As party season approaches, there’s a sense of completely overwhelming dread that comes from the festive social calendar – here’s Poorna Bell’s trick for keeping it under control.
There are plenty of things that might make you feel sick. Bad seafood, for example, or losing £100, or a choppy ferry ride. It definitely shouldn’t be your social calendar.
But for many of us, social calendars are a source of stress; a pit of dread and overwhelm.
If your social life, and the organisation of it, is stressing you out, or making you feel like you can’t engage with it, that isn’t some trivial thing to be waved away. Yes, there are worse problems to have, and true, it is within your control, but that doesn’t mean the overwhelm you feel isn’t real, or shouldn’t be addressed.
After all, stress and burnout can make us feel disconnected, constantly irritable, as if what we do is never enough, anxious and over-burdened.
This is not what our social lives should do. Social lives are meant to be the reprieve from the chaos around us, offering fun, relief and sanctity in contrast to the formality and lack of control around other areas of our lives.
From time to time, though, my calendar spirals out of control until I end up with the equivalent of social lockjaw: unable to make any sort of plans until it unfreezes. This happened last month, when due to an inability to juggle work, gym training and seeing friends, I hit a wall and had to say no to everything.
Picking up the pieces again is hard work, and exhausting.
It seems to me that if I practiced healthy self care with my social life regularly, I wouldn’t need to get to the point where I experience anxious paralysis around it.
Previously, I had employed what I referred to as the two-week rule. This is where barring holidays or special occasions, I wouldn’t set a date with friends if it was over two weeks away.
This was to combat weekends being booked up months in advance, but also because anything could happen in that time whether it is illness, babysitters cancelling or shifting work schedules. And it did – around 70% of the time, when booked that far in advance, the other person would cancel.
The two-week rule meant that I could be more spontaneous with my time, and I didn’t feel so overwhelmed by commitments.
But what prompted the latest bout of social calendar anxiety was something I suspect a lot of people feel: a lack of time met with feeling constantly guilty that I am being a bad friend and am letting other people down.
We live in a time of hyperconnectivity and overshare, which creates social FOMO. On the one hand, we probably know a lot more about our friends’ lives than ever, thanks to social media. But because we don’t see people as often as the personal information we absorb about them, that makes us feel like we’re missing out on their lives.
Our phones also mean invites come in multiple routes, from group WhatsApps to Facebook events, as well as text, email and DMs. So rather than having one route you can tackle in an ordered way, you feel like you’re being assailed with information on all sides. I know someone who has deleted WhatsApp because of this, and a few have deleted Facebook altogether.
When I got into a spiral of how on earth I was going to see all of my friends and manage work and my hobbies, I decided that I needed to do a mental inventory of sorts. I came up with a list of questions that I had to ask myself whenever I felt stressed out by a social invite.
- Do you feel like by saying no, you’re a bad friend? Is there evidence to show you’re a bad friend?
- Would you make plans if you had the free time, but right now, the case is just that you don’t have the time?
- Is saying yes to this social occasion going to be good or neutral for your mental wellbeing, or will it be bad?
- Are you saying yes because you feel obligated rather than it being something you really want to do?
- Are you sacrificing or moving things around by saying yes, so that if the other person cancels, you will get resentful?
In most cases, I found that the answer was that I simply had a lot going on, and I wasn’t the world’s worst person by saying no. There’s also something to be said about the mathematics of compromising your own mental wellbeing just to meet a social commitment. If the whole point is to have fun or to bond with friends, are you able to actually do that?
To me, managing a social calendar well is to understand it as a paradox. On the one hand, it needs boundaries, rules and regular maintenance. But on the other hand, it also needs fluidity; open spaces where spontaneity can occur, where the different intensities of friendships flow together rather than perpetually making you feel like you aren’t doing enough.
I haven’t quite nailed it, but I am trying because life is hard enough with adding unnecessary stress. It’s time we reclaimed some of the fun of it back. And yes, even on the group WhatsApp.