When Someone’s Negativity Makes You Uncomfortable

Ever since I got depressed and started paying attention to this stuff, I’ve been talking about the unintentionally-dismissive ways in which people often respond when someone shares something negative that they’re dealing with or feeling: “It’s not that big of a deal,” “Oh, cheer up!”, “Look at the bright side,” and so on. Something I’ve had to deal with in particular on Facebook is people making inane and inappropriate jokes in response to serious personal things that I post, which, I’m told, they do in order to “lighten the mood.”

Luckily, I’ve found a lot of great resources to help explain this to people, such as this book and this article. One form of pushback I’ve gotten is this: “But what if people make these types of comments/jokes because they’re uncomfortable with hearing the negative stuff?”

Well, yeah, that’s exactly why they do it. In most contexts, we’re still not used to honesty about negative life stuff, and it’s uncomfortable and awkward and weird, and so the automatic response is to deal with that discomfort by shutting the negativity down.

That said, there are different types of discomfort. There’s “this isn’t the social norm, wtf” discomfort, and there’s “this is crossing my boundaries” discomfort. Sometimes, though not always, they overlap.

When I post something on my own Facebook, that’s not violating anyone’s boundaries, because it’s my own page. (Obviously you can think of some extreme examples of this, such as if I used my Facebook to post a sexual comment about someone else.) Anyone who doesn’t like what’s on my Facebook generally can unfollow or unfriend me, or, if it’s not that big a deal, just ignore and scroll past the post. You can also do this amazing thing:

Didja know you can hide posts from your Facebook feed by hitting that down arrow in the top right corner? Now ya do!

Didja know you can hide posts from your Facebook feed by hitting that down arrow in the top right corner? Now ya do!

The mere fact that a post is visible in your feed does not obligate you to respond to it, not even if the post is very sad! I get a lot of comments like “Well I just felt like I had to say something because you were so sad.” No. Me being sad does not obligate a response from you. This type of thinking is bad for you–because it forces you to interact with things you don’t want to interact with–and it’s bad for me, because it causes people to make insensitive and inappropriate remarks to me when I’m already struggling. This type of thinking isn’t good for anyone, and that’s why I generally encourage people to try to avoid thinking of social interactions or relationships in terms of “obligation.”

And yeah, it’s totally possible that constantly seeing posts that bring you down and make negative feelings come up for you totally isn’t worth it, but as I said, that’s why unfollow/unfriend/hide post exist. I frequently unfollow and/or hide posts from people when they’re making me feel bad for no productive reason (for instance, something that I find really hard to deal with is violent rhetoric, and that’s my own boundary to responsibility for).  Sometimes, to be quite honest, someone’s post makes me feel sad and jealous and so I just hide it so that I don’t have to be reminded of it. Is this cowardly and “immature”? I mean, maybe? But it’s a hell of a lot better than commenting on the post with “meh I wish I had a job :(” or “well I’ll probably never get engaged, lol, so, congrats to you I guess.” I don’t have to spend 100% of my social media time actively Working On Myself, you know. Likewise, you are totally free to just hide my depression stuff from your feed if it’s unpleasant.

Situations in which someone asks “How are you?” and receives a “too”-honest response are a little thornier than Facebook feed management. On the one hand, you would be forgiven for assuming that if someone asks how you are, they want to know how you are. On the other hand, it is also currently the case that people use these sorts of questions as greetings or smalltalk and that they do not expect a treatise on all your current medical or financial or occupational or relational woes just because they said three words. If you don’t realize that someone didn’t mean to show that much interest and tell them anyway, I think that’s forgivable, because not everyone is always able to understand and navigate these unspoken assumptions. But if you’re reasonably certain that the person doesn’t actually want to know all these details and would be uncomfortable to hear them, it’s kind of creepy to give them anyway with the justification that “yeah well they technically asked.”

