The Knot of Anxiety and the Circle of Influence

You can listen to me read this as an audio-blog (8 minutes).

I was musing the other day about my life as a teenager.  I was reflecting on how much calmer, more simple, and less dramatic life was then. Most importantly, I was remembering how much better I used to sleep.

I was lucky to grow up on the cusp of emerging technology, but lately, I find myself missing the old days. Back then, solid plans were made with friends on the weekend and rarely broken. If you had to break plans, it meant making a phone call to your friend’s parent’s landline in the hope that your friend would even be there to pick up. If I was expected home at 7pm, I walked through the door at 7pm. My only way to tell Mum that I would be late was to use a BT payphone, and again, she would have to be home to get the call.

If you were with your friends, you gave them your undivided attention. There wasn’t a device to pull out every 10 minutes, so these were truly personal times without distractions.

Mum then got me a pager. The most anxiety I ever felt would be when that super-cool brick of technology on my hip would buzz. It would usually mean one of two things: Mum was pranking me (she loved nothing more than to ring the operator and leave a silly message for me) or I wasn’t at the designated pickup point and she needed to tell me where she was parked. It was a one-way conversation.

Then mobile phones hit the scene. I still remember my first ever mobile, the Motorola C520. Texts were extortionately expensive, and phone calls meant you had to sell a kidney. We used them in a very different way and with far more intent than we do now. The constraint on price meant we were always conscious of our time on them.

I’m making it sound like I’m a dinosaur who’s unhappy that technology moved on, but let’s face it, I wouldn’t be doing what I love without them. I adore them and still sit in awe of this device that sits in my pocket, but I think we’re missing a crucial element.

Our social circles got blurred and we set the limited access to ourselves to “all of the time” and “everywhere”.

It’s all about access.

I’ve had a knot of anxiety in my stomach for months. Some days I even have chest pain. “It’s dull and nothing to worry about”, I tell myself. I found myself anxious to look at my phone in the morning (especially when I was in the States and the UK had been awake for 5 hours). I was anxious after long periods of time away from my phone, like when I was transatlantic flying sans internet. I was constantly worried that when I turned it back on, I would be pinged with impending doom.

I already had most notifications set to “badges only”, no banners, and no home-screen notifications, but even then seeing the numbers rise would fill me with dread. I never knew what to expect and I was anxious about how people would feel if I didn’t get back to them quick enough.

Maybe other people don’t have this problem, but I’m pretty damn sure I’m not alone.

It’s all about access.

I was giving everyone access to me, all of time. It was like having someone jumping up and down in front of me screaming “I’m here! I’m here! I’m here! Answer me! Answer me! Answer me!”.

I started putting everyone in boxes. I realised I needed to control who was where for my own sanity. My Facebook had employees of Blushbar, group members from various hobbies, work friends, and industry friends. The lines were all blurred. I would be getting messages via Facebook messenger from an employee telling me they were sick, whilst simultaneously congratulating pregnant friends and checking rehearsal schedules. Three separate patterns of thought and three separate social circles, all at once. Total lunacy.

My breaking point this month was when a friend of a friend used my personal What’s App to keep pestering me about advice on her career. Despite the fact that I had never even met her,  she had no regard for what time the messages were sent. Her messages would range from 6.30am to 1.30am.

I’ve noticed What’s App has become the go to “I want an answer and I want it now” app. It’s widely used in the UK in place of iMessage. It’s by far the most intrusive form of messaging, and in my opinion, it’s what sets it apart from iMessage. It tells the recipient if and when you’ve read their message and even lets them know it has been delivered to your phone (but hasn’t been read yet). I’ve discovered that people are using it to force a response. As the reader, I feel a sense of pressure to respond because the author of the message knows I’ve read it and I’m not responding.

I have spoken to friends who do the same with Facebook messenger. They don’t read messages because they don’t want someone to know they’ve read it until they’ve got time to respond properly.

I knew that something needed to change for me.

I asked my Blushbar employees (nicely of course) to stop using iMessage, Facebook Messenger, or What’s App to talk to me, and instead switch all communication to Slack. I removed Blushbar employees from my Facebook and my personal Twitter account.

I toyed with the idea of deleting everyone from my Facebook and starting again, but there seems to be a certain social etiquette around doing that. I decided there would be less fallout to just mute 80% of them and set up a “close friends” group who can see my new posts. As far as the rest go, I was happy to go dark. I deleted any people I didn’t speak to regularly and stopped notifications from Facebook messenger.

I then set about compartmentalising my work life. My work chatter, correspondence, and social all happens on Twitter, so it made sense for that to be the work “water-cooler”. I removed all work acquaintances from Facebook and removed all friends and acquaintances from Twitter.

I then had friends in silos that were no longer screaming at me or fighting for attention. I knew my personal social priorities on a day-to-day basis and could better handle any social anxiety that stemmed from them. I could now decide to turn notifications on or off daily, based on what was happening in my life that week/month. I knew if there was a number “4” notification on Facebook, it wasn’t going to be a work issue. If twitter was alight, it was likely to be because Sketch just had an update, or someone was expressing genuine appreciation for an online course.

