One day last fall I woke up and wanted nothing to do with social media. Not in an “I’m mad at you don’t talk to me” kind of way, not in a white-knuckled “I can’t quit you” kind of way, but in a shrug-of-the-shoulders, “I’m bored with you” kind of way. This is normal for some people. I’m not one of those people. I’m what they call an Elder Millenial- I knew life before and after consumer internet, and I jumped fully on board the night my dad took me to his school when I was ten and printed out 12 whole pages about Mariah Carey’s life that I hadn’t been able to find in any library book despite constant searching.
I was on AOL Instant Messenger as a tween and meeting up with strangers I met on ICQ when the term “Online Kidnapping” was just a twinkle in my parents’ eye. I love technology and I love people-- especially people I can love from the comfort of my couch-- so social media was a great match for me.
I love seeing all the incredible things the internet can do, reading the points of view of people I will never meet, learning about all the bizarre interests of humans, and making real-life relationships out of a connection that started with a like on a photo.
It’s all fascinating to me.
Then it became hard on me. I didn’t notice at first. I always felt my psyche was decent at resisting the Comparison Trap- the great plague of Instagrammers everywhere. I had a pretty good grip on the fact that a clean picture doesn’t mean a clean house, and even if it did… good for them!
Their skill is keeping a clean house. My skill is crafting a highly compelling playlist of early 2000’s slow jams. Apples/oranges. Can’t compare.
At some point though, even though I couldn’t pinpoint it, I noticed that I felt bad after being on social media. Not bad bad, just a general sense of… ugh. If it changed how I felt about myself, it changed it for the worse, not better.
So I started unfollowing people and only keeping the ones I thought gave me a good feeling. Still, a dull sense of ugh showed up every time.
It wasn’t until I noticed that I wasn’t even reading the captions anymore that I knew this was not about the Instagram. This was numbing, and it was not helping my life.
Still, I didn’t want to force a break. I didn’t know what that would accomplish if I didn’t know the source of the problem, and I'm stubborn enough that forcing myself to stop bad habits is a good way to make the habit worse. I need to get to the root and then it dissolves much more easily.
I thought I would end up just replacing one form of numbing with another, like TV which I didn’t watch at the time, or texting, or shopping, or sleeping.
If you don’t know what I mean by “numbing," look up some of Brené Brown’s work on it. Basically, anything we use to “take the edge off," distract ourselves from a real issue, or use in any way to avoid feeling what we need to feel, that’s numbing.
A heroin addict is numbing just as much as a sober person who shops every time she is rejected. Some substances are more physically addictive, yes. But the drive to numb comes from the same source: shame, loneliness, lack of connection.
Social media can be extra tricky because we feel like we are connecting (which is possible- some of the best connections of my life have been made online), but if we are using it as a numbing device, it will actually disconnect us more and leave us feeling more of the ugh that led us to numb in the first place.
But this post isn’t about the dangers of social media. I love social media, remember?
I knew I was numbing and I had some inkling as to why, and that reflection alone started the natural process of my soul rejecting what wasn't working.
I knew I was feeling low after using it, I had consciously identified it as a source of pain, and over time, something inside wanted to protect me from that pain and that thing told my brain that I didn’t want social media anymore.
Since this never happens with my various vices, I jumped at the chance to not use it.
This went on for about six months and I was more productive than ever. But again, this isn’t about social media detox (although I highly recommend it!).
Believe it or not, it’s about minimalism. Which I’m bad at when it comes to writing, but great at when it comes to life!
I’m a minimalist, but not on purpose and not in a cool way. I simply feel overwhelmed by having a lot of stuff, I’ve always lived in small spaces, and I absolutely cannot stand looking at something every day that I don’t love or that isn’t absolutely essential to a hygienic life.
Day in and day out, walking by the same shelf holding the same trinket, gathering dust, serving no purpose, begging to be updated or passed down or put in storage or whatever reasons people keep stuff, is my idea of home life in hell.
I want everywhere my eyes land to be a nice, gentle spot and very few things make that cut. I'm like the Simon Cowell of home goods. Nothing is good enough for me, not even a bed frame at this point. (Told you I'm not a cool minimalist.)
During our recent move to Utah from Texas, we house sat for a few weeks at a beautiful and giant home. Although it is gorgeous, well decorated, and spacious, I noticed I had hardly any space in my brain during my time there.
Granted, there were a lot of living things in the house (pets, etc.) that required my awareness in order not to die.
