When leaving someone on read is self-care: how to unplug from urgency culture

If you're reading this, you probably need better digital boundaries. A therapist explains how...

Omar Apollo mirror selfie
Omar Apollo mirror selfie

If you're reading this, you probably need better digital boundaries. A therapist explains how...

By Lucy O'Brien28 Feb 2023
7 mins read time
7 mins read time

TikTok accounts, studiously witty Hinge profiles, LinkedIn job updates, Instagram photo dumps; the ever-evolving world of social media is always providing us with new ways to share our lives and thoughts online. For many, having greater agency over our self-representation and creative expression is empowering; TikTok, BeReal and IG allow us to document the highs and lows of our daily life and connect with communities of people who just get it. But building a decent social presence has downsides, too. When you share so much of yourself online, it can lead to the assumption that you're there to be consumed: like you're a source of entertainment to followers and you owe them instant content, replies or comment on whatever they wish. This is urgency culture: the assumption that we must be accessible to others at all times.

And it's not just a phenomenon limited to the Very Online. With so many ways of reaching each other, we are expected to be perpetually available and productive to those who want things from us, the theory contends. And this can take place in our social lives, within friendships and relationships, as well as in our working lives, too. Who hasn’t replied to that outstanding work email after hours, simply because you have the Gmail app on your phone? Or replied to your friend’s message despite feeling burnt out and craving alone time, because you’re worried they can see that you’re active online?

The toxic effects of this culture can be seen right under our noses: draining our social batteries, blurring our work-life boundaries, or making us feel guilty for just taking time to ourselves instead of being accommodating to those around us.

“Just because we have new ways to communicate, it doesn’t mean we need to be in constant communication,” reads a viral tweet written by psychologist, Dr Nicole LePera. And she’s onto something. Social media can all too easily blur the line between our public and private lives; after all, there’s no such thing as an Out Of Office button on our social profiles. It feels like we’re faced with the choice of either committing fully to being active online, or deleting our social presence altogether and going cold-turkey.

“I feel like we're missing some sort of blueprint on the standards of what is acceptable to ask of a stranger on the internet.”

But really, the solution doesn't have to be so drastic. Ashley Duncan, counsellor and member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, explains that: “It's all too easy to buy into the idea that everything that demands our attention is of immediate importance. That we have to reply to the message now; to be readily available for work projects, or to have constant, real-time communication with our partner whenever we want it.

“The problem with urgency culture is that we allow ourselves to believe that external demands are in charge,” she goes on. “This isn't sustainable for our wellbeing, because all too often, it may be at the expense of things that might be more meaningful to us, like time to rest or unwind.” But it doesn’t have to be this way.

In fact, many of the perpetually online are catching onto the toxicity of urgency culture, and are working on re-negotiating their digital boundaries. This is the case, for example, with content creator Muinat Abdul, who feels guilty when she takes breaks from posting. “If I don’t post a video for a while, I always feel obligated to apologise that I haven’t been around,” Muinat explains. “I’ve been away on holiday recently to Amsterdam and the whole time I was thinking of ways I could use it for content, instead of just enjoying myself on my holiday. When you are a content creator, so much of your day to day is sharing your life with an audience, and eventually you have to set boundaries but most of us don’t know where to start,” she adds.

Relatable. Anyone who's grown up with social media will feel a similar impulse to turn their experiences into content, needing to keep their followers updated on what they're up to. But it's particularly hard to navigate when social media is your job as well as a personal outlet. Tori West, for instance, a digital creative and influencer, found herself being bombarded with constant messages because of her active online presence. “There's a definite pressure to post, especially as a freelancer. It's always been this unwritten thing to get work, you need to look like you're working and doing lots of things,” she tells woo.

“I'd be getting asked favours around the clock in my DMs every day without ever asking for favours in return and I felt exhausted by it,” Tori goes on. “It’s real labour. I still feel like we're missing some sort of blueprint on the standards of what is acceptable to ask of a stranger on the internet.”

So what’s the solution? Boundaries, babes, boundaries.

“While we may sometimes ask others in our life to change their behaviour, it's important to remember that good, healthy boundaries always relate to ourselves, and how we are going to act or respond,” Duncan reminds us. Instead of placing the responsibility on others to reach out or demand less, know it is okay to take ownership of your own time and switch off from your social life when you want or need to.

For Muinat, it’s about re-prioritising: “It comes down to creating safe spaces in the real world with the people you care about, and realising that social media isn’t the be all, end all – for the most part, it’s not even real. I’m not afraid to put my phone down if I’m struggling; I’ll delete social apps off my phone if I need a break, or pick up some of my other hobbies, like playing video games, going to the gym, or learning and executing a new recipe offline,” she says.

Tori agrees. “Just because I’m vocal and visible on social media, doesn’t mean I’m constantly accessible; being consumed isn’t my only purpose,” she insists. To help create a safe space for herself, Tori has established ways to create distance from her online community: “I don't look at my phone for certain times of the day. I've actually tried to learn to not look at my socials while I'm working at my desk. I've also restricted how much access people can have to me on Instagram by blocking story replies unless we follow each other, and restricted my DM requests.”

So, if you’re struggling to prioritise your time and create a healthy distance from your online presence, we’ve got your back. woo asked Duncan to give some tips for creating online boundaries that might help to curve the demands of urgency culture in our lives…

Communicate your plans to others in your life

"Let them know you're going to make some changes and what they might expect, and ask them to support you and respect the boundaries you're putting in place. Try prompts like: "It's been good to chat! I'm putting down my phone to switch off a bit this evening, let's catch up on (time / date)" or, "I need to have some more time in my day to disconnect, so I might not reply straight away."

Identify which apps are demanding and draw your attention unhelpfully

"Identify periods of time during the day / week where you look at and respond to these, and silence notifications at all other times. You could include in an email footer 'I will respond to emails between 9-10am and 4-5pm' or similar."

Make time for 'unplugged hours'

"Decide on times throughout your day or week where your tech is completely switched off, or in another room."