I usually handle these situations by being light on the details unless prompted. “How are you?” “Ugh, honestly, it’s been pretty stressful lately.” At that point, the person can say, “Oh no, what’s going on?” or they can say, “Damn, that sucks! Well, hope it gets better soon!” The ball is in their court, and nobody has to hear more than they’re comfortable with.

Situations in which the person doing the venting is the one who initiates the interaction can be even trickier, which is why I wrote a whole post about it. But to sum it up, basically, ask people for consent before dumping really serious stuff on them and definitely provide trigger warnings if you’re going to discuss things that are likely to be triggering for those who have dealt with them too.

There is definitely something very passive-aggressive about saying “Oh, cheer up, it’ll be fine!” when what you really mean is, “Actually, I’m not really comfortable listening to this, so I’m going to end this conversation now.” And yeah, the latter doesn’t sound like a nice thing to say. Yeah, it might hurt the feelings of the person who’s telling you the negative stuff. But it’s actually a much kinder thing to say than a dismissive remark that shuts the person down and makes them feel like they don’t even have the right to be upset about whatever it is they’re dealing with.

Worse, they may not actually get the message that you’re uncomfortable hearing about their problems. They may tell themselves that you’re just trying to make them feel better the best way you know how (because that really is why a lot of people say this sort of stuff!) and therefore feel really confused about whether or not you’re someone that they should come to when they want to talk about stuff. On the one hand, talking to you about stuff feels bad. On the other hand, you’re acting like you want them to feel better, so you must care, right?

Setting boundaries sometimes hurts feelings. There’s no way around this because you cannot control other people’s feelings, and there is no award for for Best At Being Passive Aggressive So As To Avoid Directly Hurting Feelings (And Instead Only Hurting Them Indirectly). (Even if there were, is that an award you want?) If you are uncomfortable hearing someone talk about their problems and are therefore unwilling to do it, it is in everyone’s best interest–especially theirs–for this to be clarified as soon as possible.

(And should you find yourself on the other side of that and having someone tell you that they can’t listen to you anymore, remember: you don’t have to like it or be happy about it, but you do have to respect their boundaries.)

This is one of those moments when I say, 1) your boundaries are always valid and it is okay (even good) to enforce them, and also 2) it might be a good idea to do some introspection about why you have the boundaries that you have. Yes, sometimes we need to set limits on what sort of emotional support we can offer others because we need to make sure that people aren’t depending on us in ways that we can’t be depended on, or that people aren’t triggering things that we’re still dealing with ourselves.

On the other hand, sometimes we’re uncomfortable hearing certain things because it’s outside of our current social norms and we have some unexamined ideas about what’s “appropriate” and what isn’t. For instance, when I have an automatic negative reaction to hearing someone say that they’re really worried because their job doesn’t pay them enough, is that because I need to avoid listening to such things for the sake of my own well-being, or because some part of me still believes that it’s “impolite” to openly talk about things like money (especially not having enough of it)? That’s not a trick question, because it could actually be either or both. Right now, as I’m dealing with my own job search and my own fears of making too little money, it could very well be that I need to step back and not be in conversations like these. Or it could also be that I have these leftover beliefs about talking about money.

It’s crucial, I think, to learn how to critically examine your own responses and the boundaries that you set up around those responses without assuming that those responses and boundaries are therefore illegitimate. You can critically examine where your boundaries come from while still maintaining them at least until you figure it out!

So if every time someone says something negative about their life, your brain is going “no stop get away this is bad ugh ugh,” that’s a response to consider examining, because a lot of the time that comes from some very unhealthy social norms we have about what people should do when they have a mental illness or other emotional difficulty (just keep it to themselves and suffer alone, or put a positive spin on it that may not be authentic at all). In the meantime, you still get to get away if that’s what you want to do.

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About That “Laughing at Male Victims of Violence” Video

[Content note: domestic/intimate partner violence]

In response to the Rodger shooting, which I wrote about in my previous post, some people have been sharing this video, which I’ve seen captioned as “Watch what happens when a man abuses a woman in public and vice versa.”

