why is posting so easy and talking IRL so hard?
mixed feelings is a weekly advice column. Every Wednesday, a different mental health expert, author, or journalist will respond to your problems and existential questions. If you like this sort of thing, why not subscribe?
dear mixed feelings,
I've been living between California and New York because I work remotely. Since moving, a number of close friends and family members have expressed their annoyance at my lack of staying-in-touch (catching up via phone calls) and being unresponsive to texts. I feel like when I'm visiting the West Coast, someone from my East Coast life resents me for not making space for them (and vice versa) but still being active on social media.
I can understand how seeing my Instagram stories annoys my friends and family when I haven't gotten back to their message. I'm not sure why I do this. I know there's an aspect of ego-boosting I get from Instagram, but part of me also just likes that I can turn my notifications off on apps, throw up my content, and then put my phone away.
I prefer interpersonal communication, and I do think it's easier to be present for people based on proximity. My brother and my dad have both made snarky comments like "You post so many stories but you can't respond to my texts." Why can I be so active on social media but can't seem to connect or stay in touch with people I love on a regular basis? — Ms. Contradiction, she/her
dear ms. contradiction,
For the sake of transparency, I’m going to tell you that I wrapped up 2021 with 784 unread text messages. Every day for the last few years, I have walked through life with a sneaking suspicion that I am disappointing almost everyone I care about by not being responsive or available. The most annoying thing about shame to me is how it shows up, often as simply as thinking you’re a bad texter. But once you interrogate, you realize an unfulfilling job leaves you with little to pour into relationships, half of your friends are actually energy vampires, or perhaps you’re no longer the kind of person who can provide the accessibility your people have grown accustomed to. The second most annoying thing about shame is how it grows like weeds in our relationships, suffocating anything and everything worth having if we don’t address it.
It’s interesting that the average person understands that social media is a highlight reel and a simulation, but can’t contextualize how this may be the exact reason why it is a million times easier to connect in small doses digitally. One of the curses of social media is that even the people with whom we have extremely intimate bonds think they are entitled to access to us just because they can see we are sitting at home rather than doing something they deem more pressing, like work.
In times when intimacy feels heavy, overwhelming, or simply too time consuming, posting on Instagram is just entertainment and an easy way to be perceived—not a substitute for our relationships. What I’m not saying when I post a picture of my new gel extension set? I’m buried in work and feel like I’m failing at everything! I might have a crush but I can’t tell because I think I may have developed an avoidant attachment style from my last relationship! This is what I would say if I had picked up the phone and called any of the friends I’ve left on “read”—past or present—but I don’t want to burden them and it feels like a liability to even speak any of that into existence outside the safety of therapy. Your relationship with social media does not seem to be a core issue, though an incredibly understandable insecurity in the boundary-less digital age we live in. It is, however, a distraction from both your problem and your solution. It’s also a symptom of something a bit deeper: a changing person with a reasonably-shifted capacity for chit-chat and a fear of disappointing people you love.
let yourself change
My shame about being unresponsive to texts and calls started to chip away at me—I felt like an imposter for being able to communicate with my collected following of thousands across social media platforms, but not respond to my homegirl who is consistent, kind, and just wanted to catch up. My ability to juggle so many interpersonal relationships was once my superpower, but I began to feel I had conned everyone into loving me without the bandwidth to meet their expectations as the attentive and soul-enriching person they’d met. Around the same time the Dark Cloud of Unread Texts started hovering over my head, I got into therapy. I learned the word “boundaries,” and then most importantly, learned I had none. Questioning whether my existing connections were actually fulfilling for me, and considering how many I was floundering in because I didn’t know how to say “No” or “How about we have a relationship like this instead?” debilitated me.
Instead of drawing those boundaries, I disappeared. I didn’t want to text anyone throughout the day anymore. I noticed my exhaustion leaving a coffee date or lunch with people I referred to as friends, but felt more like performers for whom I was an audience. All of this was pertinent information for me to define who I wanted to continue relationships with and how those relationships could be fruitful for both parties.
The nitty gritty? My capacity to be accessed changed. It sounds like you’re changing, too. There’s very little in your life not shifting with such a transient lifestyle; I’d imagine your emotional world mirrors your physical reality, as it so often does. Being afraid to disappoint people by telling them they have the wrong idea about the kind of friendship and communication you are able to deliver right now, will set you up for years of chronically disappointing yourself.
Downtime and frivolity are important for mental health, and someone posting on Instagram does not bear the same weight as a phone call in which emotional labor is expected to be carried both ways. In Set Boundaries, Find Peace, therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab explains that we can fail to create small boundaries because “sometimes we do things that aren’t important to us, but that we believe maintain a particular image of someone who has it all together.” Stick to what is important to you. Not wanting to talk, being too tired to talk, and being too depressed to talk are all valid reasons to not pick up the phone or answer a text. And yeah, I’m gonna get these memes off while not responding.
You’re at a reasonable limit because you, like everyone else, have experienced two years of generational and global crisis, have made life-altering shifts, and are probably no longer the same person who could fire off a text with ease to 20 people a day. “Setting a limit about what we’re reasonably able and willing to do is a good way to manage anxiety triggers,” Tawwab writes in her book. Failing to meet expectations can cause severe anxiety on top of daily stressors. Allowing yourself to be a new person who cannot be in touch the way you once were is the first step to not feeling like a total asshole. The next step is taking stock of who and what are worthy of your time and taking proactive measures to feed these connections.
Initiate simple but effective shifts in expectation. When it comes to asserting our needs in relationships, shame researcher and author Dr. Brene Brown is clear that “daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.” Just because your dad wants a phone call on Tuesday doesn’t mean he gets one. Instead, you can proactively text him to let him know Saturday morning works great for a call instead. If you find yourself forgetting your best friend on the East Coast reached out, shoot her a voice note to let her know you’re thinking of her, you can’t get back right away, but will be back in town in a week and have made reservations at your favorite spot. These actions let you create the terms in your relationships and let your folks know A) you were thinking of them, and B) you want to provide solutions to what they have identified as a rift in your connection.
In some ways, you’ve solved your own problem. You understand presence and proximity are most valuable to you. You know you are not available for surface-level text convos, but are willing to set aside one-on-one time when you’re back on whichever coast you jetsetted away from. The most important touchstone for you here is avoiding becoming a person who is less impeccable with your word and commitment to loving people than you are comfortable with. I think you’ll find one honest conversation about your capacity for communication right now will actually disappoint very few, if any at all. If it does, I grant you permission to acknowledge that you may hurt some people you love and to forgive yourself for not being able to communicate with others what you may not have even understood about yourself yet.
Before midnight struck on New Years 2022, I deleted all 784 unread texts and gave myself a blank slate. I vowed to be honest with the people I love about my capacity, to forgive myself for any harm I’ve caused and will cause in learning my boundaries, and to thank my people for loving me anyway. Those who I know I cannot and will not ever please? I chalk it up to incompatibility and keep pushing forward. Guilt about wanting to post jokes on social media while not wanting to have a full-on chat with someone? Throw it in the trash. You will not please everyone, but you can please yourself and be the kind of friend and family member you would love to have.
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