The downside of a life online: burden, burnout and mental health

Before I delve into what is perhaps the most personal blog post I have ever shared here, I wanted to take a minute to thank the wonderfully honest Joe Harkness (of Bird Therapy) who’s recent post, The Vicious Cycle of the Vanity Metric, has helped me come to terms with (and put into words) many of the thoughts I have been experiencing of late. Far more eloquent and insightful than I; I would advise everyone to check out Joe’s honest take on the subject.

I owe the virtual realm a great deal, in truth. It is through social media that I have made a modest a name for myself, sourcing opportunities to write, speak, develop new skills and better myself, at least in the professional context. Throughout years of persistent use, I have watched my followers ascend into the tens of thousands and my ‘views’ into the hundreds of thousands; a chain reaction with added real-world benefits in the form of professional opportunities, both paid and voluntary, and access to some truly incredible networks.

Ultimately, my use of social media has helped me achieve a number of ‘life goals’. I have gained paid employment in the field I love,  won awards, written for notable publications, established successful startup projects and even appeared on primetime TV. All because of the tendency for people to like and share content, and the ensuing spread of information when this occurs. In retrospect, this sounds like a wonderful reward for the seemingly simple task of plastering content across the internet.

Without a doubt, a strong virtual presence has helped me get where I need to be in life. Why is it then that I have come to begrudge, even dislike, social media? Why is that where once I delighted in a booming notifications tab and hods of incoming direct messages, that I now grow anxious at the slightest buzz from my phone?

You may have noticed that I have been somewhat silent (at least by my usual standards) for approximately 12 months now. Where once I bombarded social platforms with content every hour in an effort to keep up appearances, I seldom post now. Where once I spent countless hours each week ensuring a steady stream of content to my blog, now, I can rarely bring myself to even look at it. An odd change in circumstances for someone who previously prided themselves on their online presence, sought out debate wherever possible and delighted in healthy analytics.

As Joe Harkness mentions in this blog post, social media can become intricately linked to our own, very real, sense of self. Particularly for those who use it heavily. Each new follower, positive comment, share or like rewarding you with a boost, before dry-spells and negative feedback draw you down into a low. A constant back and forth that drives you to increase output – to post and say more – in an effort to replicate previous highs. This is a cycle that, around 12 months back, I realised I was falling into. Hook, line and sinker.

Sure enough, the end result of this desire to stay ‘popular’ and ensure I was noticed was a rush to churn out something, anything, that may garner attention. Half-baked blog posts shared absent consideration and a focus on topics that, despite disinteresting to me personally, I thought would amuse others. I had begun to publish content for effect and impact, not because I cared for it personally and upon realisation of this, I vowed to change.

My answer to my growing obsession with the online world was to withdraw. To try and curtail and limit my usage and effectively stop posting. Something I had heard had worked wonders for other people. Instead, I increasingly became an observer – content to read the output of others but seldom creating anything new myself. A habitat which worked for a short time but inevitably perhaps, opened a whole new can of worms.

I am unashamed to say that watching others ascend to new heights online, reading their work and observing their successes left me envious. Angry even, at myself for not having something interesting to say 24/7 or possessing the motivation or knowledge to constantly contribute something useful to the conversation. I fell into the trap of comparing myself to others and despite knowing fine well that almost everyone paints a rosy picture of themselves online, in spite of reality, I felt like I was being left behind. Bypassed.

The latter portion of the past year has seen me feeling torn and empty. Angry at myself for not engaging as I once did yet ashamed of the fact that, as someone with a healthy online following, I have nothing worth sharing. Keen to conform to what I had imagined was peoples expectations of me yet physically unable to force myself into action. Simply put, I have felt demoralised, stuck, frustrated and ultimately, unworthy of the aforementioned highs.

To summarise, an obsession with the online realm forged over many years has left me torn. Torn between the reality of knowing something is bad for me and a desire to soldier on and meet what are likely imaginary expectations. And to continue with bad habits in the false knowledge that I need to in order to ‘achieve’ in the real world. So much so that most of the time, I feel as if the virtual world holds overriding sway over real-world issues: relationships, friendships, jobs, prospects.

Over the last 12 months, I have come to realise that an online presence can be a burden. And that it can directly lead to burnout and myriad other issues. Whereas I would usually keep this to myself, now that these things have begun to manifest in the ‘real world’ I felt compelled to mention them here.

Fast forward some time and I have come to the realisation that I have, for quite some time, held an unhealthy relationship with the online world. I have relied on it to justify myself, to give me purpose and, although it may sound silly to some, have allowed it to form the cornerstone of my being. Really digging into the motivations behind much of what I do has greatly helped in coming to terms with this, as has the honest writing of others.

I have come to realise that, like any unhealthy relationship, this one needs put to bed. And while I won’t be disappearing just yet – part of me welcomes this, the other part brands it a dreadful act of self-sabotage – I will be making some adjustments to try and solve this. Starting with the only engaging with things that really, truly matter to me. I need to go back to basics and focus on my life-long interests and real, concrete hopes for the future. I do not feel like I need to withdraw entirely but must pause and reassess how and why I do things.

While this rather lengthy post may seem like sad-fishing waffle to some, I felt I had to post it. If only to show that the people (myself included) who all too often paint a rosy picture of themselves online, struggle too. From time to time.

10 Comments Add yours

  1. Ben Eagle says:

    James. This post must have taken guts to write and well done for taking the steps along this new path. I can relate to your words more than you might know and I completely see how the burden of content creation can become a disease chipping away and becoming a distraction from the things that really matter in life. The ‘need’ to publish content is a very real feeling and it can play with your mind – let alone the publication of a lot of content which when we set out as bloggers we might think twice about posting. I’ve fallen in to that trap a lot. Wishing you all the best and make sure you look after yourself. That’s all that really matters.


    1. James Common says:

      Hi Ben, thanks for the very kind comment. Indeed, it’s taken a while but coming to realise that all of this counts for squat unless you, yourself are happy and healthy. Surprisingly, I feel better for throwing all this out there. All the best, as ever. J


  2. This speaks to me in so many ways. I myself have been struggling with my blog and every single paragraph has resonated with me deeply. It’s like you wrote was on my mind. Thank You so much for this.


    1. James Common says:

      Thank you for reading, Vicki. I hope you find a way past your own blog struggles.


  3. Andy Field says:

    Hi James and well done. I had noticed that you had all but dissapeared from Twitter but thought perhaps you were busy with other things. I like your honest writing and this post must have been difficult as well. Hope to see more of your work in the future, when you are ready.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. James Common says:

      Hi Andy, thank for your kind words. I do hope I get round to regularly publishing more honest writing again soon. All the best.


  4. David Williamson says:

    Hi James,
    You must always be true to yourself and your own wellbeing. By restricting yourself to “posting” about those important natural world issues that really matter the most to you will not only enrich your life but also that of your followers.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. James Common says:

    Thanks, David. Totally agree with you, best to restrict yourself to the things you enjoy most. James


  6. Julia Leung says:

    Thanks for sharing your honesty James. As we evolve, so do our habits and needs. It’s important to take time to reevaluate what we are doing and how it is affecting us. Take care.

    x Julia


  7. rebeccaogle says:

    I think everything you’ve said is unfortunately, so common. It’s really tricky to differentiate between our ‘selves’ and our online personas, especially when blogging becomes a huge part of our jobs and lives. Thanks for your vulnerability.


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