The video is a sort of public experiment. A hidden camera records what happens when a man starts getting abusive towards a woman he is with, grabbing and shoving her as she tells him to get his hands off of her. Bystanders confront the man and call the police. But when the genders are flipped and the woman is the one threatening the man and pushing him around, people either laugh or ignore it.

I won’t get into how exquisitely gauche it is to post this link, usually without commentary as though it presumably speaks for itself, in response to a post where people are attempting to discuss misogyny and how it caused the murders of six people and the injury of seven more*. (While I am sometimes able to convince people that their arguments are bad, I’m not sure I am able to teach them the sort of basic empathy that most people master in grade school.)

First of all, men who post this link in response to discussions of misogyny (I haven’t personally seen a non-man do this) prove nothing but the fact that they are so uncomfortable with discussions about violence against women that they need to turn them all into discussions about violence against men. As I have noted before, it is sometimes a good idea to learn how to tolerate a moderate amount of discomfort so you can understand where it’s coming from. This is one of those times.

Second, the idea that this video could possibly be a rebuttal to a claim like “normative masculinity is harmful and leads to the oppression of women and to tragedies like the UCSB shooting” is so simplistic and flawed that it really goes to show how little these folks have bothered to engage with critiques of gender roles and with feminism as a whole.

When I see that video, I don’t see any evidence against my opinions about gender. I see evidence in support of them.

We do not have a culture that encourages women to commit violence against men, but we do have a culture that treats female violence against men, when it does happen, as a joke. Why? Gendered norms. Our descriptive norms say that men are stronger than women and can never be physically harmed by them, and our prescriptive norms say that men should be stronger than women and should never allow themselves to be physically harmed by them.

For reference: descriptive norms are culturally dominant beliefs about how the world is and what people do. Prescriptive norms are culturally dominant beliefs about how the world should be and what people should do. Both types of norms are prevalent in sexist thinking, and they are taught and articulated both implicitly and explicitly to children from birth.

The distinction between the two is important. Our descriptive norms about male strength are partially correct, but only in the sense that, on average, people categorized as male are physically stronger in their upper bodies than people categorized as women. And there are plenty of exceptions, and violence can still be committed by a physically weaker person against a physically stronger one.

But prescriptive norms, as I mentioned, are not about objective reality (insofar as such a thing exists, of course) but rather about dominant beliefs about how things should be, whether they necessarily are that way or not. (But people do tend to believe that their prescriptive norms reflect reality, and most people do seem to not recognize the difference between these two types of norms.) Prescriptive norms are values. People may justify them in various ways, but they will not usually be able to present “evidence” for them, because they are not based on evidence. For example, some people tell me that I shouldn’t lift weights because then I’ll become stronger than many men, and men will not be attracted to a woman who’s stronger than them, and being attractive to men is presumably something I care about. Of course, I already am stronger than many men, and some of those men are even attracted to me, and some of those men are even attracted to me partially because of my physical strength. In this way, many prescriptive gender norms fall apart under the slightest scrutiny.

Let’s take the analysis back up one level and see how it applies to men who are assaulted by women. Descriptive norms say that men are stronger than women and are able to defend themselves against them, which is why a common reaction to male victims is disbelief and dismissal. These descriptive norms are incompatible with the idea of a man being hurt by a woman, so believing him when he says he has would require revising or rejecting those beliefs. But it’s difficult for many people to revise or reject their deep-seeded beliefs, and gendered norms tend to be especially deep-seeded because they are so prevalent, so casual, and taught at such a young age. So, neglecting to seriously interrogate their beliefs about gender, many people disbelieve or dismiss male victims.

