What should you do when a friend gets sucked into astrology and thinks she is a literal witch?
Imagine that you are great friends with someone, but after you both go off to college and the pandemic happens, she morphs into a very different person. Your friend becomes a true believer in tarot reading and astrology. She even goes so far as to call herself a witch and says that she is casting spells.
An even bigger problem is that she will just not stop talking about it. You quickly become exhausted with her since you obviously do not believe this new age nonsense. You also do not want to bring her to any social gatherings as she will only embarrass herself. What should you do in this situation?
In this new series called Skepticism and Relationships, we will look at social media posts and newspaper articles about skeptical people and their relationship troubles. This usually involves other people who subscribe to pseudoscience, quackery and conspiracy theories. A lot of material already exist about these faulty beliefs themselves. However, not that much is written about how to handle them in friendships, work environments and romantic relationships. This series attempts to fill this void.
Let us now move onto the situation that this post will cover. What do do when you have a friend who thinks she is a witch?
The situation: A friend who thinks she is a witch
The following post was submitted to the subreddit r/relationships on the social media platform Reddit by the user icy44 on 11 April 2022 (if the post gets deleted, a cached version can be found here):
In other words, icy44 (a twenty-something woman) had a longtime friend she held dear (another twnety-something woman) and their friendship was productive and mutually beneficial for a very long time. Then, the pandemic struck and they started higher education. However, icy44 does note that they were not always that similar in terms of talkativeness and social liveliness. These life changes presumably led to the friend undergoing substantial changes in life.
These changes included an intense belief in tarot cards, astrology, witches and spell casting, for which icy44 does not believe in. In fact, icy44 is so skeptical of these things that she has a very hard time to even take what her friend says seriously. Another problem is that the friend developed a sort of obsession about it and does not seem to be able to stop talking about it. It progressed so far that icy44 does not want to spend time with her friend alone. She also do not want to bring her to social gatherings because the friend would embarrass herself.
The relationship advice that icy44 is looking for is not how to stop being friends. Instead, she wants to keep the friendship intact. However, she wants advice on how to skillfully handle this new situation.
When friendships go stale
Some friendships you form when you are young might last for a lifetime. Others only last for a couple of days when you are travelling to some other city or country and meet someone. People move in and out of your friendship circles, becoming closer at times and more distant at others. This is perfectly normal and it happens sometimes without us even noticing it.
It is absolutely crucial to understand that adult friendships are voluntary. You should never feel pressured to remain friends with someone if the relationship is not working out for you. If they are abusive towards you or do not respect your time, effort and boundaries, you are well within your right to put the friendship on ice or abandon it entirely. You do not owe anyone friendship.
Breaking up with friends are relatively easy. You can do the direct method by saying to them that you think they treat you bad, are going in an extremely problematic direction in life or whatever the issue is about. You can also do it over time by spending less and less time with them, getting back to them progressively later and less often and so on. This is a perfectly reasonable method if you know they react badly to criticism or risk having an emotional breakdown if you try to leave.
Exploring why the friend turned to new age nonsense
As we saw above, icy44 does not want to break up with her friend. Instead, she wants to stay friends but seeks a way out of the current predicament.
One way is to plant the seeds of doubt through gentle questioning. This can involve asking the friend about why she believes what she believes. It might also involve asking for the evidential support for those beliefs. It is often best to read up on the belief systems and the scientific research that has been done on them so that one is prepared for a robust and productive discussion.
However, there is also another road to explore. It seems that the new beliefs in new age nonsense coincided with large changes in life, such as the pandemic or going to college. This might mean that the friend is undergoing a lot of stress or perhaps mental illness where the new age stuff is a crutch to handle the changes in life. It might also be the case that some pseudoscience pusher is exploiting her vulnerability and gotten her sucked into it. If that is the case, approaching her with a pure scientific or skeptical attitude is perhaps not the most effective method. It might be better to talk to her with a more understanding and psychologically insightful perspective.
The value of communication
No matter what approach, it is important to focus on communication. The user icy44 needs to communicate her concerns to her friend. This can be done directly by setting up and communicating a boundary that says “no new age stuff when we hang out together”. A less confrontational part might be to guide the interaction to some other shared interest. It can also involve a more concerned approach by stating that she thinks that the new age stuff is taking up a too large part of her friend’s life and that she is worried for her.