In isolation, I am starting to dissect my old relationships

What started as a distraction morphed into a bona fide hobby – I spent hours reading through digital exchanges, from outpourings to quick back-and-forths.

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It’s one in the morning and I’m lying in bed scrolling through Facebook messages that are nearly five years old. My phone is glowing in the dark and my eyes are heavy and dehydrated.

This is not the first time I’ve done this since lockdown began in March; it won’t be the last. I’m looking closely at my relationships for the precise point at which things tipped from being “how it was then” to “how it is now”. And to my surprise, I’m struggling to find these pivotal moments, so I keep scrolling.

For many, the past few months have been packed with time-destroying routines – managing childcare and home-schooling, or a potentially dangerous key-worker job. But for others, the opposite has occurred: there has been too much idle time and too little to do with it. It has created space for introspection. And for me, it has created space to press my face up against a magnifying glass, dissecting my own behaviour and the minutiae of my relationships, under the guise of self-improvement.

I’ve always prided myself on my understanding of human emotions and my ability to handle conflict healthily. At 26 years old, I’ve “done therapy” five times – the first three stints as a child and the other two as an adult. Mostly I went because of something traumatic: on these occasions I was forced, probably too young, to learn about the effects of different interpersonal dynamics. But through this education, I grew to see myself as an expert on my own emotional functions and flaws.

This expertise was something I became known for among my friends – I was everyone’s confidant or conflict mediator. Just as regularly as I absorbed guidance, I dished it out to those who wanted it.  I colluded with myself to create a false equivalency: that by simply understanding my vulnerabilities, I had effectively learned to act on them. Being in isolation for six months has exacerbated this delusion, with an even more lopsided lack of output.

I began to think more about what I’d be doing now if things were normal. I noticed myself reaching for nostalgia as an escape. I became obsessed with revisiting past versions of myself, comparing how well I knew people before with how well I know them now. I found my mind wandering towards the quasi-romantic friendships I had in my early twenties that have since faded away.

What started as an occasional distraction morphed into a bonafide hobby. I spent hours reading through digital exchanges, from emotional outpourings to quick back-and-forths about day-to-day plans. I convinced myself that I did this to unwind; that this was, in fact, relaxing. Weeks passed indulging this anxiety-fuelled pastime, under the guise that I was learning. This is what self-improvement looked like, I told myself.

But every time I scrolled back through my conversation archive, that perception of self-progression would fall apart. I’d wake up, jaw aching, wondering why my anxiety was only deepening. Why was all this personal growth leaving me so drained?

Each step I took closer to myself, the more the wider picture was obscured. I realised how easy it is to forget that, despite having mustered the energy to put yourself under the microscope, analysis for its own sake does not translate into change.

I’ve started to accept that however well I know myself, I may not be particularly adept at altering my behaviour. I’ve begun to practise the ways I could be better. I’ve tried to be more vulnerable rather than simply stating what my vulnerabilities are. I’ve tried to be less intense and self-brutalising, and have also accepted that even my best intentions might not be enough. And I’ve tried to stop looking at the messages I sent to friends when I was only 20.

It’s easy to get too close to our self-image when we have a lot of time on our hands. But it’s also easy to convince ourselves that our hands are tied when they aren’t. I have begun to question the value of harsh self-analysis when the time we’re in is so unforgiving. But we must also accept that the ability to spot our own bad habits is merely sport when we do nothing to fix them.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. Sign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.

This article appears in the 28 August 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Covid

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