Some Friendships Are Taking A ‘Pandemic Pause’ And That’s All Right

COVID-19 burnout is sapping our energy, making it difficult to nurture all but a few relationships in our lives.

In the early days of the pandemic, a group of my friends was getting together for Zoom game nights every week. But as time passed, these virtual hangouts became less and less frequent until they stopped altogether. I wasn’t sad to see them go — I was relieved actually. What had started as a fun way to catch up and see each other’s faces soon became another task on my to-do list that I didn’t have the energy to complete.

Since then, I’ve managed to stay connected to a few of my closest friends and family, but have struggled to maintain the other friendships in my life — and that’s something I feel guilty about.

As a person with anxiety, I get drained easily under normal circumstances; 2020 has taken that exhaustion to another level. When I’m running on fumes, even basic tasks like texting a friend I haven’t talked to in a while seem daunting.

It’s not unusual to feel depleted right now, said Los Angeles marriage and family therapist Abigail Makepeace. “This kind of mental and emotional fatigue is extremely common and very normal, considering the state of the world. Much of our energies are focused on how to best deal with the very unfamiliar experiences of the pandemic,” she said.

During this period of unrelenting stress, it's OK to invest your energy in a few close friendships, while taking a step back from others.
Ada Yokota via Getty Images
During this period of unrelenting stress, it's OK to invest your energy in a few close friendships, while taking a step back from others.

As we’ve adjusted to certain elements of COVID-19 life — like working and learning from home, social distancing and wearing masks — additional stressors have piled on. More people getting sick. More people losing their jobs. The repeated police violence and racial unrest. Natural disasters. A contentious election with so much at stake.

According to the American Psychological Association’s October Stress in America report, 67% of Americans say their stress has increased over the course of the pandemic. Essential workers, Black and Hispanic people, young adults and unpaid adult caregivers have experienced disproportionately worse mental health outcomes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When everything feels overwhelming, just getting by is all you can manage some days. In a September New York Times story titled “How to Deal With a Friendship ‘Quiet Season,’” journalist Anna Goldfarb wrote, “Many people are so focused on their own immediate needs that they don’t have the bandwidth to show up for others. These are the cases in which there hasn’t been hostility between friends, just a noticeable drifting apart.”

Friendships that felt easy pre-pandemic may now seem harder to maintain

For some, trying to schedule a Zoom or FaceTime to catch up with friends after spending all day on the computer for work can feel more taxing than relaxing. Plus, virtual hangouts tend to be less fulfilling than in-person ones and leave us longing for that physical connection.

“Conversations that once flowed freely may now feel strained or awkward and require great effort,” Makepeace said. “Small talk may seem implausible or silly when you’re facing the loss of a job or a member of your family is ill.”

Making plans to hang out with a friend IRL is doable if safety precautions are taken (e.g., meet outdoors, stay 6 feet apart, wear face masks, etc.). But those outings are not without stress either.

“Even participation in former social activities, such as going out to get coffee or having an outdoor dinner with a friend, may not feel safe or allow for the same experience of connection,” Makepeace said.

It’s OK to put some friendships on ‘pause’ if you feel burned out

Burnout is what happens when the “external demands are greater than the sources that fill you up,” said Pasadena, California, psychologist Ryan Howes. That feeling of depletion is a sign that you need to take time to refill your own cup.

“You won’t be of any good to others if you have nothing left to give,” he said. “So meet your own needs first, and then those of others.”

Because our mental and emotional reserves are finite, it may be better to focus on staying close to a small number of friends, rather than trying to maintain a dozen surface-level connections.

“Quality is more important than quantity, so if you only have enough energy to reach out to a few cherished friends, that’s fine,” Goldfarb wrote in the New York Times article.

“It might feel like you’re deserting these relationships, but self-care and mental and emotional health have to take priority. There are only so many hours in the day.”

- Abigail Makepeace, marriage and family therapist

This is a time to nurture the reciprocal friendships that uplift you without feeling obligated to invest in those that don’t.

“If this means putting some relationships on pause, so be it,” said Howes, author of the “Mental Health Journal for Men.” “You may be at risk of losing the peripheral relationships, but that may be a positive outcome: holding on to relationships that bring meaning and purpose, and weeding out those that don’t.”

While it’s possible some friendships may fade away, the stronger ones can likely withstand the “pandemic pause.” Be honest with loved ones about your emotional, mental and physical limitations at this time.

“If you need to be more out of touch right now, odds are the friendship will be able to be reestablished later,” Makepeace said. “If you seek to communicate healthy boundaries for self-care when you are experiencing burnout, most healthful relationships are able to rebound when your capacity to safely balance them returns.”

Try not to beat yourself up about taking a step back

You may feel like a crappy friend because you haven’t been regularly checking in on everyone in your life. But cut yourself some slack: You’re doing the best you can in some very challenging circumstances.

“There is the potential for great anxiety and pain when you feel you are unable to meet the expectations of connectedness from a friend,” Makepeace said. “It might feel like you’re deserting these relationships, but self-care and mental and emotional health have to take priority. There are only so many hours in the day.”

Now’s the time to practice self-compassion. Even if you’re falling short of your normal “good friend” standards, that’s OK. Remember that this situation won’t last forever.

“Feelings are non-negotiable, and that applies to now and before the pandemic,” Howes said. “If you feel like you need to keep to yourself and avoid some Zoom or distanced social engagements, then you are entitled to do so.”

But know that withdrawing from all social connections is cause for concern

If disengaging socially is accompanied by other symptoms of depression or anxiety — such as feelings of worthlessness, sleep issues or excessive worry — consider seeking professional help.

“If you were typically a social person before COVID and now find yourself withdrawing from all social interaction, virtual or in person, then you might want to ask why,” Howes said. “Are you too anxious or depressed to meet with others? This can be tricky, because we do need to be vigilant now, and many of us are suffering loneliness. But if you believe your emotions are running the show, you might want to check them out with a close friend or mental health professional.”

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