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Why Are Our Social Lives Burning Us Out?

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Photo: Anna Sudit
I want to hang out with you.

I do, I promise. When I suggest we grab dinner or tea or coffee or a breadstick or whatever they have at a buffet restaurant of your choosing, I’m not joking. I don’t believe in false plans, nor do I attempt to be your friend if I’d rather do the opposite. I love hanging out, and I like making friend dates. Too much, evidently, because here we are.

I’m no stranger to burnout. Back in January, I wrote about how I learned to say no to too much work. Last year, I’d hit a wall, taking on too much of everything before realising my anxiety attacks were stemming from my lifelong compulsion to live excessively. I didn’t set boundaries, I worked until I was exhausted and panicky, and on top of my working week, I kept my social life thriving, telling myself I could do it all.

Which, of course, is no anomaly. Last week, writer Devon Maloney opened up about her own tendency to do too much, stemming from lessons in Time Turners courtesy of Hermione Granger. She rightly stated that millennials are the most stressed generation so far, and that we’ve “grown from obsessive pre-teens into ambitious, extended adults.” It’s true – for the last month, my conversations with friends have been defined by our collective feeling that we’re strapped for time and totally exhausted, particularly as we attempt to Tetris our weeks into collages of productivity or Instagrammable moments.

Because now that it’s getting nice out, we have to be out. We have to parlay dinners into evening and nighttime adventures, capitalise on patio and park availability, and pack as many events into the available hours as humanly possible. And to back out isn’t an option. Not if you want to be a good friend or live a full life or – and I hate myself for even typing this – if you want to “have it all.”

Which I know is a myth. To do and to be “all” is subjective and unrealistic and the creation of a society that thrives on comparison. This is what I tried to remind myself of as I looked at blank spaces in my calendar and panicked, thinking I wasn’t doing enough, or being enough. So I’d chase away my gut feeling to avoid making plans and I’d gag it with even more, building a social life almost entirely founded upon living up to expectations that I’d created for myself, and subsequently avoiding any/all spring and summer-induced FOMO.

And I’m sure we can all guess exactly how that went.
Photo: Anna Sudit

Since learning how to balance my working day (see: by structuring it like a regular working day), I’ve started to love writing again. Unlike this time last year, I wake up excited to start something new, to send pitch emails, and to challenge myself with new pieces and new ways of saying something. I feel like I’m doing exactly what I need to be doing, and have stopped comparing myself or where I’m at to other people. When I’m working I feel most in control, most like myself, and most like the person I want to be. Which was the opposite of how I began to feel when I was out.

But not all the time. If I took a weeknight off to stay in, catch up on deadlines, read, or just hang out with my cat, whatever I was up to the next night felt less like an obligation and more like what plans with pals are supposed to be: fun.
Just like too much work had left me standing over bathroom sinks remembering to breathe last summer, packing my schedule with plans left me unable to enjoy little to none of them. I’d worry about the time, how long I’d be expected to stay, how being tired tonight would affect my work and any plans the next day, and then I’d feel the all-too familiar pangs of anxiety creeping up (while reminding myself that if I could just take a few deep breaths I’d get out of this mental jam, no problem.)

Which is also exhausting. Anxiety is exhausting. Over-thinking is exhausting. Going out when you’d rather watch a Netflix series on British castles is exhausting. Being “on” is exhausting.

By the time May rolled around, I realised my tendency for excessiveness needed to be scaled back. So, bracing myself for the worst, I began rescheduling plans (and apologising profusely), certain my actions would result in a permanent rift between me and my pals due to me being a total let down.

Instead, it started important conversations, because that’s how real friendships work. With two of my friends, I explained that I needed to take more time with a piece before heading to bed, and our group thread grew into a conversation about how all of us have felt pressured to be and do all – and how we should check in more to make sure everybody’s doing alright. Another friend gave me a tip: stick to doing three things a day (exercise, work, dinner out – or some other combination), and avoid over-extension.
Not only were my friends cool if I needed to cancel because I was sick, tired, or trying to make a deadline, they all created a space in which we could talk about how frustrating it is to be self-appointed social superstars – especially since we weren’t expected to be. None of us had been guilted, shamed, or shunned about needing time alone or time to sleep or work or whatever, but many of us operated under the assumption that we couldn’t let anybody down.

And I think that’s an easy trap to fall into. When vying for perfection, it’s easy to forget that the people in your life are people, and not just part of an Instagram feed. And it’s even easier to forget that your friends will usually understand your need to stay in/tap out/take a break, because they’ve had those feelings too. After all, we’ve all felt tired, we’ve all felt anxious, we’ve all been afraid to let the people who mean the most to us down. But being honest isn’t an admission of failure, it’s proof that you’re human too. And if someone has an issue with rescheduling, cancelling, or not being able to attend a party, they’re usually not someone you want in your life.

The other night I was texting with a friend who’d recently moved to Los Angeles. She told me that she’d watched Netflix all day and planned to watch Netflix all night. I told her that sounded like a dream, and that I’d recently found that nights in and/or days spent at movies or museums alone were my favourite ways to relax, too. And then I came to the realisation that friendships aren’t jobs; they shouldn't demand your time and your energy in the same way – they should be the relief. And it’s usually in the honest, vulnerable moments of friendships, where we admit to feeling overwhelmed, that we forge the types of bonds that guarantee that even after someone moves a long-haul flight away, you still feel like you can talk to them about anything – even something as mundane as how much you're enjoying not making plans.
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