Anxiety and not being an asshole—AKA not letting Yippy bite the other dogs at the park

I’ve seen a couple very “suck it up and deal, you’re not a special snowflake” blog posts about mental illness lately. The first, “Your Anxiety Isn’t an Excuse to Be an Asshole” is what inspired the title of this post.

Her basic premise is that there’s too much online advice excusing self-indulgence and jerk behavior in the name of self-care, and that people think their anxiety gives them license to treat others like shit. I’ll agree with her basic premise: anxiety is not an excuse to be mean or self-centered. But at the same time, I have a couple disagreements.

First off, I’d have loved to see her link some examples of the advice she sees as problematic. I’ve seen plenty of “You can’t pour from an empty cup” and “Be gentle with yourself,” but absolutely no “Cancel plans with no explanation,” or “Throw your phone in the river and lock yourself in your room for two weeks.” This may be because I’m not on Tumblr, but I think I hang out in enough anxiety-friendly spaces online that I’d have noticed such a trend. So, to start with, I’m not sure if suggestions to blow off responsibilities and flake out on loved ones are a real thing or a giant strawman. I mean, the internet is vast and full of all sorts of questionable crap–someone, somewhere probably said this at some point.

Secondly, while I fully admit that anxiety can make it harder to avoid being a jerk, and I’ve been guilty of that myself,a lot of the time it makes people *more* sensitive to other people’s feelings. Not in a helpful way. More in an “Oh, God, did I piss them off? I bet I pissed them off, they’re totally going to hate me,” way. I have definitely been terrified that someone would hate me forever over fairly minor stuff. So, telling me that “No one has to put up with your bullshit, and if you don’t actively work on making yourself a better and more rewarding person to be around, no one should wait around for you,” well, it does more to feed the jerk-brain than actually help anything. Both because constant fear of losing people (because you suck and they’re probably only nice to you out of pity anyway) is an awful and unhealthy place to be and because needing constant reassurance is just as annoying as being abrasive or flaky.

Finally, there’s the bit about cancelling plans. It sucks to have people bail on you, especially at the last minute, and especially if those plans can’t go on without them. But it’s also shitty to expect someone with a chronic illness (or, heck, anybody) to never have to cancel. Is it jerk-like to blow off plans without calling? Yes, especially if you do it all the time. Is it selfish to bail if you’re not feeling 100% but could really go and be okay? Yeah, particularly if the plans in question can’t happen without you, like a one-on-one lunch date or if you’re someone’s ride. But on the other hand, anxiety is an actual illness. If you have a friend who gets migraines, you understand that sometimes they will cancel on you if a headache comes at a bad time. If you have a friend with anxiety or depression, you should give them the same consideration.

One thing I thought was lacking here was any discussion of root causes for flaking out. If you’re having to cancel plans all the time, maybe you’re over-committing yourself, or making the wrong kind of plans. Too loud, with too many people, or not enough time in between to recharge, maybe? The answer might not be “Suck it up and go, or you don’t deserve to have friends” unless it’s some major life event. It may be to look at why you’re having trouble, and plan fewer or easier things.

I’ll agree that anxiety isn’t a Get Out of Jail Free card for ignoring responsibilities. But it may be a sign you have too many responsibilities. All the things the author mentions as helping with her anxiety–eating better, exercising, having a dog, getting a less stressful job–those all take time and effort, leaving you less for other things. It’s a good investment of spoons, and likely to leave you with more time and energy in the long run than if you *didn’t* take care of yourself, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t displacing something. And if you have anxiety about disappointing people or missing out, it’s really easy to overcommit.

I could have probably made this a much shorter post if I had just said, “If you want to know how to cope with anxiety without being a jerk, go read Captain Awkward.” She has a lot of great stuff on boundaries in relationships, and she does a really good job of explaining that balance where you respect your friends’ needs without ignoring your own.


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