Logging Off: The Power of Disconnection

snowy sceneMy thesis: The great English writer E.M. Forster may have valued connection above all else, but for us 21st-century folks—with our jam-packed contact lists, e-mail from intimates and strangers, texts and phone messages left by friends, colleagues, passing acquaintances, and the occasional deranged stalker—disconnection is as necessary as connection for creating a healthy, happy life. When we force ourselves to connect against our heart’s desires, we create false, resentful relationships; when we disconnect from the people who deplete us, we set them free to find their tribes while we find ours. I planned to illustrate these thoughts with snippets of Greek philosophy, and perhaps even the poetry of Robert Frost. 

But it has just occurred to me that this refined approach is not how I actually disconnect—and I need to disconnect a lot. Overconnection is my major occupational hazard. My job is all about soulfully linking with others, and this is truly as much fun as I’ve ever had with my clothes on, but after doing this with many people for many hours, I often feel as if I’ve watched ten great movies back-to-back: dazed, frazzled, longing for silent solitude. I’m not up to gracious separation; I need quick-and-dirty ways to save my sanity, right now.

So I’ve listed some of my favorite disconnection strategies below, in the hope that you might find them useful. Please remember that this advice is not for the E.M. Forsters of the world but for those of us who are already connected up the wazoo.

Martha Beck’s Favorite Disconnection Techniques

1. Hide. I’m sitting in my room at a beautiful wilderness retreat where intelligent, sensitive, wonderful people come to renew their spirits. I’ve been running a workshop meant to stir the deepest reaches of the participants’ fears and dreams. I’ve also been living on tap water and protein bars because the thought of going to the dining hall, where I would end up connecting for another hour with those intelligent, sensitive, wonderful people, makes me want to shoot myself.

I packed for this trip with disconnection aforethought, tossing in 20 protein bars with the express intention of hiding out. Blame my high school English teacher—I’ll call her Mrs. Jensen—who married at 17, bore her first child at 19, and was a farmwife and mother of four by age 22. When she felt overwhelmed, she’d retreat into a field of tall corn near her house and hide there, listening to her children search for her, until she heard a cry of genuine pain or felt ready to reconnect, whichever came first.

“Martha,” Mrs. Jensen told me, “every woman needs a cornfield. No matter what’s happening in your life, find yourself a cornfield and hide there whenever you need to.”

All these years later, this advice still gives me permission to sit here by myself contemplating whether I should eat the nondairy creamer from my in-room coffee setup, just for variety. I’ve used hundreds of other “cornfields” over the years: cars, forests, hotels, bathrooms. I’ve been known to hide for days, but even a few minutes can calm my strung-out nerves—or yours. If you don’t already have a cornfield, find one now. 

2. Go primitive. We all know that technological advances have made connection easier than ever before. They’ve also led some people to think that breaking away is a violation of the social order. Friends call to chastise each other (well, anyway, my friends call to chastise me) for being slow to return text messages or e-mail, as though the ability to communicate in half a dozen newfangled ways makes constant attention to every one of them morally imperative. 

At such times, I become downright Amish, religiously committed to avoiding all modern communication technology. I unplug phones, computers, intercoms, and fax machines, risking opprobrium because I know that if I don’t lose touch with some of the people who are trying to reach me, I’ll lose touch with myself. The overconnected me is a cranky, tired fussbudget. Silence is golden if it keeps me from broadcasting that fretful self into my network of treasured relationships.

3. Play favorites. Your ability to connect is a resource much more precious than money, so manage it well. Make a list of everyone to whom you feel bonded, then consider what kind of return you’re getting on your investment. Which relationships make you feel robbed or depleted? Which ones enrich you? Notice that there are many ways for “connection investments” to pay off. One person may be good at helping you solve relationship problems, while another can fix your home computer and another makes you laugh. A baby’s trust may be the only return you get on a massive investment of time and energy, but it can feel like winning the lottery.

