Several months ago, pre-coronavirus when we were allowed to be out and about, I was having one of those extremely busy days filled with deadlines and back-to-back meetings, with no time for more than a quick bite at lunch and a few bathroom breaks. My saving grace was that, at the end of the day, I had an osteopath appointment on the other side of the city, which meant that I had a thirty-minute window on the streetcar for some me time. During this time for myself, I could finally relax and catch up on the personal messages that had my phone blowing up during the day.
After scrambling out of the office and making my way onto the streetcar, I took a deep breath and pulled out my phone. Just before I could chill out and get lost in my own world, I heard someone say, “Hi Ritu!” It was an acquaintance I hadn’t seen in years — someone I didn’t know very well at all — who was shuffling her way towards me in the crammed streetcar. I felt my stomach drop when I realized this would lead to the last thing I wanted in that moment: a conversation made up of polite social banter about work, life, and family. My body stiffened as I felt tears start to well up behind my eyes. I took a deep breath and pushed myself to hold it together in order to have a polite conversation with her.
She launched into updates on her life and chitchat that all felt so empty to me. All I wanted to do was interrupt her and tell her I didn’t have the energy to talk, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Instead, I smiled politely and nodded along until it was time for me to get off.
Weeks later, when I shared this story with my friend Debby, she asked me, “Why didn’t you just talk with her for a few minutes, thank her for the chat, and then tell her that you had to get back to responding to some messages before you got off the streetcar?” I didn’t even know how to answer that. It never occurred to me to speak up in order to keep some precious time for myself, no matter how much I needed and craved it.
Between work, social demands, and personal care, we’re often pulled in different directions, resulting in exhaustion. And now that many of us are working, socializing, and spending a lot of time at home, it can feel impossible to say no to requests for our time and attention from friends, family, and colleagues.
We know it’s important to carve out time for ourselves, but how do we put our own self-care needs before others’ demands for our time? And more importantly, how do we communicate this to them without coming across as rude or selfish (especially when they know that we have nowhere else to be)?
Looking back, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what Debby had asked me, and I’ve had a few realizations about why I didn’t tell this person that I didn’t want to make social banter any longer: it wasn’t just that I was worried about coming across as rude, it was largely due to fear — fear of not being liked, of offending her, and of being judged. I also felt this anxiety acutely because of the stigma in our society about being permanently attached to our electronic devices and not being present enough in the world to have one-on-one conversations.
But here’s the thing: living life authentically and engaging in any kind of meaningful interaction requires us to be fully present, which we can’t do well when we’re feeling burnt out. Sometimes we must do what is best for us and put our needs before someone else’s — even if it means being on our phones as a social release (which, by the way, was exactly what I needed to decompress from my long day).
Since this incident, I have been doing a better job of advocating for my needs. What I’ve learned through this process is that it’s not only important to understand what you need, but also how to express it. If you need a little help with finding the right words, I find scripting responses and practicing them in my head helps with knowing what to say at the right time. You don’t have to be abrupt; be polite, explain your situation, but keep it short — you don’t owe the other person an explanation every time!
And remember, for the time that you are there and engaging with this person, ensure that you’re present for the conversation so it’s meaningful and authentic, and you’ll both leave the exchange feeling good.
So the next time someone demands time you simply cannot afford to give, what will you say to them? How will you advocate for your self-care needs?
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