A few years ago, I made the life-changing decision to not book social engagements that were not a special occasion or holiday any more than two weeks in advance. It was a culmination of having to work around other people’s schedules months in advance, only for the date to arrive and then get cancelled, and the sense of overwhelm I felt at having my calendar booked up. It was as if I could never catch up with myself.
There was a teething period: I had to explain why I was doing this, accept that there were some friends who wouldn’t be okay with it, and make exceptions for friends who would need to sort out babysitting, but it completely altered how I feel about the week ahead on a Sunday night.
Recently however, I’ve been feeling that same sense of overwhelm – but this time, it’s around my phone and the pressure to be respond to messages immediately.
The ability to see when people are online and have read your messages has changed societal expectations in how we communicate. It’s as if my front door is permanently open, and if I close the door, even for a day, people will send messages like “are you okay?” or “why haven’t you replied to my message?” It’s left me feeling anxious, nauseous and almost nostalgic for the days of delivering handwritten letters via horse.
The two main obstacles to effecting any change have been fear of missing out on some vital piece of information, and having to pro-actively say no to people, which, being conflict-averse, I find unappealing.
On top of this, the pandemic has radically blurred the boundaries of communication. While hybrid working has in some ways been a much-needed shift from draconian attitudes that employees can only be trusted if they are in the office and able to be observed, it has destroyed the sanctity between home and work.
Home was previously a shorthand for “do not disturb unless it’s an emergency”, and a respect for a personal life. Now, it is not. Even being ill has seen goalposts shift. Previously, you would be at home if you were sick, and be allowed to recuperate in peace. Now, there’s a pervasive attitude that even if you’re sick, surely you could still potentially do a Zoom call?
When I had Covid for the second time and was doing consultancy work for a corporation, I felt guilty about not attending online work calls and pushed myself to do it anyway – even though they told me to rest up. For people with people pleasing tendencies, perfectionists or straight out workaholics, there is no sanctity because the boundaries have not been reset. We are still behaving as if we are in fight or flight mode – and it’s burning us out.
A similar thing could be said of social engagements. During lockdown, we socialised through Zoom hangouts and used Whatsapp more than ever to keep in touch. The circumstances have since changed, but the expectation has not. And now, sitting underneath all of that – particularly last year – was the bubbling anxiety of trying to cram the experiences of three years into one.
The tipping point for me recently was an intense period where I was working seven days a week for over a month. Just when I finally had a chance to catch up with friends and relax, I caught Covid. Trapped at home, experiencing the intense fatigue that comes with it, I snapped. I felt it all piling on top of me: the postponed social engagements, friends asking me in a very well-meaning way how my symptoms were, and my mother wanting to know my social plans for the next six months. Something had to change.
The biggest change has been refusing to commit to plans unless I feel ready to. Mentally, I haven’t had the space or time to be able to think about what I want the year to look like, and crucially plans I want to make that I want to do solo. A big focus for me for the next two years is ticking off some of my bucket list travel – which I can’t do if I’ve committed to several other holidays because I’m too worried about letting people down.
The second thing is managing my phone. The most immediate and effective change I’ve made is turning off all my Whatsapp notifications and when people can see me online. The latter made me feel as if I had to respond because they could “see” me, and even just a week of doing it has made me feel calmer.
Finally, I’ve been trying to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable about not being available to people all the time. I worry constantly that people will think I’m being a bad friend, negligent, selfish. But the reality is that anyone who has empathy will understand if you are at the limits of what you can give.
We need a strong reset around communications and boundaries. Cynically, I believe a majority of our communications are because we feel we should, not because we have something to say. Maybe if we reduce the expectation to be online all the time, it will free us up to do so many other things. I don’t want the year to pass by in yet another blur as life rushes by. I want to breathe, take a moment and figure out what matters. And no matter how hard I try, I will never find that within a phone.