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Are You Dealing with Social Burnout?

3 CBT-derived strategies for getting it under control.

Key points

  • With the lessening of COVID restrictions, many of us are engaging in more social activities, but sometimes we're overdoing it.
  • Social burnout happens when we make too many plans and either feel drained if we follow through or guilty if we cancel.
  • Three CBT-based techniques for dealing with social burnout out could help: prioritizing, calendaring, and setting flexible expectations.

What is social burnout? Much like regular burnout, it consists of feeling stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, irritable, and disconnected. It’s describes the feeling that no matter how much we do socially, we can’t keep up and end up feeling drained.

For the past two years, the way in which we interact with others has substantially changed. We have socially distanced, we have isolated, we have quarantined. A simple get-together has necessitated lots of planning, precautions (like masks and distancing), and often requires being lucky enough to have nice weather. I remember planning outdoor coffee shop get-togethers with friends weeks in advance!

But this summer, we find ourselves facing a much different reality. With COVID restrictions lessened, we now have the opportunity to do many of the things we haven't been able to do in a long time: weddings, graduations, birthday parties, trips, concerts, festivals, parades, and so on. That’s a lot of postponed events.

And herein lies the problem: Many of us are now overscheduling ourselves without realizing the ramp-up period we might need to cope with increased social commitments. We’re saying yes to all kinds of invitations and quickly packing our schedule: the travel frenzy to catch up with delayed weddings and family vacations, the double-booking (and occasional triple-booking) of dinners and happy hours, the marathon dating, and so on.

But this whirlwind does not end well. Either we stick to our plans and feel exhausted or we start canceling them and feel guilty. Thus, we experience the classic burnout trap: The more burnout we experience, the less cognitive flexibility we have, and the more likely we are to go with inertia—which in this case means saying yes to more social events, which makes us feel more exhausted and guilty, which then breeds more burnout.

In addition, for some people, the more we engage socially, the less rewarding it can become. It’s the law of diminishing returns. For example, it feels great when you eat a chocolate chip cookie, and maybe a second one, but cookie number five does not feel that good—you might start to experience some stomach discomfort or even pain.

Same with social rewards. The first few events tend to feel great: you chat with new people, you get to know them, you laugh, maybe even you even flirt with someone. But when you have gone to multiple similar events in the same week, it starts to feel draining. You might notice yourself answering questions in the same way, almost following a script. You might be losing interest in what others have to say. You might simply be physically exhausted. You just don't want to be there.

So what do we do? Is the answer to not engage socially anymore? Of course not!

Much like the answer to burnout is not to just quit and walk away, the answer to social burnout also requires a more balanced approach. Here are my 3 suggestions, based on strategies from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT):

1. Prioritize.

Seriously, I cannot emphasize this enough. We tend to think we’re good at figuring out our priorities, but the reality is that we end up overestimating how many events are truly that important.

Here’s what I always tell my patients: Write down a list of all your activities and then categorize them into “must go to,” “nice to go to,” and “total stretch.” The goal is to make sure you get to most of the “must go to’s” and the occasional “nice to go to’s.”

Note that I said most of these must go to’s. This is because it’s important to give yourself flexibility for things to not always pan out. Otherwise, we start feeling self-critical and, before we know it, we’re down that spiral.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the “total stretch” ones are not completely out of the realm of possibility. Occasionally, things will shift and you’ll find yourself with extra time and/or energy. A friend might ask to reschedule. A plan might get rained on. A flight might be delayed. In those moments, it can feel isolating and frustrating. So, by having a list of things to do, we can actually relax in our free time and find joy in new things.

2. Put it on the calendar.

The second piece of advice is to put everything on a calendar. But the key is to visualize it as monthly. This is because when we look at a calendar week-by-week, it can be easy to assume this is the one week we’re busy and tell ourselves we’ll have time to unwind later in the month. Or we might end up saying yes to four different plans two Saturdays from today without even realizing it. So by putting all your social events on a calendar and adding visibility into the future, you can better evaluate how and when you might be overdoing it.

The calendar also allows you to create buffers. Are you scheduling too many things back-to-back? Do you need 30 more minutes to get from one even to the other one? Do you need a day off to stay home and rest and recuperate? Proper spacing and downtime are key to fighting off burnout.

Further, you can take a page from behavioral activation, which is a type of CBT treatment to help people with depression identify and participate in rewarding activities. Basically, after you engage in each activity, you give it a score from 1-10, with 1 being extremely boring and 10 being extremely fun. This can help you better identify which activities and people bring you more joy. You can then use this to re-prioritize based on #1 above.

3. Set up flexible expectations.

I also can't emphasize this one enough. Not only is it super important to prioritize and calendar social activities, but also it is essential that you set flexible expectations.

We’re all a bit socially rusty these days, so some interactions might feel a bit awkward. You might run out of things to say, ask, or do—and so might the other people. So make sure to create space for yourself, to make room for things to be a bit different. It’s going to take time to get back to socializing in the way we used to.

Additionally, you might experience the law of diminishing returns when it comes to social rewards. This means that not every event is going to be a 10 in terms of fun and excitement. Try to create more flexible expectations. This might mean changing the types of activities you try to do or shortening the time you are completing activities with others, or reducing the number of people you spend time with during each activity. Maybe right now, meeting one friend for coffee or a movie is more enjoyable for you than meeting three friends for dinner. When you are flexible with your expectations surrounding social events, you take power away from the burnout, and, who knows, you might also end up surprising yourself.

Try these 3 techniques out for a few weeks and see if you can take some power away from burnout.

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