The possibilities of what I could read were no longer blurred and my imagination didn’t have to run wild if I was in a situation where I couldn’t respond. In just a few days, I’m much more calm and enjoying social platforms again.

It feels like a form of social prescription and it feels good. My self diagnoses was clear: channels of specific people, limited notifications, put down the phone at 9pm where possible, set it to “emergency contacts only” on “do not disturb” and pick up a book instead.

You might be happy with everyone having access to you all of the time, but I wasn’t. It was actually making me ill.

Look at everyone that has access to you and how. Are you allowing situations or toxic people to pop up on your feed hourly? Is that healthy? Are your messages from true friends being drowned out by the majority noise?

These were all questions I started to ask myself and it helped me to make a change. You can curate and create what you see, from the moment you wake up, to the last feed you scroll at night. It took me a while to realise this. Now the question is whether or not those feeds should be the first and last thing we look at in the day, but that’s for another time.

Remember, it’s all about access.

  • Stevr

    Fantastic post and you’ve really got me thinking about how I handle people in my social circles and social media.

    You also made me laugh, sleep better as a teenager, yes I did as it’s now 1am and I’m reading your blog. Great memories of pagers and phones it’s all so true, calling my for freinds, ahh simple days.

  • I’m glad you found something that helped, and I’m sure your sharing this approach will help others. I’ve done similar (kept Twitter to professional life, Facebook to personal, zero WhatsApp, no notifications/badges). The one challenge for me is that there isn’t a set social standard. I use Twitter professionally, but my non-technie friends use it personally. And they’re not wrong to do that. I’m curious whether and how people will eventually agree on which platform is for what.

  • Great thoughts and ideas. I hope that your sense of peace continues and you figure out how to best interact with your different circles.

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  • RobM

    Makes complete sense.

    I opted for a similar solution … I have Twitter for work/industry stuff, Facebook for personal stuff, and Whatsapp for close friends only. It’s an easy way to let you determine the priority and attention you assign to each, based on its likely importance.

    Glad to hear it’s working for you!

  • Jack

    Good read, I appreciate the time taken to share your experience with this type of anxiety.

    I have considerably smaller circles of friends/colleagues/contacts but I too suffered from notification anxiety. Or at least I used to; I’ve done a very similar thing to you by simply reducing and consolidating my points of communication down to a very few apps. I don’t use Whatsapp, ignore facebook, but I do use iMessage and MailBox for emails and glance at Twitter now and then (same, for work chatter). That’s about it. Often, if I really want to talk to someone I’ll call them – less risk of misunderstanding tone.

    My biggest problem used to be work emails “out of hours” (I know for most that doesn’t exist as they’re 24/7 people). I got into a terrible state where I used to have my full-time work emails sent to my phone – personal phone not work phone I should add – only to get emails from clients whilst I’m out, on holiday or late at night, which I could literally not do anything about. I couldn’t help them, do the change they wanted or reply with anything useful. But I had just read it. Then I had to count down 10/48 or so hours until I actually could do something about it! That’s where the worry took sunk in.

    There’s got to be something in the saying “ignorance is bliss”.

    Anyway, you’re spot on with “access”. Control that and you’re good to go.

  • Smart! I’ve struggled with how to handle the compartmentalization for a long time… I don’t want people to feel like I am excluding them or ignoring them. However, it’s just craziness now and I think it makes me duller instead of brighter. Please let us know how it goes.

  • (Also, I am really happy you are blogging again.)

  • Very well put together, Sarah. I think I sort of fell into compartmentalising the various social networks and “access” – Facebook was only ever reserved for friends and only recently family. And like you I use Twitter as my work water cooler. More so now since I moved away from the UK and work remotely – it can be a bit quiet working from home in a far away country!

    I can understand how WhatsApp can be a bit intrusive – however for me it’s my lifeline to a lot of friends and family back in the UK. I don’t think I could do without that or Hangouts. But, thankfully, it’s all family and friends on there. Nothing work related or randoms!

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  • Great post/audio, Sarah! There are so many inboxes out there — social, email, text, apps, etc. Do you text with clients? I do but I try to limit it. Considering a 2nd phone though.

  • “I toyed with the idea of deleting everyone from my Facebook and starting again.”

    I actually did this a couple of years ago. I find I had around 300 friends on Facebook because I’d have people on their who I may have spoken to once and that’s deemed good enough to be “friends” online. I’m now down to under 100 of my closest friends and family after re-adding the people who actually mattered in my life.

    Yes, a few people were miffed at being “un-friended” but as I say, these were people I had spoken to once and I wasn’t going to miss them all that much.

    I’m still far too “accessible” as you put it in your post. Although I have Do Not Disturb mode enabled on my iPhone from the evening until the morning, I do get push notifications for Twitter and Facebook on my iPhone during the day. This post has given me food for thought in not only disabling these push notifications, but removing the apps entirely. Do I need Twitter, Facebook etc. on my iPhone if all I do when I hear a ping is open a new browser tab any way?

  • Absolutely loved reading this piece. Gave me a strange sense of relief when all the platforms were finally channelized into categories.

    Listening to the post added a very personal and intimate touch, felt like somebody was reading a bedtime story to me. Thanks a lot for sharing this. 🙂

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