Prescriptive norms, meanwhile, are responsible for two other horrible reactions that male victims sometimes face: blame and ridicule. If men ought to be stronger than women and able to defend themselves against assault by them, and this particular man failed to do so, then the assault was his fault. If the mere idea of men being unable to defend themselves against women is ridiculous, then male victims will be ridiculed. Together, descriptive and prescriptive norms about masculinity and strength prevent men who are assaulted by women from being taken seriously and helped.

Back up another level. Why do some people think that the treatment of male survivors of violence is some sort of “counterpoint” to feminist initiatives to prevent violence against women? Because a key component of sexism is oppositional thinking. Namely: men are women are opposites. Men and women play a “game” in which men “win” by “getting” sex and women “lose” by “giving” sex. Anything that’s “good” for women is “bad” for men and vice versa. Giving women more rights–the same rights that men already have–somehow entails “taking” rights or freedoms away from men. Sexism is a zero-sum game.

To people who think this way, it is inconceivable that feminists who are fighting to stop violence against women still care about violence against men and do not want to condone or encourage it. To them, there is no other reason someone would focus on violence against women–not because that’s what they best know how to combat, not because they have personal experience and therefore a personal stake in fixing the problem, not because women are overwhelmingly more likely to be raped, seriously injured, or murdered by men than vice versa. No. The only possible reason must be because they want men to be hurt by women. That’s why they’re trying to stop women from being hurt by men.

This is oppositional thinking exemplified.

In fact, those who fight against the gender roles that perpetuate male violence against women are also helping to stop the mistreatment of male survivors of violence, because these problems stem from the exact same faulty thinking. As I’ve shown, male victims are disbelieved, dismissed, blamed, and ridiculed because men are expected to be strong, stoic, basically invincible. Some people may be more interested in working with non-male survivors and others may be more interested in working with male survivors, but everyone who understands the problem accurately is fighting descriptive and prescriptive norms about gender.

Feminism, by the way, combats both types of norms. The feminist movement has been instrumental in challenging many presumptions about how the world actually works (i.e. women are more emotional than men, women are bad at math, men are “naturally” more interested in sex than women, “virginity” is a thing that exists, etc.) and many presumptions about how the world should work (i.e. women should be “virgins” until marriage, men should not cry or express negative emotions besides anger, women should not have casual sex, etc.).

This, then, is the irony of posting links like this video as some sort of annoying “Checkmate, feminists!” gotcha thing. You may not realize it, but we’re actually fighting the same battle. You’re just so inept that you keep hitting me with friendly fire.

While norms about male strength are addressed and discussed by many feminists of all genders, more men need to recognize these norms as inaccurate and harmful, and challenge them. I see very few of the men who are most concerned about male victims of female violence doing this, probably because they’re not ultimately interested in losing their male privilege. I see no “men’s rights” activism around this issue. All I really see right now is a lot of men*** trying to get in the way of the people who are working to help all survivors of violence, and all human beings.

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*This may end up requiring another post to explain since there’s been so much pushback, but I am continuing to call the Rodger shooting an example of misogynistic violence even though men were also killed. His misogyny precipitated the attack. He intended (and tried) to get into a sorority house and kill the women there. Because they were in his way or because he was so full of fury and violence or for whatever other reason we’ll never know, he also killed some men. Their deaths are as much a tragedy as anyone else’s, and no, it does not in any way diminish that tragedy to accurately identify the motivation for Rodger’s attack.

**Many women who attack men are actually acting in self-defense–a fact which is often ignored when the women are non-white, trans, and especially both. Examples include Yakiri Rubi RubioCeCe McDonald, and Marissa Alexander. The Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project details the problem here. While men who are truly the victims of violence by women deserve justice, the intersections of racism and transphobia unjustly criminalize many women who were actually acting in self-defense, many of whom were already survivors of sexual assault and/or domestic violence. Many advocates for male victims conveniently ignore this fact.

***But, of course, Not All Men. Just so we’re clear. I just wanted to make sure I included that in this post somewhere. For the sake of clarity.

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