It may sound cold-blooded to say you must divest yourself of the relationships that give you consistent losses, but unless you do this, you’ll soon run out of capital, and you’ll have no connection energy left to invest in anybody. So please, decide now to deliberately limit the time and attention you spend on “low yield” relationships. Above all…

4. Get rid of squid. Squid is my word for people who seem to be missing their backbones but possess myriad sucking tentacles of emotional need. Like many invertebrates, squid appear limp and squishy—but once they get a grip on you, they’re incredibly powerful. Masters at catalyzing guilt and obligation, they operate by squeezing pity from everyone they meet. They can make you feel entwined to the point of rage, desperate to escape their clutches, unable to see a means to extricate yourself.

Getting a squid out of your life is never pretty. (Excuses don’t work—tell a squid you’re on your way to a colonoscopy, and they’ll come along to sit beside you, complaining, while your doctor performs the procedure.) Since you can’t make a graceful exit, don’t try. Scrape off squid any way you can. Tell them straightforwardly that you want them, yes them, to leave now, yes, now. This will be unpleasant. There will be lasting hurt feelings. Don’t worry. Squid love hurt feelings. They hoard them, trading them in for pity points when they find another victim—er, friend. Let them go, their coffers bulging.

5. Be insensitive. A friend I’ll call Zoe once went to a world-famous psychologist to discuss her recurring nightmares. After months of waiting for an appointment, she finally met the therapist, who asked why she had come.

“I’m having terrible dreams,” Zoe explained.

“Yeah?” grunted the famous psychologist. “So what?”

Zoe blinked, then stammered, “Well, they keep me awake.”

“Uh-huh. So?”

“Well…,” stammered Zoe, “I guess I never thought of it that way.” And her nightmares went away, never to return. Once she stopped treating bad dreams like the end of the world, her mind had no reason to replay them.

I’m not suggesting that you say “So what?” every time someone turns to you for help, but I like to think that therapist was famous for a reason. I suspect he could feel the difference between something that required deep discussion and something that didn’t. He was willing to be insensitive, alerting Zoe to her own hypersensitivity. 

This is a very compassionate way to use your own psychological instincts. Instead of connecting with every person’s problems, let yourself feel whether someone really needs your attention, or whether the best gift you can give might be a little abruptness.

6. Rehearse escape lines. When I’m overextended, I paradoxically become worse at setting boundaries. I end up resorting to rehearsed exit lines. “Oh, there’s my doorbell!” I might say to end a client call that’s run 20 minutes over (this is technically true: My doorbell is, in fact, there). When someone collars me in an airport, eager to share personal problems and ask for solutions, I may point behind them and say, “Oh, my gosh! Is that Dr. Phil?” Then, when their head snaps around, owl-like, I sprint for the nearest restroom. 

I’m sure you can come up with better getaway lines than these, but do take the time to rehearse several reliable alternatives. Because when you’re exhausted, a practiced excuse can keep you from wading deeper into relationships you don’t need and can’t handle.

7. Be shallow. Even staying in touch with a reasonably small number of high-quality people can be overwhelming if you tend toward emotional intensity. In such cases, shallowness can be a delightful alternative. So instead of discussing Schopenhauer with your beloved in meaningful, calligraphed epistles, e-mail a stupid joke or a silly Youtube video (my own favorite past time). Gather your friends to watch TV shows in which strangers paint one another’s rooms the color of phlegm and then feign mutual delight. Once you know you can swim in the deep end of human connection, it’s fun to splash around in the shallows.

I hope you find these disconnection strategies as useful as I do. By striking a balance between the imperative to “only connect” and the need for individuation, you really will relax your psyche and your relationships, making your life as a whole more joyful, more loving. Maybe someday we’ll meet to compare notes, to share disconnection experiences as well as time, space, and perhaps a protein bar. But right now, I’m sure you’ll understand when I say that I’d like to eat this one all by myself.