I have a problem that I can’t figure out how to ask about anywhere without it sounding like a humblebrag, and I’m hoping you can help me. I’m fortunate enough to have a lot of friends in my life, and was doing okay with balancing my time with them pre-Covid, but now that vaccinations are happening, all the people I haven’t seen in 14 months are starting to ask when we can get together again.
It’s to a point where it’s not physically possible to give everyone the time I want to, but I don’t know how to tell any of them that it might be a few weeks because aaaaaaa social overload. I’m also not entirely sure how much I’m going to be able to handle once I start interacting with others that much again right now. What do you suggest?
Hello! I am happy to help with the occasional Good Problem, and I do have advice that I learned the hard way.
First, know yourself. Try to identify what level and frequency of socializing generally works for you so you don’t get overwhelmed. Start small. One 1:1 intimate hang and one group thing every week? More? Less? You can always adapt it, we’re just setting baselines to remind you that the 4th or 5th thing you say yes to in a given week is going to stretch your capacity.
Second, block out the time. Put everything you’re already committed to on your calendar. Then, look at your own routines and block out a few recurring regular times where you can and would enjoy scheduling hangouts and a few recurring, regular times that you should not schedule anything. In the olden times, people used to have “calling hours,” meaning times that they were generally available for visitors. What are your ideal calling hours? How much You-time do you need to thrive? Stop treating “rest” like empty space waiting to be filled.
Once you do this, instead of trying to adapt yourself to the influx of enthusiasm and negotiating with everyone else’s schedule (leading you to agree to everything, overcommit, and then collapse), channel people toward your truly available times. If you know you like your Sundays to be spent doing as little as possible, don’t schedule stuff on Sundays, and if you do, plan to keep it light for the following few days so you can rest.
Next, remember that invitations are not commands and “when can we get together?” isn’t an invitation (yet). A desire to spend time together is not an invitation until someone puts a date, time, and place on it, and it’s okay if that person isn’t you.
This means you can prioritize actual invitations, and translate non-specific iterations of “When can we hang out?” as “I am very excited to see you!” i.e. great to know, but not binding on either party until someone pulls out a calendar and makes it happen.
Treat “when are you free?” as a real question. Your friends can’t see your anxiety spiral or your calendar app. They asked you when, so set the default at when you’re actually free, not at when they hoped you would be or when you imagined they hoped, etc.. If you’ve blocked out regular chunks of time for both seeing others and rest, then you’re more equipped to say “Thursday nights are generally good for me, do you have time on _____ or _____?”
If this is the part that’s causing you anxiety, like, you can’t even look at your calendar right now, and you don’t have the bandwidth to initiate or nail down any plans, that’s okay! Read on.
Prompt the other person to fill in the blanks before investing a ton of mental energy. “I can’t wait to see you, either! My schedule is all over the place right now, but what do you have in mind?”
I don’t know if it’s a hangover from corporate culture or what, but politeness does not demand that you triple-check your friends’ calendars with their nonexistent assistants in advance to make absolutely sure they’ll say yes before asking them to do stuff. “Want to go to the beach with me on Saturday?” is a yes or no question* that doesn’t need to be cross-referenced with someone’s entire schedule and mental load. Being specific from the start also makes it easy to discuss alternatives. “No, I can’t, but would Sunday work?” “No beach for me, but do you want to get dinner that evening?”
Allow yourself the grace of “I don’t know.” Delay committing to things until you know for sure you can and want to do them. René at Black Girl, Lost Keys calls this “guarding your yes.”
“I need to check my calendar, when are you thinking?” is a useful stock response I heartily recommend for recovering people-pleasers and over-committers before agreeing to anything. My therapist once gave me an assignment to do this for a whole semester to break the habit, and it was exactly as awful as you imagine, but highly effective.
Pro-tip: Ask the person“When do I need to let you know?” or give yourself a deadline for deciding and put a reminder in your calendar to follow-up.
Set (and re-set) realistic expectations from the start. If what you need is wiggle-room in case of last minute schedule changes, say so. If you’re on a tight schedule or need another accommodation, say that.
Over the weekend a friend invited me to meet up for a patio lunch (yes!) and followed it up by saying that her schedule was full right now and was it okay if we hammered out the actual plan in June (also yes!). I put a reminder in my phone to follow up in June, and I am confident that we will eventually eat lunch together and nobody will be disappointed. We both have flexible daytime schedules and don’t need to consult anyone else or arrange childcare, so it’s easy to leave it loose for now. Other friends have different constraints around their time so it makes more sense to be more definite.
Sometimes when I want to do something but feel overwhelmed about actually scheduling it, I ask friends to remind me: “That sounds great. Can you remind me in about 2 weeks so I don’t forget?”
I can feel the Internet and my judgmental inner monologue muttering “But you shouldn’t need to be reminded” and “Ugh that’s so much work,” and if you feel that way to the point that the very idea of it annoys you, it’s okay! Let’s not be friends! Neither of us will like it! Instead, I will accept that absolutely nobody who loves me is in it for my crackerjack time management skills, and you will find compatible people who don’t make being friends with them feel like work and people who you like so much that a little extra work to accommodate them doesn’t bother you.
I said “realistic expectations,” not projections or secret assumptions.
