Before I had any “big kids” and life at home was just babies and toddlers, it was difficult for me. As an extrovert I really thrive on adult interaction and I wasn’t getting it. Making connections of any kind, whether meeting up with friends or just connecting with people on the internet helped keep me afloat.
But in the past couple of years, I’ve felt an inward shift. I’ve been increasingly overwhelmed by people. I’ve needed more ALONE time, more time to read, more time to binge watch a costume drama about a British monarch, more time to just sit and be and not interact with anyone at all.
Is this the same girl who would meet friends in the college dining hall for breakfast, walk with them to class, meet other friends for lunch, study at the coffee shop with another friend all afternoon, meet up with friends for dinner and then say, “who wants to hang out with me tonight!?” I needed no recharge time. I could not wait to CONNECT. Now just the thought of this schedule makes me exhausted.
I think this change toward introversion is very natural as my children grow older and take up more of my verbal energy. I’m in a different season. But I think some of it has to do with relationship-overwhelm, something I didn’t really pinpoint until talking with my friend Rebecca Frech about her new book Can We Be Friends? on a recent episode of the Fountains of Carrots podcast that Christy Isinger and I publish twice a month.
In this episode about friendships and building community to counteract loneliness, we talked about the bizarre combination many of us experience of feeling overextended AND lonely all at once. Rebecca told me about something I had never heard of before: Dunbar’s number. Get ready to have your mind blown.
British anthropologist Robin Dunbar claims that the human brain is only able to maintain between 100 and 250 human relationships (typically about 150). We do not have the space in our brains for hundreds upon hundreds of relationships.
This threshold is why we feel crummy and overwhelmed when we try to follow the lives of not just family members and intimate friends but also everyone from high school, the owner of the local bakery, somebody’s cousin that said something funny on Twitter that time, and everyone else that comes across our path.
When we know every detail of a college roommate’s sister-in-law’s life from all her facebook posts, she is actually starting to take up one of our valuable 150 spots. And while your college roommate’s sister-in-law might be an absolutely lovely person, do you want her to take one of your 150? Probably not. If you count up your extended family and those you consider close friends you might be close to reaching your 150 already!
After almost three months of not being able to get out of bed due to extreme pregnancy nausea (hyperemesis gravidarum) I had developed a pretty strong social media addiction of scrolling on my phone. Granted, scrolling was pretty much all I could do week after week, but now that I’m up and about again, I found myself still reaching for my phone habitually when I should have been engaging with my kids or doing something useful.
I decided to take Facebook and Twitter off my phone during Lent to help to refocus and avoid distraction. It helped! But I’m also ruthlessly unfollowing people on Instagram and Facebook. Not because they’ve offended me or because I callously have no interest in their lives, but because they’re not one of my treasured 150.
I wish them well, but can’t let them take up that important space in my brain that should be the in-person relationships that are life-giving as well as the long-distance relationships that are truly intimate and will be longstanding.
So far I’ve unfollowed about 250 people on Instagram and almost as many on Facebook (although that’s less of a commitment because you can unfollow someone without unfriending them). I’m already enjoying my feeds more and feeling less overwhelmed.
Another practical step I’ve been taking is setting up weekly chunks of time to connect with close friends. I want to invest in my real 150!
For us, Friday nights are the time when we spend quality time with close friends like our children’s godparents. A particular afternoon a week is the window when my kids and I visit with my best friend and her kids (both our husband’s are working at the time so it’s a great time for us to connect and have our kids run wild). With hang out time already penciled into the weekly calendar, the energy needed to coordinate hang outs is saved but we’re still investing in some of our 150.
So consider, who’s part of your 150? Are you investing in truly valuable friendships? Is social media crowding out the people really important to your life?
For more on this topic, listen in to the conversation Christy and I had with Rebecca Frech on friendship or my chat with Tsh Oxenreider on The Simple Show about friendship as social self-care.