Death to Debbie Downer

Made famous by SNL.

I propose a moratorium on the term “Debbie Downer.”

“But whyyyy?” you might argue. “Those negative people are so annoyinggg!”

Perhaps. But I think we need to stop using that phrase, for several reasons.

The first thing I think of when I hear the phrase “Debbie Downer” in one of the contexts it’s most commonly used (i.e. “Oh, don’t mind him, he’s just a Debbie Downer”; “Why are you being such a Debbie Downer?”; etc.), is that it’s a reflection of our culture’s dismissal of anyone who doesn’t have a smile plastered all over their face at all times.

After all, isn’t that such a dismissive thing to say? When one calls someone a Debbie Downer, they’re implying that this person’s thoughts and opinions aren’t to be taken seriously. It means that rather than taking the time to figure out why someone’s saying all these negative things, they’re just going to write them off with a convenient alliterative term.

Second–and if you read this blog regularly, I’m sure you know where this is going–”Debbie Downer” is often used as a disparaging term that basically means “person with a mental illness.” In that context, it’s not only insulting, but inaccurate. Depression and related disorders don’t simply make people “negative.” They make them hopeless, joyless, and, at times, suicidal. You don’t really know if the frustrating person making pessimistic comments all the time is actually a pessimist, or actually struggling with a debilitating illness. So why assume?

~~~

“But wait!” you might say. “How dare you tell me how to talk? Free speech!”

Absolutely. Unlike certain more Leftist people, I would never argue that one should “ban” words just because they offend people. But look at it this way–if your friend or family member is being negative and you call them a “Debbie Downer,” all you’re doing is shutting them down and making them feel like you don’t really care about how they feel. Is this really what you want them to think? No? Then choose your words more carefully.

As for how I think one should respond to overly negative people, it’s not the way we’re used to doing it. Many people respond by trying to argue with or counteract the negative statements with positive ones, or sarcastically asking “Don’t you have anything nice to say?”, or snapping something like, “Stop complaining.”

(Our culture places a huge stigma on anyone who expresses anything even closely resembling a complaint. What else would explain the proliferation of special purple bracelets given out by various groups that members are required to wear until they have stopped “complaining”? My high school band used them. Rather than feeling free and happy in all this new-found positivity, I felt shut up and silenced, like my opinions–negative or otherwise–don’t matter.)

You’ve by now probably gathered that I think all of this is not only an exercise in futility, but actually quite damaging to relationships. Unsurprisingly, people don’t like to feel belittled and rejected.

Next time, try this simple question: “What makes you say that?”

You may be surprised at the response you receive.

~~~

The last point I wanted to make regarding this phrase is that it reveals something very interesting about our culture. We view others’ negative emotions as some sort of personal insult or attack, and we respond accordingly. Rather than either addressing the person’s issues or ignoring them, we instead allow them to bring us down–hence the term “Debbie Downer.” The response that many a depressive (or simply a sad person) has encountered is, “Why do you have to ruin my mood all the time? Why do you have to bring everyone down all the time?”

My response to that is, why are you letting someone else’s problems ruin your mood?

One might argue that it’s “impossible” to be in a good mood if someone around you is not. This is pure bullshit. In fact, I’m going to propose something radical–what if it’s entirely possible to be in a good mood despite the presence of “Debbie Downers?”

I believe that unless you yourself have a psychological problem that keeps you from being in control of your own emotions, nothing can keep you from being in a good mood if you want to be. So perhaps we should stop blaming our own bad moods on other people and acknowledge that we have control over them instead.

The great irony here is that the people bitching and moaning about “Debbie Downers” are usually those very same people who tell those of us with mental illnesses that we just have to “look on the bright side” and “stop letting the little things bring you down” and all those tropes. Perhaps they should take their own advice.

A sad person isn’t a personal insult to you, nor an insurmountable barrier to your own happiness. Next time you encounter one, try a little compassion instead of sarcastically putting them down with a cliched phrase.

About these ads

7 thoughts on “Death to Debbie Downer

  1. I appreciate your many posts regarding mental illness, especially your general point that it is nearly impossible to understand how someone with a mental illness feels unless you have actually “been there, done that”. So many people don’t understand this concept–I know I didn’t until I experienced an episode of major depressive disorder.

  2. I appreciate your posts too! I know what depression feels like. I know how it hurts. I know how it washes away the full ability to smile or be cheery. People who are depressed already know/feel like they are ‘bringing others down’. When I feel like this my friend tries to cheer me up by arguing with me about all the positive things I don’t see. It actually makes me angry and frustrated when she does this. I’m not looking for someone to disagree with my misery – my misery is real. I don’t need yet another reminder that I’m all alone inside. It doesn’t usually make me feel better, although occasionally it does help to remember that the way I am seeing things isn’t the whole picture. Mostly what I think can be useful, compassionate, and even a defense from those who feel brought down by a debbie downer, can just be to listen for a few minutes, ask why they feel that way, nod, and just accept it. That alone can really help, and sometimes once a person simply feels heard, they themselves lighten up a bit.

    On the other hand, depression also involves “self-talk” in which a person reaffirms their own negative view by the way they talk to themselves about themselves and their lives. I have a friend like this and a simple question gets a very negative answer. I think in part she does so because of the positive reinforcement she gets from people cooing over all her ailments and such. I think we can try to choose our moods – to a limited extent. But also our moods are often contagious, infectious, and we do have a responsibility to ourselves and to others to be contagious in a spirit-lifting way. Smiles. Somewhere between miserable Debbie Downer and Stepword Wife “always be positive!” lunacy.

    My mother always told me “quit being so negative!” “you’re so negative!” and I wish she had stopped to wonder what she was doing to me as a child that made me feel so deeply dark inside.

    But now as I fight depression, it is my struggle to stop being so negative. Debbie Downer implies you are a burden ruining everybody’s fun. That is wrong, as you say. But I like to try to remind myself depression is a Debbie Downer to my own happiness, so I try to say f-you Debbie go away ;)

  3. I’m glad to have discovered your blog! (via Feministe comments)

    I’ve experienced alienation due to my ‘debbie downsmanship’. People’s dismissiveness can be really harmful. Personally, it’s as if my feelings are invalid and unreasonable. Ugh. Thanks for this appeal.

  4. Pingback: My Facial Expression is None of Your Business | Brute Reason

Leave me comments!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s