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I'm at My Emotional Capacity Twitter meme
via KnowYourMeme

I cannot hold appropriate space for these bizarre self-care templates

Scripted responses – for everything from avoiding friends in crisis, to venting and sexting – are going viral on Twitter

Sometimes I just publish articles for the public to read without asking for their consent. So, before I decide to be messy, I’m going to ask: are you in the right headspace to read an article right now about things that could possibly annoy the fuck out of you?

If you have no idea what I just said, then you probably have the good sense to not be on Twitter or Tumblr where, for the past few years, there has been a growing genre of content advising people on how to manage their close friendships and family bonds, purportedly to promote better mental health. This sounds like it could be like a good thing, right? Frankly, since about 2016 at least a third of the people I know have struggled with some form of anxiety or depression. The neoliberal hellscape in which we find ourselves, with less job and housing stability, less social security and growing societal prejudice against minorities combined with the constant hum of Twitter timelines delivering continuous despatches on the depressing state of the world has, naturally, taken its toll. Surely, guidance on that same platform about how to manage our own and our loved ones’ feelings better can only be a good thing.

Well it might be, if all the advice on these matters that seems to go viral comes in the form of templates you can use to communicate with a friend in crisis like a deranged HR manager. One recent example of such a boilerplate response came from Melissa A. Fabello, a former managing editor of Everyday Feminism, who also describes herself as a “social justice activist” on her own website. Fabello suggested the following response to a friend asking for help:

“Hey! I’m so glad you reached out. I’m actually at capacity / helping someone else who’s in crisis / dealing with some personal stuff right now, and I don’t think I can hold appropriate space for you. Could we connect (later/date) or time instead/ Do you have someone else to reach out to?” the tweet reads.

It soon went viral, and though many agreed with the principle that we can only help our friends if we aren’t depleting our own mental health in the process, many of the replies criticised the tone and language of the template Fabello tweeted as ‘sociopathic’. I think that’s horribly unfair. First of all, diagnostically speaking, sociopaths are known for being charming. When I think of a sociopath I think of Hannibal Lecter and at no point did he say “Hey Clarice! I’m so glad you reached out. I’m actually at capacity and I don’t think I can help you find Buffalo Bill. Can we reconnect after I’ve eaten one of my guards? 😊”. No, Lecter couldn’t give Clarice what she wanted immediately but he at least took an interest – you know, took notice of her perfume and asked about her background! Unlike Hannibal Lecter, Twitter wellness feminism couldn’t give a shit about your recurring nightmares – it can’t afford to perform that kind of emotional labour right now. 

Another recent viral tweet insisted you needed to seek consent before ‘dumping information’ on your friends and provided the suggested wording “are you in the right headspace to receive information that could possibly hurt you?” which is one of the most anxiety inducing messages I could imagine receiving from my selfish bastard of a mate. A big part of the issue here is expansion and arguably the corruption of the term “emotional labour” coined in the 1980s by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild. It originally referred to the regulation of personal emotion people in certain kinds of underpaid, high-stress, customer facing service roles must do as part of their job. Historically, these kinds of jobs tend to overlap with those most commonly performed by women.

“If we can be serious for a moment – these are modes of interaction we’ve collectively developed in service of capital. They make offices function well and colleagues who despise each other remain civil”

For example, my sister is a front-line child protection social worker. The kind who works with vulnerable families in crisis and children who have experienced physical, emotional, and sexual abuse – her job, I suspect, involves a significant degree of emotional labour. If I tell my sister I am sad, her asking me what’s wrong because we’re fucking family isn’t emotional labour. See the difference? I accept the precise definition of words and concepts can change but what annoys most people about the kind of templates suggested in these viral tweets is the application of the detached tone we may all use in professional and commercial contexts to the most intimate spheres of our life. If we can be serious for a moment – these are modes of interaction we’ve collectively developed in service of capital. They make offices function well and colleagues who despise each other remain civil. It’s a bit dystopian to import them to our most intimate spheres. And I do mean intimate.

Just this week, feminist writer Suzannah Weiss shared a template for initiating sexting with a partner. Weiss tweeted “ask consent for all sexual encounters, yes, even sexting”. I agree with the general principle that sexting should only proceed with consent. Personally, I would say this is navigated by one person beginning with relatively PG-13 flirtation and firmly observing that the other person is eagerly responsive as it gradually becomes more sexual and stopping if the other person says no or even if they simply change the subject. I think you can probably be more direct with a husband of five years than a woman you just followed on Instagram two hours ago, too. Not according to Weiss. She has a template for obtaining consent.

You’re welcome! Well, actually, you’re not welcome in my bed if you send messages like this. It’s hard to emphasise how sinister I would find this message in the wild. I am not sure it’s even fit for purpose regarding consent: “I’ve been having some sexual thoughts about you” still sounds like they’ve been wanking all afternoon – something you might not want to hear – except now there’s the creepy automated email response vibe to contend with as well. 

I’ve been having some sexual thoughts about you I’d like to share over text if you’d enjoy that

“Thanks for your message, my orgasm is currently out of the office on annual citalopram. If your query is urgent please contact reception, otherwise I’ll deal with your dick on my return”

Then there’s another term, “self-care”, derived from a quotation by the black lesbian socialist feminist Audre Lorde, who specifically meant that black women caring for themselves in a world hostile to their existence, and in which they were made to care for everyone else, is a an act of political resistance. I’m afraid ‘self-care’ has also undergone a metamorphosis in Twitter ‘wellness’ discourse and now is often invoked in viral tweets explaining how you are entitled to cut “toxic people” out of your life, in a pseudofeminist upgrade of the cryptic Facebook statuses your old classmate used to post in 2012 like “a lot of snakes say one thing but do another. 2013 is gonna be a new year and new me. I’m cutting toxic people out of my life xxx”. In my day, we used to call posting this kind of shit ‘attention seeking’. Now it is, apparently, a form of social justice activism. I do believe that some relationships are genuinely toxic and should be cut but I worry about just how often I see 12k retweets on something like “if a friendship isn’t fulfilling YOUR needs and is TOXIC and you are entitled to end that relationship. Removing NEGATIVE people is self-care and you don’t owe that person an explanation if it would be a drain on emotional labour. You deserve to be free of messy people at ANY TIME”. Maybe I’ve misunderstood, and I guess I’d go case by case on the facts but I think routinely terminating friendships without explanation because you feel your needs aren’t being met also carries the risk you’re what some sociologists would describe as a cunt.

There’s also another possibility. It’s that these people are simply pumping out utter nonsense in the hope of a brief dopamine hit. They’re doing it because Twitter, a dying platform overrun with Nazis and cranks, rewards specious bullshit littered with misappropriated jargon and tepid quoted reply ‘dunks’ on the original bullshit. It might just be collective brain rot that no one would care about for more than five minutes if we unplugged the router or went outside. Maybe I’ve just perpetuated it by writing this at all. I am standing on the precipice and staring into the abyss, but the abyss doesn’t think it can hold appropriate space for me right now.