But much of my brain space was taken up by general concern for the house itself. Going to bed I wondered if all the lights were off? Even the ones waaaay downstairs? Also, are enough lights on so we don’t get robbed?
What is that sound; did I turn off all the water and heat sources my kids could have possibly turned on? Did I water the plants, the animals, and the children enough today?
It was a lot for a brain that had never had more than 1,000 square feet to take care of for longer than a day or two.
You’ll have to connect the dots yourself, but here’s the main point:
Thoughts are things. They take up space in your brain.
If you had just put the kids to bed and mustered the energy to finally clean off your main countertop that always collects the mail and the stray charger cords and the book you need to return, sorted everything, wiped it down until it glowed in the evening light, you'd feel so good.
You'd wonder what was so hard about that that you would neglect it for weeks. You'd vow to always keep it that way- do a little at a time! You’d sigh a breath of relief and accomplishment, and stop to admire for a moment.
Then, imagine that on your clean countertop you see your favorite vase next to a framed photo of your lover vacationing in a beautiful place, and between these two items, you see a space. A small gap.
So you go and grab some used tissues out of the trash and cram them between the vase and the frame.
There. Space filled.
How do you feel? Does this give you peace inside? Just typing it gave me an unreasonable amount of anxiety. I want that counter clean! Spacious! Only pretty things!
Well, in my humble opinion, that’s exactly what we are doing to our brains when we sit down for the two seconds we have to sit down, and we turn on a bunch of 160 character/memez/fashion tips/political opinion/hashtagged/kid/celebrity/house photo/STUFF.
The reason it's about mental minimalism and not social media detox, is because mental clutter comes from many other places besides Facebook or even our phones.
It comes from unnecessary worry, holding a grudge, joining into gossip drama that helps no one, caring too much about what others think, focusing on your body a lot, and generally wasting the precious space in your brain that is capable of so, so much more.
When I was at my most habitual with social media, waking up and looking at it before I looked at my spouse, checking it when I woke up to use the bathroom at 3 am, here’s what I noticed when I sat down to write something from the heart, something true to myself:
EVERYONE ELSE’S THOUGHTS.
I would literally write a sentence, and immediately four rebuttals from actual people whose posts I had read online, would follow.
“Oh, I can’t write that. Susie G. would argue that I’m not accounting for XYZ! Peter Parker would say that I’m excluding the ... group. Mary from that one blog would think I was referring to her if I made that claim; Oprah would totally disagree if this ever got back to her...”
All day long, I was letting other people’s sound bytes squeeze into the little gaps on my increasingly cluttered mental countertop. Maybe after a weekend away or a little extra sleep, my countertop would get pretty close to sorted and fully wiped clean from all of this.
So I’d jump back in and be sure to collect even more used tissues and junk mail and cruise ship tchotchkes to cram into what little space I had cleared.
Here’s what I learned when I quit: The space between thoughts matters as much as the thoughts themselves.
The space between thoughts matters AS MUCH as the thoughts themselves.
Having a lot of physical stuff that you have to care for and care about takes up space in your brain.
Having a lot of mental stuff to care for takes up space in your physical life.
You are not as productive at work. You aren’t as present with your loved ones. You aren’t as capable of focusing on something that takes longer than 15 seconds to read (hooray for making it this far into my essay! Don’t give up!).
The space between thoughts gives the good ones room to grow. If you’re seeking spiritual guidance, the space between is where that spirit will find space to expand, to teach, to live.
Don’t jam it full of garbage- even if the garbage has a pretty filter on it and gives you a warm fuzzy for a second because it tells you that "you are enough" in a lovely font.
It’s still junk mail when it’s taking up that little tiny bit of time you have to actually think about things that matter most- perhaps ways to go be enough in your actual life?
My advice as an expert of six whole months?
Practice. It doesn’t have to be meditation. It just has to be allowing for space. Stare at a blank wall in your house for a minute instead of impulsively checking the phone.
Watch the face of the person at the DMV counter as you wait in line, and try to imagine life in their shoes.
Take some deep breaths as you wait for the water to boil or the Uber to come. Something good will fill in those gaps if you give it room.
You may find that what you thought was a minuscule amount of free time, expands.
You may find you actually do have time to set goals, even to dream.
To reflect on world hunger. God. Your marriage. What your precious ones need. Your progress. Your mission. Your purpose. Build the space and it will come.