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The art of mental hygiene

Humans are malleable. We’re influenced by our environments and by the things we’re exposed to. If we keep seeing something, we become persuaded by it. This is how adverts work. It’s also how misinformation works. We do get a say in what we expose ourselves to, and taking thoughtful control of that is important if we don’t want to be persuaded by problematic input.

Exposure to lies, misinformation, denial of truth, fake news, people calling real news fake news, and so forth acts on our brains in just the same way that gaslighting does. After enough exposure, this stuff will start to impact on your mental health. Either you’ll be persuaded of their reality, or you’ll feel increasingly stressed, anxious, disorientated and confused as you try to hang on to what you know is true.

People who wish to cause harm invariably demand that you hear them out. They tell you that their opinions are valid and deserve your time. They want you to debate them. They tell you to do your own research, by which they mean expose yourself to more of their ideas. At the same time they are entirely closed to everyone else’s ideas, having already decided on the conspiracy theory or propaganda they are invested in. Debating them won’t persuade them of anything, but it does expose you to their toxic thinking, and that is harmful.

A coherent relationship with reality is better for your mental health than being exposed to things that have you second guessing yourself. This has to be balanced against the need to stay flexible and open to new information, because genuine insight advances all the time. Pick your sources, and consider the reason that you’re picking those sources. It can be hard to know who to trust, but a conscious decision about that will do you more good than being buffeted about.

Watch out for people who deal in radical reversals. The people who tell you that other people with an obscene amount of money are able to represent you and that people who are a lot like you are out of touch elites. People who describe kindness and inclusion as though it was a vicious assault on your rights. Famous people using massive platforms to tell you they’ve been cancelled. People who think that cutting their workers’ paychecks and giving themselves a rise at the same time is justice. If the internal logic of someone’s arguments doesn’t hold up, it is as well to keep away from it because that kind of thinking will damage your mental health.

We aren’t always going to get everything right. If in doubt, choose whatever looks kindest. Even if it turns out to be naive, misinformed, overly optimistic or otherwise doomed to fail, you are better off in a kinder environment. It’s better to fail while meaning well than to be pragamatically horrible. It’s better for your mental health to focus on spaces where kindness dominates and people mean well. Anger can be attractive and it can feel powerful but no one can live there. Angry spaces rapidly become exhausting. Anger can be a great short term motivation, but kindness will keep you moving for the long haul.

Your mental health is vital. Speaking as someone who has suffered with mental illness and experienced gaslighting, I know what it costs. Protecting your mental health is essential, and picking the spaces to be in can really make a difference to that.

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