Over the past several years, ever since starting University, I’ve had the great fortune of meeting some of the most amazing, inspiring people in my life, and I’m blessed to be able to call them my friends. Through classes, student groups and working for several administrative departments, my network of friends and acquaintances has grown steadily overtime. It often startles me when I recall that only a few years earlier I was unable to walk through the halls of the same university due to crippling social anxiety and depression. My, how things have changed! While I would never wish to experience that terrible time again, an active social life can have its downsides too.
Therapy and medication were crucial to the improvement of my condition, but my own hard work, both mentally and physically, was nothing short of a herculean effort. So, I’m incredibly grateful for the life I have now. But, nowadays, sometimes I find myself so bogged down with social obligations that I just want to shut the whole world out. I look at my phone with loathing as I open my bleary eyes in the morning and I’ve already received ten e-mails requesting information and beckoning an immediate response. The first half of my day is usually spent answering these e-mails. Then I see that all my apps are lit up like a Christmas tree with little notification bobbles all over and the anxiety takes over. There are text messages which need to be answered, Snapchat alerts, Whatsapp alerts, Facebook Messenger notifications, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram notifications. Linkedin and Academia.edu notices occasionally, and…I’m sure I’m forgetting some others. And I’m not alone! “A study by Ipsos found that the average social network user spends 3.6 hours on social media every day,” and, if we’re awake 16 hours each day, that means nearly 25 percent of our waking time is spent on Facebook, Twitter, and the rest (Source) . Moreover, people under 35 spend an average of ~4.2 hours per day on social media! No wonder I find myself constantly distracted or running out of time.
It is absolutely my choice to use these platforms and most of the time I love to use them all. Social media is an important aspect of my research, and I’m usually the one defending its use. But, and perhaps it’s the Winter Blues setting in, I’m starting to feel social (media) fatigue. Completing proposals, applications, research work, evaluating student papers, tutoring, while also being there for family and friends, keeping a clean environment in my home, eating healthy, attempting to get to the gym (and failing to do so usually), along with 50 other little things in the day (appointments, meetings etc.), can definitely take its toll. And, what am I forgetting? Oh yes, the thing that rules my life all day everyday: my thesis. With my mind so preoccupied, I often find myself reaching for the same phone I loathe to get lost in my various social media feeds, or to text a friend to hang out. But while we’re together, no matter how many of us there are, we are on our phone constantly. It’s a vicious cycle.
Sherry Turkle, Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, calls it “our steady state of distracted connectedness.” You may have seen her very accurate TED Talk called “Connected but Alone?”. In it, she talks about how social media and technology have changed the way we live and communicate. This certainly applies to me. I started to notice that my cellphone was controlling my life when I started waking up at all hours of the night to check it.
I’ve always had problems with “balance”. I only understand extremes. However, recently, I’ve started to say “no” a lot more. In the beginning, when I would say “no” to my friends or loved ones, I felt an extreme sense of guilt. I do not like to disappoint people, and I fear that I may be doing so at a time when they need me most. But in thinking this way, I neglect to recognize the strength and resilience of the people around me, or that I do a great disservice to them if I am not at my best. How can I help them if I’m barely hanging on myself? Furthermore, in saying “no” to social events and obligations, extra work tasks, phone calls, and the general activities that I’m using to procrastinate or avoid my own issues, I feel a great sense of relief and normalcy. I feel like some semblance of sanity is restored and “my mind can breathe”, if that makes sense.
There is also a gendered and cultural aspect to this need for people-pleasing (“isn’t there always” -says the anthropologist). Even now as I think about saying “no” to my friends or social obligations, I feel like I’m being selfish. As a woman, I’ve been socialized to put other people first, to care for and nurture others, and this is particularly prevalent in Indian culture. Indian women are supposed to be self-sacrificing, giving beings. They are supposed to attend to the other person’s needs, often at great expense to their self and their voice. I do this a lot. I willingly quash my reservations and my needs for others. I repress my inner voice and neglect my goals, especially if those goals induce fears or anxiety. This way I can rationalize that I’m “being there” for another person in need, so it’s not really procrastinating and I’m just being a good, unselfish person. On top of that, my ridiculously high standards for myself make me question if I am still a “good person” if I do say “no”. So, when I finally do say “no” it is accompanied with unnecessary apologies and justifications. But, as the image above says: “no” is a complete sentence. It does not require justification or explanation.
These days I’ve begun to catch myself as I’m about to say “yes” to something. Who am I doing this for? Am I doing so because I feel obligated? Am I only doing this so a person will like me more/not hate me? How will it help me, or, more importantly, how will it hinder my progress for my own goals? Would it be better if I just went home and slept so I can be more present during the thing I really need to do? In asking these questions, I often reach a conclusion I’ve known all along: that the people who truly care about me will understand. And, that, at this fragile moment in my life, I need to be present and accountable to my self and my life first, before I can be there for others.
But the ever-present spectre of social media haunts me some days. Sure, I could deactivate all the accounts, but I genuinely enjoy knowing how my family and friends are doing. And, I get a ton of great information, articles and news from Twitter – in fact, I consider it my favorite platform. Besides, being “offline” completely would only reinforce my bad habit of living in extremes. It’s the compulsive checking I want to avoid. I’ve realized that much of that stems from the same need to people-please, the fear of “not knowing”, and “missing out” to a lesser degree, coupled with boredom and procrastination.
In looking for resources on this issue, I stumbled across “The Joy of Missing Out” by Christina Crook. JOMO instead of FOMO: what a neat idea! In it, Crook argues that “presentness, intentionality and limited connections are the keys to our joy.” All three factors are important to me as I try to cultivate mindfulness, peace and self-compassion in my life. So, I’m limiting myself to only 30 minutes of social media a day. If I miss an article, a news event, or life update, then so be it. In return, I’m hoping that I will be able to refocus my mind on more important things, and, maybe in time, I can begin to reincorporate it into the fabric of my day. But, right now, social media is just static and noise in my life.
To help with my problem of not being able to say “no” to friends, loved ones, and people in general, I’m going to prioritize the things I need to do for myself first (including self-care). I want the time I spend with my friends to be meaningful and valuable. It’ll be tough because I’ll be plagued with the idea of others feeling bad, but, as with my feelings of social anxiety all those years ago, much of that is an imaginary fear. The same irrational inner voice and chatter that filled my head then has been replaced with social insecurities, internet noise and chatter. I don’t want that noise in my life; I’d rather my life be a song.