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Is “Protecting Your Peace” Culture Glamorizing Loneliness?

Are you "cutting off toxic people" or avoiding health conflict resolution?

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After the millennial “girlboss” and its associated culture were exposed as being a one-way ticket to unfulfillment and burnout in 2020, we gradually entered a new era of prioritizing peace. Gen Z workers began quitting their jobs without a backup plan, and Kim Cattrall embodied the sentiment of the moment when she said: “I don’t want to be in a situation for even an hour where I’m not enjoying myself.” With the phrase “protect your peace” (which currently has over 150 million views on TikTok as a hashtag) being thrown around online, you’d think it would inspire people to spend more time with friends and family, right? Unfortunately, that is not the case, as many of us are just “peacekeeping” ourselves — away from each other, and our communities at large.

It goes without saying that encouraging people to cut off or distance themselves from toxic or abusive dynamics will always be good advice. “Cutting off” culture, however, instead encourages complete isolation. There are those who have essentially cut off all of their friends to “focus on themselves.” Additionally, there are people who have “protected their peace” so much that all they do is “work, workout, and go to bed at 9 p.m.” This has bled into dating culture at large, too, where young people are encouraged to partake in a game of who can care less. On TikTok, dating advice includes not texting first and ghosting in the middle of a conversation; no matter whether you abide by these dubious rules, it’s easy to fall victim to the self-centered behavior of others — something that can only be avoided by opting out altogether. While “protecting your peace” generally means giving yourself time to focus on what makes you feel happy and healthy, it seems that we’ve forgotten that our relationships play a large role in this.

In January, there was a TikTok trend that went viral for exposing the loneliness that can come from “protecting your peace” too much — aka cutting off all your friends in the pursuit of self-improvement. “When I protected my peace a little too hard and now I have 2 friends and 0 hoes and I only leave the house for school and work and go to bed at 7:30,” one creator wrote. Another shared that they “haven't made a single friend in a year” and have “never been to a party.” Writer Dana White likens this to a rebrand gone wrong, Tweeting in January: “The rebranding of emotional unavailability and conflict avoidance as ‘peace’ has to be contributing to widespread loneliness as much as it’s preventing radical community.”

With thousands of people relating to the experience of the pursuit of peace leading to isolation, the TikTok trend touched on today’s epidemic of loneliness, something that was only heightened by the pandemic. In fact, Gen Z is the loneliest generation so far (and is being labeled a “sexless generation”), with 19 percent of 16 to 24-year-olds “often” or “always” feeling lonely according to a recent report. This is also a major health issue, with social isolation significantly increasing a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, rivaling the risks of smoking or obesity.

“Protect your peace” culture is also taking place against a backdrop of rampant individualism, where simple friendship activities are deemed as “emotional labor” — just think of the viral “I’m at capacity” tweet in 2019. With this in mind, the search for inner peace has become a competition rooted in toxic wellness ideology. Instead of setting up boundaries with our bosses so that we can have more time with loved ones, for instance, it can be easy to fall into the trap of avoiding healthy conflict resolution altogether. It can also easily become an excuse not to participate in the highs and lows of friendships or romantic relationships in favor of having more time to be “that girl” (hitting the gym at 5 a.m. and skipping dinner plans to stay home and prep overnight oats).

In Eric Barker’s recently released book, Plays Well with Others: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Relationships Is (Mostly) Wrong, he writes: “Don’t show up for work, and you know your boss will fire you, but what calls for the ending of a friendship is often idiosyncratic.” In other words, our relationships often deserve as much leeway to invade our peace (aka require our “emotional labor”) as we allow our workplaces to do. After all, the purpose of friendship is to provide community, love, and support for one another.

While we could all use a little more peace in our lives, chances are it won’t be found through a goop-ified search for self-improvement at any cost. It also won’t be found if we continue to portray isolation for the sake of productivity as a badge of honor (hello girlboss culture repackaged). As Carl Cederström and André Spicer put it in their book The Wellness Syndrome, “Obsessively tracking our wellness, while continuously finding new avenues of self-enhancement, leaves little room to live.” Instead, there’s peace to be found in fostering genuine connections with those around us. A stillness that can come from doing something you love with your family or turning off your phone to truly focus on listening to a friend.

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