For the Concern-Trolled

Several days ago, I felt very dizzy off and on for a span of about 6 hours. When I shared this disconcerting experience on Facebook-because I’m one of those people-I received a variety of messages telling me of all of the ailments that I might have. These expressions ranged from concerns that I may have a brain tumor to medication issues to high blood pressure or diabetes. Not one of the replies simply said, “I’m sorry you’re not feeling well, and I hope you feel better soon.”

These replies didn’t trouble me. I know that the people who expressed them meant well, but they did illustrate a dynamic that is a part of friendships that can be sometimes unwelcome and can expand into being toxic. This is the area of relationships where any problem you have, especially as it relates to health, is regarded as one that your friends or family must solve.

This is a much more pernicious problem when someone develops a serious illness or has what is seen as an ongoing struggle. When my sister was battling stage three uterine cancer, every person that she spoke with dealt with her as her disease. They told her how to deal with problems they had never experienced. They informed her about cures that weren’t validated by science, but that they endorsed based on wishful thinking.

Mostly, those who asked after her condition did so not out of concern, but in a nervous need to be reassured. If she was getting better, they could rest easier when they entertained the possibility that one day they might receive a similar diagnosis. For her, these interactions were not only exhausting, but minimizing. She was no longer a whole person. She became her cancer to people who once saw her as complex and related to her because of her knowledge, compassion, and interests.

What was even worse were people who didn’t talk to her at all before who now struck up conversations and expressed concerns for her because she was this “thing” to which they felt they could relate. It wasn’t so much her disease they were feeling a kinship with as none of them had had cancer, but the fear that they felt at the possibility of experiencing it. They acted on their need to discuss it to release their anxiety and it made her feel even more like she was the disease rather than a person.

My sister’s experience and mine came to mind because of a recent piece on Medium by Your Fat Friend. She wrote about concern trolling by her friends, family, and strangers and how she believed that people were acting out on their fears of becoming fat. I debated with people who believed in the genuineness of their concern and I’m sure most of them believe they are being good people. Even if I feel they are exercising the need to display their “kindness” at the expense of the people to whom they are extending it, they believe they are showing appropriate concern.

While I agree with Your Fat Friend’s conclusions, my recent experience leads me to believe that another piece of this puzzle is a lack of sohpisticated social skill on the part of people who focus on health. It’s the one thing that all human’s have to worry about. Like the weather, we’ll all experience bad bouts with it. Like the weather, talking about it can be really boring and tedious, especially if it continues to be a focus of multiple conversations over time.

When people who rarely have anything to say about my Facebook content came out of the woodwork to catastrophize my dizziness, I realized that they had latched onto this point because they couldn’t meaningfully comment on other things that I’d said or were sufficiently indifferent that they did not bother. Finally, I’d related something they felt they had the knowledge and authority to speak about. Finally, it was easy to have a “conversation.” And, finally, they had enough invested emotionally to bother to say something at all.

Their words and emotions weren’t about caring for me though. It was about them. They needed to speak because of the anxiety my symptom evoked made them activated enough to speak up. Concern trolling is always an act of selfishness and a reflection of a lack of ability to regulate one’s emotions. There is an enormous difference between someone asking for your advice or help with a life problem and you spontaneously offering it. At the very least, it is courteous to ask if advice is desired rather than simply blurting it out, and it should never be offered more than once about the same issue unless ongoing guidance is requested.

Those who insist on focusing upon your bodily issues, whether they be weight or disease, are looking at you as a lightning rod for their anxieties and are oblivious or ignorant of how to act with social grace. They cannot disperse their emotional energy unless they either consistently direct it at you through expressions of “concern” or your problem goes away so they don’t have to think about it when they look at you. They stop seeing you and only see their fears or they never saw you at all and can only relate to you through this limited focus. They don’t “mean well.” They simply can’t conduct themselves appropriately.

For those on the receiving end of consistent, unwanted health advice, I recommend putting up a hard boundary. Tell them to talk to you like a human being rather than a damaged body. A handy phrase is, “I appreciate that you are there for me and I will ask for your help if I need it.” Repeat as needed. If they cannot stop themselves, tell them the topic is now out of bounds. If they cross that explicit boundary, put some distance between you and them. If you don’t actively take charge in shaping your relationships, you will find that your identity will shift to what they are making it (e.g., a sick person, a fat person, a cancer victim) and lose ego integrity. Shutting them down or pushing them away is an act of empowerment and psychological survival.

Consider that concern trolls have a problem with social skills or with anxiety and emotional containment that needs your help. They are likely oblivious to their own internal motivations and needs so give them the guidance they need to fix their issues. It is, after all, what they would do for you.

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