In the early days of the pandemic, as shelter-in-place orders became the norm and people rushed to find ways of staying connected, it became clear that technology would save us. We wouldn’t have to be alone while staying at home, and this was good news.
While remaining grateful for the incredible way in which our screens have offered us up to each other, fast forward five weeks and many of us are finding ourselves exhausted from the never-ending video calls and virtual experiences. It’s not that we don’t want the option of connecting in digital spaces, it’s just that we are finding them emotionally and energetically costly. We can’t quite name why, but they seem to take more energy than the face-to-face encounters we are used to. Oddly, in many cases, they actually leave us feeling lonely.
Given the novelty of our current reality, there’s no research to look to for specifically why this is the case right now, even though we know there is a precedent for this in online vs. embodied connectivity. We can, however, consider some basic ideas in order to help us evaluate how to best care for our selves and our relationships in this time of primarily digital connection.
While humans are neurodivergent in terms of sociability and interpersonal preferences, we are all sensual beings. When we encounter each other, we take in information from many senses. Certain people and their places have specific smells. Often, physical touch in one form or another is involved in an encounter. In essence, the mere physical presence of another has the power of stirring feelings and awakening all of our senses.
When we connect via screens, much of this is lost. Limited to only audio and visual sensory data, it’s easy for us to feel a sense of being “alone together.” This term, coined by Sherry Turkle, deftly describes the odd sense of anti-presence that we are talking about right now. Whether this is related to the limited context that each party sees of the other, or the simple lack of full sensory data, we cannot know.
Another dynamic that plagues video-based connection is the constant presence of one’s own image as they interact with others. Spontaneous and authentic communication is benefitted by the ability to be fully in the moment without the kind of acute self-awareness that comes with watching oneself during a conversation. For anyone with even a mild version of an inner critic, this can have a massive impact on how one is, or is not, in the present moment of a conversation in an authentic and available way. There's a certain kind of cognitive dissonance here. We are on the call to connect with another but our ambient awareness of ourself redirects our attention.
Finally, the odd new way in which time moves is likely a contributor to our feelings of exhaustion and overwhelm in regards to interpersonal interaction. When we were moving about in the world, every request for a get together was made with an awareness that peoples’ calendars were full. Very likely we felt as though we had greater agency and options in responding to peoples’ requests of us.
Now that all of our connections are done from home, I find people responding in primarily one of two ways to interpersonal offerings. One response is fear, guilt, exhaustion, or resentment which comes from feeling as though there is no “excuse” for saying no to a gathering or event since everyone knows we’re all home and “available.” The second is an automatic “yes” to as many offerings as possible to distract from the realities of our present situation.
It’s crucial for us to pace ourselves in this time of physical distancing. To be healthy in our relationships with our selves and with others, we must consider what is and isn’t working in this new economy. The following suggestions offer ways to enhance our digital connections and strengthen our intentionality in how we relate to self and others in this time of physical isolation.
1. Tend to your self.
Just as it's important to don our own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs, it’s important to ask ourselves, “Will my emotional and energetic cup be filled or depleted by video conversations today?” To stay healthy, we must take our own internal-well-being “temperature” before we simply say “yes” to every opportunity to connect. We must also realize that our needs and desires for connection in digital spaces may change from day to day or, even, from hour to hour.
If we are feeling overwhelmed, emotionally dysregulated, or exhausted, it may be best to decline an online connection or two in order to preference some intentional connection with our own selves. We can only pour out to others from a full cup and filling our emotional reserves takes intentional effort.
2. Consider covering the image of your self on the screen.
There is a certain level of hyper-attuned self-awareness that happens when we observe physical images of ourselves. When we are experiencing this in real time during conversations, we are taken out of the moment and a part of our brain gets active evaluating how we are presenting our selves. This makes for costly conversations.
My son suggested I cover the square containing my image with a sticky note when I commented on this dynamic recently. This single action has saved me in the past week. I encourage you to give this a whirl in platforms where you can’t hide your image. In platforms that you can, give that a try.
3. Make intentional choices about what platforms you use to communicate within and who you choose to engage in them.
As we all know, the rise in subscriptions to services like Zoom and apps like Marco Polo have been staggering of late. It is incredible that we have these tools to help us stay connected. It is also important to think intentionally about which platforms are least taxing with each conversation we hope to have.
Be sensitive to dynamics like lag or pixelated images as these make our conversations more draining. Ask others which platforms they prefer and respect their wishes if and when you can. If you are coordinating with people with less technological savvy than you, provide plenty of time to help orient them before the time of contact.
4. Consider the phone some of the time.
In this time of so many video connections, the limited focus of a phone call may actually enhance authenticity and felt/lived connection. Setting the stage for a call can enhance this even more. Brew a fragrant cup of tea and find a window to gaze out of. Resist the urge to multi-task while on the phone and bring yourself fully to the call. Notice how this feels in relation to video calls and connections.
5. Get creative about ways of increasing the authenticity and spontaneity of digital encounters.
Privilege experiences where you are sharing space with others but possibly not just sitting statically and looking at each other. I participate in a weekly movement experience with 50 other people. We all move in our own physical spaces, however we’d like, to the same music. While we can see the grid containing all the images of others, no one is focused there. It is surprisingly connecting and powerful. Similar spaces exist for art-making and meditation and, I’m sure, a million other activities. Seek these out or create these for your community.
Let’s all keep connecting as we can, tending to the ways in which we do so. We’re in this together and we’ll get through this together. Let’s do so with care.
Dodgen-Magee, D. (2018). Deviced! Balancing Life and Technology in a Digital World. New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield.