I stopped checking Facebook for a year, without deleting the app. This is the biggest lesson I learned in my time off of the social network.
About a year ago, I stopped checking Facebook. I did not delete the app from my phone; it remains prominently positioned in the center of my home screen. I simply stopped opening the app.
Most people gasp when I share that I stopped checking Facebook without deleting the app, so I’ll give you your moment to catch your breath.
Other people shrug and say, “It must be easy for you. You create new habits like it’s your job.” Well, I do create new “habits” like it’s my job, because it is my job to see what’s in my way and how to get it out of my way. It’s yours too.
Creating habits is fairly straightforward, and much easier than breaking habits.
The Habit of Escape
My Facebook hiatus was about breaking a habit. Not the habit of Facebook, per se, but the habit of escaping.
What was I escaping from?
The same things we all seek to escape from when we find ourselves in a moment of discomfort and uncertainty, or a moment of stillness where we don’t know what to do with our attention.
The feeling that I don’t know what to do next.
The feeling that I’ll never measure up to what others expect of me.
The feeling that I’ll never measure up to what I expect of myself.
Boredom. A rushing mind.
Doubt. Fear. Pain. Loneliness. Anxiety. Anger. Outrage.
The feeling of unfulfillment.
Sometimes I didn’t even know. I had a few spare minutes. Facebook was there. Why not check and see what everyone is up to?
In a moment when I hated my life, I could live vicariously through someone else’s life.
In a moment when I felt empty, I could fill up by helping someone else.
In a moment when I felt lonely, I could connect online and feel less alone.
If I felt doubt after being challenged on my point of view, I could find reinforcement in the echo chamber. If I felt like my life was in turmoil I could find someone whose life was worse, showing me that my circumstances weren’t so bad.
Escape wasn’t just from the undesired emotions. When I scored a big win, I could get external validation for how great I am.
This issue isn’t unique to Facebook. Facebook just plays on our natural tendencies better than many other escape hatches. The same triggers send us to check email incessantly, or to open Instagram or Twitter or Snapchat 700 times a day to check what’s new.
Personally, I had already broken the incessant email-checking habit. I had Twitter and Instagram under control. I had tried to break the Facebook habit the year before. But I noticed how it was again hooking me. I noticed that whatever I might be telling myself about my Facebook behavior, the truth was undeniable: I was using Facebook to escape.
Breaking the Escape Habit
I knew it was time to break the habit. Again, not just the habit of incessantly checking Facebook, but the underlying habit of escaping my emotions.
I resolved that I would no longer escape. I committed to myself to stay with my emotions. No hiding. No masking. No demurring. I would be real with myself, no matter what.
Why not just be more transparent with what I shared online? That transparency only works when you are authentic to yourself first.
I needed to be real with myself. I needed to sit with what came up in my life and be in my own energy, rather than in the energy of the online swirl — especially in an election year.
Facebook is just the biggest example of where I broke the escape habit. I also gave up podcasts. I gave up busy. Most recently, I broke perhaps my most entrenched habit: television. Ever since I received my first television at age 12 it has been my favorite escape. That’s 30 years, if you’re wondering. I haven’t turned on my TV in over a month. For me, this is huge.
The results of cutting out TV have surprised me. More on that another time. For now what’s most relevant is that this turned out to be the last piece in a long puzzle of learning to stay with my emotions.
That piece clicked into place in perfect synchronicity with the calendar. Perhaps for the first time ever.
Today is July 4. In the United States it is Independence Day, a day on which we celebrate our freedom.
(Yes, I know that independence and freedom are not the same thing. But our society seems to think they are, so let’s pretend, for a moment, to go along with this.)
We live in a culture that prides itself on its fight for freedom. We claim it as one of our highest values, so much so that we interject into other countries to mandate that they also value freedom.
Our actions and attitudes as a society tell a different story. There are many obvious and substantial ways that we do not walk our talk on the subject of freedom. Given the current headlines about fights regarding providing women access to basic health care, allowing people to choose what bathroom to use, ensuring equal rights for every citizen, and a multitude of other issues, I don’t think I need to elaborate much these.
What is less obvious to many is the more subtle way in which our society diminishes freedom in the emotional realm. Our culture is uncomfortable with emotions: with feeling them, with expressing them, with acknowledging them. More precisely, our culture is uncomfortable with the “less desired” emotions: fear, anger, sadness, anxiety, resentment, shame, and so on.
Pursuit of happiness is a founding principle of our republic. If you’re not pursuing happy, there must be something wrong with you. The DSM–5 is like an appendix to the Declaration of Independence: here’s what we label the people who aren’t pursuing or living happy.
Culturally Sanctioned Escape
To further the pursuit of happiness and freedom, our culture sanctions all forms of emotional escape.
There are the obvious ones: drugs, alcohol, food, video games, television.
Other forms of escape are particular to the “high achiever”: immersing in work, constantly checking email, the badge of busy, over scheduling activities, reading, listening to podcasts, immersing ourselves in service, spending time online, working out, shopping.
To be clear, none of these things, in and of themselves, is “bad.” Some are healthy, when done in the right proportion. Others are not great for us no matter what.
Moments of distraction and escape are healthy. To a point.
The problem arises when we become so afraid of feeling that we turn to the nearest device or distraction to escape.
Escape Does Not Lead to Freedom
When we escape what is, we delude ourselves into believing we are free. A prisoner who escapes from jail sleeps with one eye open, always wondering, in the back of his mind, when someone will catch him.
Escape only removes us from the walls we can see; it does not lead to freedom. Somewhere within us, we know it’s only a matter of time before the emotions resurface, stronger than before.
The App Isn’t The Enemy
Earlier this year, Cal Newport wrote about how many people choose to minimize the intrusion of Facebook by deleting the app from their phones. I’ve heard other people offer similar advice that the best way to break the “Facebook habit” is to delete the app from your phone.
To be sure, this is an easy way to do it. But it doesn’t actually solve the underlying problem.
The trigger for my behavior was not the presence of the app on my phone, any more than the presence of alcohol is what makes an alcoholic drink. It’s easy to place blame there, but that wouldn’t be honest.
The trigger is always internal.
Instead of making the app my enemy, I used the app to remind me to stay with what I was feeling. The app became a trigger for mindfulness practice.
Learning to Stay
Staying with what is can be uncomfortable — even when the emotions are pleasant. I held back from sharing some of my biggest wins and from escaping some of my biggest pains.
Among many other things, I learned to be with what is, for better and for worse.
I learned how to be with all the feelings: boredom, anxiety, exuberance, despair, joy, fulfillment, anger, resentment, love, loneliness, doubt, fear, trust, elation.
I learned how to be with myself. I learned to embrace all the parts of me.
As I learned to stay, I found freedom to unmask, unfilter and uncensor. I found the freedom to embrace and express who I am. I found the freedom to let go of expectations placed on me by others and by myself.
Finally, the puzzle pieces clicked into place. I realized:
I found the freedom I was seeking only when I stopped trying to escape.
I found the freedom to be me.
Not the me who is an aunt or daughter or sister or lawyer or real estate broker or coach or consultant or whatever other label the world wants me to wear. Not me as a brand or avatar or archetype. Not a smorgasbord of initials that try to label me in some way: ADHD, DIsC, ENFP, ENTJ, HSP, CAISGY, or whatever.
The me who is underneath it all. The authentic me. The real me. The human being me.
Kind. Loving. Impetuous. Wild. Stubborn. Sassy. Weird. Crazy. Embracing. Intellectual. Emotional. Creative. Logical. Snarky. Funny. Empathetic. Introverted. Extraverted. Over-thinker. Over-feeler. All of this is me. Short tempered. Patient. Visionary. Risk-taker. Questioner. Doubter. Cynic. Open-minded. Innovator. Active. Loud. Quiet. Driven. Feminine.
I am all of these things and more.
When I stopped escaping, I learned to hold space for all of this, even as parts of myself appear to be in conflict with other parts. There is no longer any conflict because I accept who I am in totality.
This clicked into place for me just in time.
Independence Day. We celebrate the freedoms that we hold sacrosanct.
To me, this is the ultimate freedom: to embrace who we are, without apology or excuse.
I think that’s worth fighting for. Don’t you?
In response to requests from some of the thousands of people who have found this article resonant for them, I am preparing a workshop to teach exactly how I turned the Facebook app into a mindfulness trigger and learned to stay with what came up. You don’t want to miss this. To get the scoop, register for my list!