reason you feel drained after spending time with a particular person doesn’t have more to do with you than with him. Maybe something about his behavior reminds you of something you are struggling with in yourself. Maybe the two of you share a tendency to over-analyze social interactions, except that he does it aloud and you do it in your head. Instead of getting rid of your friend for something which is not meant to harm you, use it as an opportunity to work on yourself. Try to heal whatever it is inside of you that causes this anxiety in the first place.
Another thing to consider is that not all abusive people are bad. Wait, what? Is this Betty talking….Betty is an abuse victim! She struggles to forgive her own abuser. What is she saying here? Calm down! Hear me out. Sometimes when people are in a lot of pain, they snap or yell or take their pain out in inappropriate ways that end up hurting other people. I’m not talking holding someone in a motel against their will and beating them up. There’s obviously an intent to harm there. I’m talking someone who makes snide remarks, or gives backhanded compliments-that kind of thing. It’s not okay, but he or she may not realize what she’s doing, or that it’s hurting you. I know that I have historically held such a deep-seated belief in my own inefficacy that I’ve tested my worth by insulting people to see if it affected them. I realize now, of course, that what I was doing was very fucked up. But when nobody reacted by showing they were hurt, I thought it meant nothing I said or did mattered, so I behaved like nothing I did mattered. Before ending the friendship with a person who acts this way, try talking to him. Tell him what he does and how it makes you feel. If he still does it after that, go ahead and detox him. But give him a chance first. Even though his behavior is abusive, he may not be an inherently abusive person.
Sometimes relationships are toxic and abusive. Sometimes we need to end friendships or cut family members out of our lives. Nobody should feel guilty for ridding herself of an abusive person. If we truly want to support the mental health community and the people in it, however, we need to make sure that the people we detox are truly toxic, and not simply poisoned.
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree? Have you ever detoxed someone? Been detoxed? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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Til next time.