12 Ways To Be Social Without Getting Drained, From A Psychologist
We know that being connected is a nonnegotiable for your health and longevity. And that on the flip side, prolonged social isolation and loneliness are as hazardous for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
But what if you genuinely get drained from your social interactions and sometimes take a few days to recover? Surely, that can't be that good for your health?
If this is you, it's time for a social interactions audit and a new game plan going forward.
Why you're getting drained from your social interactions:
You are socially connected 24/7.
And what I mean here by "socially connected" runs the gamut from social media comments with complete strangers to answering your colleagues and clients to face-to-face interactions.
Now this is not to say that you need to get completely religious about turning off your phone at 6 p.m.—it's unrealistic for most of us, especially when it comes to certain work situations or if you have a family member who might reach out anytime due to illness.
What it means is when you open the portal 24/7 to everyone—from notifications to calls to emails—and your phone is vibrating while you have just drifted off to sleep, then you won't be well rested at all and therefore receptive to quality interactions.
Some things you can do include turning off all the unnecessary notifications because you don't really need to see who is liking your posts in real time, and the energy cost of switching your attention all the time trumps whatever dopamine boost you get from receiving another like. Otherwise, you can set up different modes on your devices such as "sleep" and "do not disturb" modes, as well as autoresponders that you only attend to emails in a certain time window. And if you have to make sure that certain loved ones have to access you, there are exceptions you can set on your devices.
You aren't socializing according to your social pace.
Growing up, I'd always observed my father's rather curious socializing style. He'd pop into people's homes for 20 minutes if he were visiting friends and family, and he'd be befuddled by guests who stayed for hours.
Many years later, when I was learning about how to align my brain's naturally impatient ADHD pace with my social life and workflow, I learned about this thing called social pace.
Think of your social pace like your attention span. Some of us can focus for hours on end on a task; my sweet spot is seven minutes; others have about 45 minutes. This is just the way you are naturally wired, and working with it optimizes energy instead of beating yourself up for not having the herculean focus of your peers. Similarly, we have different social "attention spans."
My social attention span for most people is about 30 minutes; with clients it's 120 minutes because I hyperfocus; and with good friends it's about 60 minutes. For any of these to last longer—say, at a house party or on an extended call—I need breaks like walking around, a stretch, or time built in for a little decompression. Or, it helps if we're doing multiple activities or hopping across multiple food outlets.
In a similar vein, you can consider your social pace and start tweaking based on that.
You're an introvert masquerading as an extrovert.
One of my favorite workshops I run is all about networking like an introvert. The simplest way to think about the different socializing styles is the introvert would be happiest in any event, chatting up one to two people and making deep conversation. The extrovert, in a room of 30, would be happiest talking to 40.
The thing is, many of us aren't aware of where we lie on the introvert-extrovert spectrum, or even if we do, we beat ourselves up for being introverts because the world expects us to be loud and bubbly.
If you lie closer to introversion, know that your socializing style could be optimized by choosing more small group or 1-on-1 intimate interactions and finding great questions to get to know each other better. And to stop second-guessing your neural wiring but rather to embrace it. You may also need to recharge yourself via an "introvert hangover," so give yourself permission to do that.
You are listening or solving too much.
You may be one of those people who others love divulging things to. Maybe it's because they know you care, and they can always count on you. Or maybe it's the way you make them feel.
Now, it's great to be kind, but there is also a limit. Because this is emotional labor, and that's why we have counselors to talk to about the things we shouldn't be laying on our loved ones.
So, some things you could consider would be:
- Does this person deserve my attention?
- Does this person exhaust me, but I feel bad for them and so I listen? (E.g., "You're the only person in life I can trust.")
- Do I know how to say no? (If not, look up some boundary scripts.)
- Can I ask, "So, what do you want, a listening ear or someone to hash solutions out with?"
Do you secretly resent the person you're hanging out with?
It may not be 100% bad. There may be some good things, like said person is sometimes there for you or reminds you of the longevity of your relationship. You could enjoy some things together that you don't with others, making it special and therefore comfortable.
Or perhaps you feel sorry for them or think that in order for you to be tolerated, you should tolerate others. Maybe you were easy on them initially because you didn't see this relationship persisting, so you didn't assert boundaries, and some bad or annoying behaviors have grown even more infuriating.
You could consider flagging any unpleasant patterns in a graceful way, proposing alternative behaviors, and asking for their opinions so you both come to a happy middle. Or you could consider setting a limit on the number of times you meet or if you even want them in your lives anymore.
