We asked a mental health expert: Why do we air the people we love?

No, it doesn’t make you a terrible person

I’m terrible at replying to messages from friends, family, even people I’m seeing. They’re all people I love, but I just can’t bring myself to reply to their messages asking how my week is going. And it makes me feel like a terrible person.

I genuinely want to speak to them and I know replying to their messages would take roughly two minutes. It will also probably make me feel better, but I still struggle to do it sometimes. I’ll leave messages unopened for days, even weeks at a time. The longer I leave it, the guiltier I feel, the harder it is to reply. It just becomes a vicious cycle. 

I’m not alone in this. Shona, 20, from Essex, feels the same. “Since the start of the pandemic I’ve found replying to texts so much harder. Even though replying to a message sounds simple, it drains me of energy which I just don’t have,” they told The Tab. 

why-do we-air-the-people-we-love

‘Replying to messages drains me of energy I don’t have’

So why do we do it? Are we lazy? Rubbish communicators? Simply bad friends? I spoke to Neev Spencer, a mental health campaigner, to ask why we often find it hard to reply to the people. This is what she had to say:

‘We share and overshare almost everything we do’

Neev said that the pandemic has affected the way we communicate. “We used to speak to our families and friends in times of crisis or in moments of celebration, but now we are logging on and Zooming in to let them know what we’re thinking of having for dinner,” Neev told The Tab. 

Whilst this might sound lovely on the face of it, in reality it’s leaving us exhausted. Neev said: “The pandemic routine of Zoom quiz nights and endless WhatsApp groups has left us burnt out in a way we haven’t experienced before.”

Neev has struggled with this herself, “muting Whatsapp groups left right and centre to avoid getting involved with the conversation.”

This expectation to be constantly communicating, combined with the fact these new forms of communication don’t allow us to connect to people in the same way as in-person contact, has drained us massively. We’re constantly expected to be more in-touch, even though the benefits aren’t as great. 

‘We’re too burnt out for small talk’ 

As lockdown eases, daily Facetimes with family members have continued, especially with loved ones who may still be shielding or uncomfortable returning to social settings.

Except now, we’re having to balance this with our returning social lives. Neev said, this has left us “more reliant on interactions with others than ever, yet we’re too burnt out for small talk.”

She describes this as “emotional fatigue” adding that “for so many, simply having the energy to get through each day over the last 18 months has been hard enough, without having to manage an over-subscribed message inbox of friends, family, colleagues and triple postponed hen do’s.”

‘There’s a sense of feeling guilty for not getting back to people’ 

But it’s not just that. According to Neev, instant messaging culture can take a toll on our mental health “by putting unnecessary pressure on us to be constantly available.”

We are “visible to the world all the time,” with messaging services often showing our active status,  adding an extra layer of guilt to not replying to people.

I’ve also found myself replying to some people much quicker than others. Does that mean I like them more? Not necessarily. Whilst Neev points out we often reply quickest to people we know best since “there are no formalities and they tend to know what you’re up to”, this isn’t always the case. Rather, our response times are often as much to do with the content of the message as the person.

“If it’s a big ‘OMG I just got engaged!’, a thumbs up emoji isn’t going to suffice. But so many of us simply don’t have the time to give the response we might have previously been able to consider”, Neev said.

This has become increasingly enabled by new features, such as being able to preview messages on Facebook Messenger without fully opening them, allowing us to instantly filter out messages we don’t need to reply to instantly. It can also explain why it feels a lot easier to send TikToks or memes to friends, whilst ignoring their messages on another platform. 

‘Don’t feel guilty for not being able to keep up’ 

So, how can we deal with this? Neev said that sometimes taking “a few big steps back” from social media is the best approach. “Don’t ever feel guilty for not being able to keep up,” Neev said. “We’re all muddling through this ‘new normal’ at our own pace”, she said. Taking on more than you can handle just to appear polite can only make matters worse.”

To do this, she said it is important to implement boundaries and stick to them, such as setting your profile to “urgent calls only”. “You cannot be there for everyone all the time, it’s far more important that you are there for yourself and take the space you need to adjust”, Neev added. 

Whilst she said it was generally best to reply within 48 hours, this will be different for different people and the most important thing is to not place added pressure on yourself if you do find yourself airing your friends. “Don’t be so hard on yourself. If you miss a message, or say no to a dinner – that’s ok”, Neev  told The Tab.

Sometimes freeing up you calendar could be the best approach. “Make plans to have no plans and take things at your own pace. People in your life will understand, and will much prefer to spend time with you when you can give the best version of yourself to the situation, rather than a half-there, half-worried about the next interaction you’ve over-committed to”, Neev said. 

Not replying to messages instantly, or communicating solely through TikToks doesn’t make you a terrible person, just a tired one. So, next time you’re about to beat yourself up about the unanswered messages in your inbox, go easy on yourself. And if you’re struggling with a friend who is a serially slow replier, chances are, it’s probably not personal. If you think something deeper is going on, however, it’s always worth reaching out to them and asking if everything is okay.

Neev Spencer is a mental health campaigner and TV & radio broadcaster. You can follow her on Instagram at @neevkspencer

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