Monday, September 24, 2012

Life in the bubble: Boundaries and burnout in the online world.

Last Wednesday, I talked a little bit about boundaries, and how a lack thereof can lead to burnout. I identified a few areas where writers' boundaries get tested:
  • The pressure to SHARE personal stuff.
  • The pressure to say YES (when you should probably say NO).
  • The pressure to be ON.

I told you that today, I'd talk a bit about how I manage this.

First, I need to tell you: I'm still working this out. In my psychology life, I know how to do this. But when I became a writer? Whew! I had to work it out again.

This is Edward Hall's diagram demonstrating personal reaction bubbles. The radii are listed in feet, but they're meant to be subjective, heavily influenced by culture and personal preference.
In the largely online world of my writing career, personal distance is kind of an abstract thing. But I use this concept nevertheless. I think it's useful, because so often, it's just me and my computer. Pretty intimate kind of thing, my fingers on the keyboard. Easy to forget that it isn't just me, my eyes, my brain. Easy to allow my personal space bubble to become permeable--much easier than when I'm at a cocktail party, for example.
But I have to remember, because it helps me decide when to say NO, when to turn OFF, when to keep myself to MYSELF. Examples:
Goodreads: As an author, Goodreads is PUBLIC SPACE. Any place where readers congregate and review my book is considered the same. Like I don't walk up to strangers and butt into their conversations, I don't hang out on Goodreads and interact with people talking about my book. I have made the decision not to review or rate books on Goodreads; I find other ways to promote books I love, namely on Twitter or here on my blog. Not every author has made the same decision--that's because this stuff is subjective. For me, though, it helps set some boundaries around my role as an author and helps me stay out of trouble.
Blog: I consider this blog a SOCIAL SPACE, along with Twitter, which is one of my favorite online places to be. Whether fellow writer or reader or blogger, if you meet me there, you can interact with me. You won't get my most personal thoughts, but you will get content, both intellectual and emotional. I share my ideas and respond to others'. HOWEVER, if I'm super upset or have private stuff going on ... it's not going to show up here. One rule I have: venting is strictly forbidden in the SOCIAL SPACE. But also: I don't talk about my personal life much. My political and religious views, private relationships ... no. The SOCIAL SPACE is for friendly banter, not intimate conversation. Of course I'm tempted to cross this line sometimes, particularly when my emotions run high--but then I force myself to wait until I'm calm before I decide whether or not to share. I usually decide against it.
Email: Online, email is my PERSONAL SPACE, though obviously not always personal. But email is largely 1:1, and I have a few close writerly friends with whom I share triumphs and frustrations. I trust them to maintain confidentiality, and they trust me with the same. We do vent in this space, but it stays there.
My skull: INTIMATE SPACE. Yep, not all my thoughts find their way to another's ears, and I think that's necessary and good. I'm extremely introverted. Some people like to share themselves and draw energy from that, but I'm the opposite. That's part of avoiding burnout--knowing that I can keep things that are just for me, and cherishing that privacy.
When it comes to saying NO:
  • If someone's in my PUBLIC SPACE, I owe them civility and respect, and that is the extent of it. I accomodate requests when possible and not draining, and, frankly, when I see a practical and concrete advantage in saying YES.
  • If someone's in my SOCIAL SPACE, same. If we interact regularly and they ask me a favor, I will do it even if it involves some of my time and little-to-no benefit for myself. If I can't, though, given other demands, I'm going to say NO with kindness but not guilt. After all, I have my limits.
  • If someone has been an established friend within my PERSONAL SPACE, I'm going to go out of my way to help, because I care about them deeply.
This means I do say NO, and it's not a rare thing. I don't think that's bad. Especially when the alternative is me feeling resentful, bitter, used, burned out, etc. Ew!
When it comes to turning OFF: I have to rely on what I know about myself--I need to reside in my INTIMATE SPACE sometimes, or else I won't be able to meet my responsibilities. If I don't recharge, I'm going to burn out. Or possibly lose my mind. I turn OFF by reading and writing and oh, actually interacting with the external, physical world. THIS, turning off instead of being plugged in 24/7, is the one I'm still working on--the one I haven't quite figured out. Ask me again in a year.
All of this is different for each person. I think the key to maintaining healthy boundaries is actually thinking about it and making some decisions (and, yes, rules) based on what's best for you. Better to be proactive now rather than impulsive and regretful later.
So how about it? Do you have online personal space bubbles? How do you maintain boundaries?


  1. Never thought of this in just this way, but it definitely helps to label each area and one's decisions of how to act in each.

    For me, blogs are my social space, and I love this community. But Twitter is a bit out of my comfort zone 'cause it'd feel like talking to a friend with a megaphone, so that all of my friends hear it.

    E-mail is where I feel most comfortable, but even there I've had friends ask me things where I've had to side-step issues, and thankfully they've given me that space.

