“Manush ki bolbe,” which is translated as “what will people say?” is the kind of question that defines social relationships and personal decisions that are made within Bangladeshi and “desi” social networks. This question symbolizes the mindset that collectivistic communities, like those found in Bangladesh and India, have in common; there is an importance of social relationships that is emphasized and implicit in such a question. Maintenance of social relationships and social hierarchies remain at the forefront of such communities. However, in doing so, it further reinforces and perpetuates murky societal expectations, norms, and prejudices. This can have negative implications in regards to mental health and overall wellbeing.
From a tender age, Bengali children are nudged by their Ammus and aunties to bond with other similar-aged “desi” kids and say their salaams to other elders in the community. Although this is not a negative thing, and is, in fact, encouraged in a collectivistic society, oftentimes, parents prioritize their children becoming close with numerous individuals of their religious or ethnic affiliation without focusing on the type of individuals that they may be. They encourage the quantity of relationships formed without ever truly assessing the quality of those relationships.
Personally, as a Desi child, I recognize how we have been taught to ignore the jabs about our weight and skin-color, sweep experiences of sexual harassment by uncles under the carpet, and sustain ourselves in the high-pressure academic and economic competitions that community members partake in. We forge relationships with other community members and aim to obtain a certain kind of social capital that heightens our position in the hierarchy. These relationships are often characterized by competition, back-biting, dishonesty, derogatory remarks, and dissatisfaction. Consequently, such relationships can qualify as ambivalent, or even, toxic.
There aren’t strict textbook definitions for toxic and ambivalent relationships. However, an ambivalent relationship is one essentially characterized by unreliability and instability; this kind of partnership is a mixed bag of positivity and negativity. Contrastingly, a toxic relationship is characterized by an overwhelming amount of negative episodes. To define an ambivalent relationship, one can use the following examples: when an aunty enthusiastically encourages you one moment but condescendingly compares you to her daughter the next moment. Similarly, another scenario is when you share an intimate secret with your kind Bengali friend only for her to gossip about it with her other acquaintances. One may not know how to react to or categorize these sorts of interactions, which may further serve as stressors that can take a toll on health. These patterns can be found in friendships, familial relationships, and romantic partners.
But what are the mental health implications of being in either an ambivalent or toxic partnership, whether it be with a friend, a romantic interest, or even a fellow aunty?
In the Psychology of Friendship, Brigham Young University’s professor, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, details upon this concept – she stresses upon the correlation between physical health and social relationships, since it was found that “ambivalent friendships occupy roughly half of one’s social network” (243). According to a meta-analysis conducted by her, social relationships are predictive of health outcomes and indicated “a 50% increased likelihood of survival for participants with stronger social relationships.” Similarly, other researchers have found that negative social interactions were correlated with increased hypertension, high stress-related symptoms, and shorter DNA telomere length. These are just a few of the many negative consequences that toxic social relationships have on mental health and development.
In order to effectively cope with these relationships, it is imperative to recognize the signs and assess any negative implications that it may have had on your thought patterns, behaviors, and physical health. Aim to be self-aware and assess your mood and energy level after being around such individuals; ask yourself these few questions, “do you feel negative or are you in a bad mood after being around them?,” “do you feel bad about yourself whenever they are around you?,” “do they hurt you?,” and “do you trust them?.”
After this, it is important to weigh out the benefits and costs of maintaining the friendship. You may find that the benefits outweigh the negative. In this case, you can continue your relationship but also address some of the concerns you have with them directly. In another case, you may find that you still want to hold onto them, despite the negative outweighing the positive. If this is the case, it becomes important to change the way you perceive and react to their words and actions. For example, if you have a friend who makes last-minute plan cancellations, you might want to start creating backup plans or preparing yourself for any potential cancellation for future plans. With these types of friends, you may choose to reduce the amount of time you spend with them, limit talking about touchy topics with them, or talk to them directly about what is bothering you. However, if you find that the negatives greatly outweigh the positives, the best alternative may be to isolate yourself from such friends. You might want to play the role of the martyr for the sake of kindness and forgiveness, and hold onto such relationships. However, letting go may be better in the long run. You can let go by slowly “fading” from the picture; you can stop messaging and hanging out with them, and, ultimately, stop contacting them altogether. A more straight-forward way of ceasing contact with them can be by directly telling the person about it or by blocking them on social media. By letting go, you can reduce any future discomfort, disappointment, and drama. In this process, you may discover other friends who uplift you with their actions and words.
Collectivistic societies emphasize the importance of community and characteristics that promote unity – such as generosity and selflessness – but in doing so, we often overlook a certain kind of generosity we should be giving to ourselves, as individuals. We are taught to tolerate any sort of negative interaction in order to maintain relationships, but we are hardly ever told to take care of ourselves in a way that doesn’t involve eating on time or doing well in school. We are taught to put others in the limelight of our personal decisions, instead of ourselves. We are taught to think twice of the social implications of our self-care, without considering the individual repercussions.
Perhaps this is merely a conflict of interest between collectivistic and individualistic societies, but maybe…it is a breaking out from a very unhealthy status quo – the status quo that repeatedly enforced gender roles, stigmatized mental health, marginalized women, LGBT individuals, and minorities…
…and when we do, if we ever do, we are questioned.
- Hojjat, Mahzad, and Anne Moyer. The psychology of friendship. Oxford University Press, 2017