Something else is draining you in the background.
Every day when I wake up, I unplug my iPhone and see that its battery capacity is 100%. But over time, the capacity for it to hold that charge diminishes. We are the same way—but on some days, we don't wake up at 100% but rather at 60% or 40% because life happens—a crisis, a busy season, waiting for a health diagnosis, anything. Or you're transitioning as you get out of a difficult time.
These things will make it harder to socialize, and while you shouldn't cut out receiving your social vitamins, consider how much you'd need, the state of mind you'll be in, and if it's helpful to tell these people something like "I'm not in the best place energetically right now, I won't tell you the details, and it's simply to give you a heads up that I may be a little unfocused or meeting you a little less." That way, there's no guessing involved, and you are taking responsibility.
Other things that can drain you include you're second-guessing what you're saying, trying very hard to sound smart or interesting and are therefore not present, and replaying for the umpteenth time everything you said or did during the interaction days after that. This could sometimes be a case of social anxiety, and if so, there are ways to get to the root of that and also stay present in your interactions.
What if it's the post-event 'gramming that's tiring you out?
Some of my friends are heavily on social media, and we stoke the fires of our friendship further that way in an enjoyable way. So the fellowship, celebrating, and nostalgia continue on the 'gram in the form of stories and posts.
But I know that it can be exhausting at times, when you feel the need to document everything with everyone. Especially if it's late at night and you have other things to do. Or especially after a particularly busy week.
So if this is your case, select who you'd like to jam on the 'gram with.
How to reclaim your social energy
Socializing with the people you love or want to get to know better can also fill up your metaphorical internal battery if you do it in a way that fuels you.
Some ways include:
Do it in an energizing way.
Consider the activities (or wider genres) that you'd like to engage in, and match the activities with people. I have friends who say, "I'm going on a supermarket/furniture run, and we can catch up that way." Ditto with walking the dog. I also bring friends along to eat and hike. That way, we get plenty done.
Don't do the things that require too much effort that you resent.
For instance, dinner parties sound great, but what if you're already too exhausted to do the planning, ordering, and cleaning up? In groups, tag-team with your friends to divide the labor. Maybe one person provides the membership to a venue, another brainstorms and collates ideas, someone else takes the photographs, and another does the organizing and the booking. Play to each others' strengths, and check in regularly that each person is still happy in their role.
Have a "To-Don't" list.
Your "To-Don't" list is a list of people and activities you don't want to be a part of. No is no is no; you don't need to explain or overexploit.
Figure out your social energy quotas.
What's your basic minimum to aim for, your regular levels, and your Awesome To Have levels when you have loads of energy? Think about which people these might be, the duration and frequency, and the mix of types of relationships. For example, at your normal or basic energy level, maybe you only prioritize making time with close friends; however, when you have more energy than usual, maybe you make space to nurture one or two new friendships. Learn to say you'll only come along for some events for a certain period of time if you aren't feeling completely up for staying for many hours.
Block out some space in your calendar as Me Time.
This is uninterrupted time you use to recharge and take care of yourself. If a random invite that you feel good about crops up? Sure, you can say yes to these wild card events.
If you're tired because it's a tiring season in your life, it's OK to sit it out. Remember not to make that into a habit, and plan to reintroduce yourself back into these interactions when you're ready, and know that people will welcome you.
At the beginning of the year, have a bird's-eye view of your calendar.
Mark out the busy seasons—holidays, festivities, work peak seasons, kids' exams, and anything else. Then mark out time before and after to rest—perhaps some of this rest could be light social activities even. Also consider who you want to spend time with, who you'd like to meet, and how much time is necessary for what kind of people in your life.
You only have so much time and energy to do one of the most important things in your life: connect. I am reminded of the John Donne poem, "No Man Is An Island," because we go further together. Indeed, let's get clever about connecting, making it a win-win-win for you, others, and your relationship. Let's make it energizing instead of draining.
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach currently living in Singapore. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from University College London and her master's in philosophy from University of Cambridge. Her first book This Is What Matters was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2022, which guides you to transform crisis to strength, or design an #EverydayAmazing life.
She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, and Business Insider and has previously worked with Olympians, business professionals, and individuals seeking to master their psychological capital. She works globally in English and Mandarin-Chinese via Skype and Facetime, blending cutting-edge neuroscience, psychology, and ancient wisdom.