    I guess you could say my boundaries are wound pretty tight, but I'm slowly becoming more bold. :-)

  2. This is extremely helpful, Sarah. Firstly, the diagram is easy to understand and I can totally relate it to my world. Secondly, I agree with how you've categorized your explanation below the diagram. I'm actually encouraged by this post. Looks like I handle my cyberspace experience better than I thought. I'm sure I still have a ways to go - and it will change as I release books and such - but at least I'm floating in the correct bubble. lol

  3. I think i'm pretty good. I feel comfortable where I am. Though, I feel that when bloggers make themselves vulnerable, not by sharing too intimate of details of their personal life, but sharing intimate feelings whether of fear or discouragement or joy, it opens up the connections better. I'm not good at this but the ones that are draw a huge audience.

  4. I'm one of those authors who doesn't mind rating and reviewing books on Goodreads, but I have had to adjust my approach over the years. Or as you said, I've set certain boundaries. Specifically, I don't rate and review *every* book I've read anymore, and I spread only honest, positive words. I think readers like to know what authors think of certain books, especially if they are in the same category as yours. But you have to choose your words wisely--it's a public arena. The wrong words can ruin your reputation.

    Thanks for another excellent post, Sarah!

  5. I rate books on Goodreads, but I don't let it determine what I read. It's subjective (big surprise, right?), and I'd rather base my decisions on my friends' recommendations. I know we share the same taste.

    Great post, Sarah. I can only imagine how different things are for you now compared to a year ago. Sounds pretty scary to me. :P

  6. It is such a balance isn't it? I loved your breakdown and how you decide what to do/not to do based on the realm and your interaction with a specific person. I've gotten pretty good (maybe too good) at turning off without the guilt. I do my best to keep up with my blog and the blogs/social networking friends I've made and to 'rend service' to fellow authors and writers where I can but I also hae a pretty full/eventful personal life that demands attention. It took awhile but I think I've found a balance that works for me.

  7. I am still comprehending your various spaces...I will say one way I have figured out how to limit my time interacting with people other than my kids, say, when they are home, is to leave my iPhone far away from me. I may miss a few texts but no one's going to suffer from that.
    I tell my kids, having an iPhone is like having a part-time job.

  8. Definitely! And I think you've described how it is for me perfectly! I NEVER discuss religion or politics (or vent) on FB, Twitter, ... not even on my blog! I do review books there, and I still review books on GR to a point. Nothing lower than 4-stars.

    I think it's so important to be able to know when you HAVE to draw lines. And I think it's equally important to give yourself permission to draw lines. The biggest lightbulb for me--this might sound funny--was discovering it was OK for me to say no to people, even family members, when I needed to. What a relief!

    Great post, Sarah! :o) <3

  9. My bubble are like your bubbles. (Out of context, that is a funny sentence.) Love this post!

  10. I really liked this post. For me, my blog IS my personal space--an opportunity to share experiences I may actually be reluctant to express to those in my intimate space (being highly introverted by nature). I suppose as long as someone is aware of what boundaries feel right to them, balance is maintained.

  11. Great post, Sarah. I bet some "sharers" have much less well-defined distinctions between social and personal space. Culturally, there are differences too. I was once told by an American that "the British are hard to warm up to." I was just being my remote and aloof self!

  12. I never thought about spaces this way and used to struggle with saying "no". I realized that when I say yes and it isn't best for me, I'm not giving my best to the person who needs the favor or myself.As far as the personal aspect, it's great you have those established boundaries. Still working on those!

  13. Love this breakdown and very insightful. I'm still negotiating where all these boundaries are and I think they'll definitely shift over time. I try not to be too personal anywhere online (all the life stuff I share tends to be silly), and I try to be honest without being aggressive. Turning off is super hard for me, but I find if I just cold turkey it without overthinking, it doesn't actually bother me that much when I'm gone. I do miss all my online peeps though!

  14. As usual, you've forced me to see a different perspective. I'd say you're on target with regard to the breakdown. I sometimes get a little too personal on my blog, and that's something I'm working on. It is important to take time to step back, and doing so usually results in a change of approach.

  15. There are so many ways to respond to this awesome, awesome post. I love that you put so much thought into communicating this kind of stuff so clearly.

    Anyway, the one aspect I will respond to is Twitter. I think you've just made it clear to me why Twitter is my least favorite social media. For Twitter to really work, for it to be all it can be, you really have to be ON. A lot. You have to pay a lot of attention to Twitter, and be active on it to get the most out of it.

    For the same reason I refuse to allow my cell phone to be used like a leash, I refuse to allow being online to make me feel that way. I love blogging and Facebook, because I love interacting with my online friends, but I prefer them to Twitter because I can jump in, do as much connecting as I want, and be done.

    That's all just my personal take, though. I have spent a few nights paying a lot of attention to Twitter, and man it can be fun. A major time-suck, but FUN.