It’s like a new personality test or “tag yourself” game: Do you have 0 unread emails or 23,764? There are two types of people in this world, and they can be categorized by that question.
But when you really dig into the psychology behind these behaviors, what does it say about each type of person? And what if your go-to method is causing you problems, like friends feeling hurt you aren’t responding quicker or, on the other hand, being annoyed you’re glued to your screen? Keep reading for what therapists think.
Why You Can’t Stand Unread Notifications
Put a finger down if you’d rather jump into a volcano than see a number bubble on your email app or veer too far from “inbox zero.” Currently holding up four fingers? Here are potential reasons:
You have social anxiety or are an introvert.
You may experience anxiety when dealing with people — even over the phone — or be introverted. (For the record, both are OK!) “For many, notifications may trigger pressure to respond, overthinking about what was said [or] what they should say in response, feeling their ‘social battery’ running low, and many other reasons,” explained Jami Dumler, a licensed clinical social worker with Thriveworks in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, who specializes in depression, OCD, anxiety, stress and relationships.
You’re a perfectionist.
Shame can come into play, too, if you have high expectations of yourself. You may think you’re a “bad friend” or “bad employee” if you don’t respond ASAP. “Anxious people who are self-critical tend to blame themselves or see things from the lens that they are a failure if they aren’t measuring up to the unrealistic standards they set for themselves,” said Lena Derhally, a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in social media and anxiety and is the author of “The Facebook Narcissist: How to Identify and Protect Yourself and Your Loved Ones From Social Media Narcissism.” She added that the perfectionist side of anxiety can motivate people to get things done (though maybe not in the healthiest or most helpful way).
You have an overwhelming urge to get things done.
On a similar note, if you get a thrill from marking something off your to-do list, checking notifications might give you that same comfort. “It could be tied to feeling overwhelmed to the point that each unread notification is yet another piled task piled on top of a thousand others,” said Jenn Hardy, a licensed psychologist in Maryville, Tennessee. You may feel crushed under the weight of unfinished work (or notifications), she added.
You’re addicted to your phone.
If you’ve heard someone say “If you’d just get off that phone...,” you may know what we’re talking about here. Research has found that smartphone addiction can lead to an imbalance in brain chemistry, in which people become increasingly dependent on their phones. Unfortunately, the negative effects are far-reaching, so it helps to be aware if this is an issue for you. Dumler said this can lead to getting distracted from important tasks, frustration, wasted time and more.
You have obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Another potential cause is having OCD (or OCD tendencies), which involves patterns of unwanted thoughts or fears that drive repetitive behaviors — and more specifically, having the order and symmetry subtype of OCD. Unlike the contamination subtype, which involves anxiety around infection and germs, the order and symmetry subtype “is when there is a compulsion and obsession with items being ‘just so,’” Dumler explained. “Unread notifications and unorganized phone screens often challenge an OCD-like brain.”
If you think you may have a mental illness such as this, or are experiencing symptoms that impede your daily life, consider reaching out to a therapist for support.
“Regardless of the reason, please be gentle with yourself,” Hardy emphasized. “Rather than problem-solving notification by notification, consider pulling back to the big picture to figure out if there are patterns at play.”
Why 23,764 Unopened Emails Don’t Bother You
Alternatively, maybe those number bubbles on your email app don’t upset you. You may jokingly brag about how many unopened emails you have, or how you’re lovingly known in your friend group as “the one who never responds.” Here’s what that might say about you:
Your brain functions best this way.
The way you stay organized and on task may just look different. “Some people organize best mentally and therefore don’t thrive off of notes, agendas and notifications systems,” Dumler said. “They may find this works better for them, leaves them less stressed and helps them focus their time and energy on other matters.”
This may entail focusing on the important notifications. “They’ve flagged the important ones and plan to ignore the rest,” Hardy said.
You don’t feel the same urgency.
Or, maybe you don’t feel rushed to open notifications. You understand it’s fair to need (or want) a few days to respond.
“They may be less of a perfectionist type and go more with the flow,” Derhally said. “They may not see having unread notifications or clear inboxes as a priority, and they may not feel bad/guilty/shameful about being unresponsive.”
Addressing those notifications actually stresses you out.
On the other hand, you may avoid responding because it induces anxiety. “Don’t assume lots of unread notifications implies the person is easy-breezy about them,” Hardy said. “[They may be] too stressed to read even one of them.” The piling up of these notifications can exacerbate the discomfort, unfortunately.
If you’re struggling with this, it may help to identify what outcome you’re anxious about and how to handle it, Dumler added. Pushing past the fear? Talking out your response with a co-worker? Planning to breathe deeply if you get a rude response?
Find yourself in between the two?
While some people go hard one way or the other, you might go either way (I do, too). For example, I hate not reading my Facebook notifications, but I currently have over 20,000 unread emails (hey, a lot are ads!). What does this say about us?
According to Derhally, it boils down to what makes you anxious and your preferences. Some notifications are also more in your face, like ones that pop up right when you unlock your phone.
Dumler pointed to social anxiety. “It likely relates to the level of mental energy, time, attention and stress that comes from addressing those specific notifications,” she explained. This makes sense to me, too: If my response is going to take time and emotional energy, I’m more likely to wait to respond, whereas I can send a quick “Sounds great!” text immediately.
Sometimes, you can just utilize an easier option. For Dumler, this looks like expressing her thoughts live in a voice message while doing other tasks.
But generally, get curious. “If it’s the ding of a work email irritating you after hours, then I don’t know that the solution is to get better at tolerating it,” Hardy said. “Instead, the solution may be figuring out ways to advocate for better boundaries between work and the rest of your life.”