Behavior of Best Friend Ruining My Feelings About China

Reader’s Question

One of the things I care most about in life is being a good, nice person. But recently I’ve been having negative thoughts that I can’t seem to get rid of: Basically, my best friend is Chinese, and she has a great deal of pride for her country. But throughout our friendship she has verbally lashed out against countries that failed to get along with China (not in a highly aggressive way, but she has expressed great distaste for the Dalai Lama, supported the atomic bomb in a debate because of “the terrible things Japan did to China,” etc). Those comments hugely upset me, because I wanted her to try and see things from a more open perspective, despite her parents’ influence. For some reason, China’s recent earthquake has resurfaced some of my past upset feelings. When she told me about the earthquake, all that came to me was a strange feeling of defensive indifference (along the lines of, “Ugh, why does she have to obsess so much?” And that truly surprised and scared me. I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I think that this feeling stems from my earlier feelings of anger when my friend antagonistically defended the actions of her country.

Is that possible? That these cynical feelings I have whenever I hear about the earthquake are because past negative feelings have been unearthed? What I fear most is that I’m just making stupid excuses for myself, and that really, I am cripplingly biased. I’ve overthought this issue so much now, that whenever anything related to China is mentioned, I feel anxious and confused. Maybe it’s because I’m desperately questioning if I really do have something against China. But I thought I never had anything against the Chinese people before my friend brought up the earthquake (or am I just lying to myself?). I feel like, if any of my other Chinese friends (who have never expressed any of those same highly defensive opinions) had told me about the earthquake, I would not have reacted this way. I can understand being upset with China’s government, but not this emotion that seems like an unwillingness to feel upset for the Chinese people.

You know how some people have said: “The earthquake was karma”? I don’t think that I ever thought this on my own, but once I heard it from other people, I couldn’t seem to get the thought out of my mind. Once I think I even thought something like, “That’s what they get.” It was an idle thought, without malice, but it horrified me. Could it be that, by trying to repress negative thoughts, they pop up in my mind with even greater frequency? Even though I DO NOT mean what I think? I almost feel like my brain is purposefully thinking these thoughts, knowing that they would drive me crazy — because when I think something, no matter how random, I feel like it becomes real.

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On a rational level I know that what happened in China was devastating…yet I can’t seem to overcome this bad feeling. I’m just terrified that deep down I’m actually a terrible, hypocritical person. And what upsets me the most is that this general feeling of distance and annoyance seems to have extended a little into my friendship with my best friend. This might sound childish, but now there’s also a feeling of distance when I think of the guy that I like (a situation which makes me feel depressingly guilty, since he’s also Chinese). What do you think is happening to me? And how can I help myself to let go of these thoughts? I want, with all my heart, to be able to hear about the suffering about the Chinese people, and ONLY feel the compassion that they truly deserve. Not these strange, negative thoughts that refuse to leave me alone. I don’t know what I’ll do with myself if that’s really the person that I am.

Psychologist’s Reply

You’re thinking far too much! Your reaction is not about China, your friend, or the earthquake in China. It’s directly related to the behavior of your best friend. As you describe, in your experience she has consistently overreacted, often in a hostile and antagonistic manner, to issues and comments about her homeland. You have been very uncomfortable during these incidents and describe yourself as being “hugely upset”. In fact, her reactions have been emotionally traumatic to you.

When we are traumatized by events and situations, the brain memories the situation and the emotion we feel at the time. It’s called Emotional Memory. Once traumatized, we develop a survival strategy to keep from adding more traumatic experiences. In your friend’s case, you avoid discussions of China and world politics. This is very common and we all have friends who have “sensitive topics” that we avoid — not because we dislike the topic (politics, religion, sports, etc.) — but because we dislike their typical reaction.

Having been traumatized by several discussions with your friend related to China, you have probably been walking on eggshells around her — trying not to bring up any topic that would prompt her reaction. With China featured nightly in the news due to the tragic earthquake, you find yourself anxious and apprehensive around your friend, anticipating another strong reaction on her part. Sadly, because her strong reactions are now paired with China in your memory, when China is mentioned in her absence, you still experience a negative reaction. It’s not about China or the tragic earthquake, it’s about your memories of her excessive reactions.

Any time we experience feelings that are out-of-character, unexpected, or unexplained — it’s probably related to Emotional Memory. As an honest and healthy person, you’re now trying to figure it out. That causes you to think too much. Your strong memories of her behavior related to China are interfering with your ability to think and react to the news from China. This is very normal. Every time a regional sports team wins I arrive at work dreading to see a co-worker — knowing he will talk at me for ten minutes about how “his team” was fantastic, also reminding me of his high school football highlights. It’s not that I don’t like sports, football or his favorite team. I don’t care for his excessive reaction and bragging.

Emotional Memories, when strong, often generalize. It’s begining to happen with your memories about your best friend and her reactions. You’ve gone from being apprehensive when China is mentioned, to now being apprehensive with any situation related to China — including boyfriends. If we’re bitten by a dog, we first fear that dog…then our anxiety increases and we fear all dogs…then all animals. This generalization is very common. This is not a mental illness. However, it may require counseling if you are still having difficulty or if the avoidance and negative feelings increase.

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