Lately I’m obsessed with questions where there is an obvious answer but it feels impossible or difficult to say whatever it is. What’s the worst that happens if the Letter Writer starts with the obvious solution? What else is in play that makes this feel harder than it should? (Answer: There are usually a lot of unspoken expectations hanging around and some of those are valid and some of them are not)
The letter ends with “It’s to a point where it’s not physically possible to give everyone the time I want to, but I don’t know how to tell any of them that it might be a few weeks because aaaaaaa social overload.”
Letter Writer, if you asked a friend to hang out and they said “I want to see you, too, but it might be a few weeks before I can nail something down?” what would you say? Wouldn’t it be something like “Okay! Do you want me to text you in a couple weeks or wait until I hear from you?”
Why do you think nobody would do that for you? Why do you think that your friends wouldn’t just call someone else to hang out on days you’re not free, and then schedule something with you later?
What is the shape of your fear? Is it worry that you’ll overwhelm yourself? Fear that you’ll disappoint people if you don’t say yes to absolutely everything? Both? If you run out the scenario where everything you fear actually happens, what does that look like? Lots of situations *feel* like the anxiety dreams where it’s the final exam for the class you never signed up for and it’s too late to drop, but in your imagined worst case scenario, what would your friends actually say or do?
I ask because you seem to be assigning weighty expectations about yourself to other people in absentia or in theory so that you can beat yourself up in advance for letting them down. You used the word “humblebrag,” and in a way that’s apt, because this involves exaggerating your importance to other people while internally groveling about not deserving it. Maybe…don’t?
My inbox is full of examples of treating others’ expectations – imagined and real – as the eternal, unchangeable boss of you, often manifested as the fallacy that saying “yes” once commits you to doing everything exactly the same way for life and saying “no” will absolutely ruin the relationship.
It’s true that actions create expectations; as in, once I dropped some chicken accidentally and my cat Henrietta sat expectantly in that same spot every time I ate food for the next two years hoping for The Return Of The Sky Chickens. But after 700+ consecutive “nos,” Hen has learned expect disappointment while living in hope. Key to this example is the fact that I have opposable thumbs and a can opener, which gives me relative power over one food-motivated tabby cat.
It’s also true that some relationships are destroyed by one person not accommodating the other person’s every wish, but that’s because some people are assholes and other people are–or were –surrounded by assholes. Scratch a chronic people-pleaser, and often what you find is a survivor of a situation where, if you “disappointed” a person who had power over you (a guardian, boss, coach, teacher, mentor, grad school advisor, controlling friend or partner), then it profoundly affected your quality of life. If disappointing someone close to you about a relatively minor thing has ever made you actively less safe, if you were taught that your entire value as a person hinged on how available and accommodating you were to others, then chances are high that you’ve learned a few coping skills around managing other people’s moods and impressions of you.
The problem with this is, survival skills don’t always translate into thriving skills. If you can’t ever allow yourself to disappoint anyone (including imagined disappointment that you’ve assigned without the other person’s knowledge or consent), you’ll keep putting yourself in situations guaranteed to disappoint you, and become increasingly exhausted and resentful. And if you’re not surrounded by assholes, then casting people who didn’t hurt you in roles and power exchanges that they never agreed to is a surefire way to make stuff weird, so I recommend that you stop, which means learning how to disappoint some people some of the time, in small, low-stakes, fixable ways, like, for example, managing a resurgence of dinner invitations from nice people you like. Baby steps!
Are you surrounded by assholes? I’d wager that most of your actual friends can adapt to “I’d love to see you, but can I get back to you on exactly when?” or “I’d love to see you, can you text me when you have something specific in mind?” just fine. They love you, they are thinking about you, but it’s unlikely they are thinking about you even close to as much as you worry they are. On the rare chance someone does flip all the way out after being told “Yes, but not right now” or “No to that, but yes to something later,” then there are three important things to know:
- Chances are that this is about their own issues, fears, history, and not about anything you did wrong.
- If you’re a survivor of a house where your “no” wasn’t allowed, people who don’t like to take no for an answer will find you fascinating (because you are so familiar), feel fascinating to you (because they are so familiar), and carry a strong risk of being extra toxic (because it’s all so familiar). Learning to recognize this dynamic will save you so much trouble in the long run.
- Friendships that implode when one friend sets a boundary probably need to end. It doesn’t mean that anyone is irredeemably evil, just, this is a volatile mix, time to play on a lower difficulty setting.
Letter Writer, whatever the origin story for your worry, whenever you need to “guard your yes” or counteract fear of disappointing others, try to focus on “What, specifically, is this one person actually asking me to do, right now?”
Stay in the present tense. Keep it very concrete. A firm headcount for a dinner party is not the same as general reassurance of your mutual affection is not the same as trying to fit you into their busy schedule before they run out of calendar. What does this person want you to do? If you can’t discern this, ask! People have different needs, it’s possible stuff is going on that hasn’t even occurred to you. Plus, these are your friends, they do not want you to be this worried or upset about anything, ever.
When in doubt, use your own pleasure as a guidepost. If someone asks “Do you want to do ____ with me on ______?” and you feel more anxiety than pleasure and excitement at the prospect, then try one of the stalling scripts up above to check your calendar, and then balance your other commitments until the only possible answers are “Absolutely yes, with pleasure” or “Sorry, not this time, but howabout _______?” Nobody can see your anxiety levels or social units budget or calendar app except you, so you get to be the boss of both of those things.
I hope your burgeoning social renaissance is delightful.