• Audrey Tang

How I ended the toxic relationship I'd been in since 2007

Updated: Sep 23


I didn't realise I was even in a toxic relationship until very recently.


My time was being demanded - sometimes for important reasons, more often it would be something that could wait. My self esteem was being chipped away at - I was constantly feeling I wasn't good enough, pretty enough, likable enough. I was missing out - although (even in lockdown) I was involved in things in person, I wasn't always present...my mind would be elsewhere. When even those closest to me were lavishing me with attention - attention which, as a person, I have a need for - and complain when I don't get, I'd nonetheless feel a sense of "...not now, wait - let me finish what I'm doing...". And the strangest thing was, when I chose my toxic relationship over my other ones - it pushed those very real people further into theirs.


This week I broke up with my phone.

Stealing this lovely phrase from "Catherine Price: How to Break Up With Your Phone" by the time I read this book (in one sitting over the weekend having gained so much time back from mindless scrolling) - I realised I didn't actually need it, but I was glad that I wasn't alone. Further, when I say "broke up with my phone" - I actually mean:

  1. I have a limit on my social media usage (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are now banned from 9 - 12.30 and again from 1.30 - 6pm) and I no longer have any notifications.

  2. I have set up non-social media forms of contact, and actively asked people I care about to message me via WhatsApp, text or email rather than though any of the above platforms - I don't want to scroll, but I want to see them!!

  3. I post to maintain my brand - as I always have - but now only respond (and "like in kind" during my "allowed" hours.)

AND I've realised I'm NOT missing out; I have so much more time to spend on things that enrich my mind rather than distract it; and - here's an odd one - I like my body a bit more!

The good the bad and the ugly of tech

The good - It's probably a fairer thing to say that I "broke up with social media". I still need my phone for work, I love that I can find out anything at the touch of a button, I've ordered tonight's dinner from an app, and I have a kindle. The smartphone is incredibly useful. As long as I am using it and it is not using me!


The bad - In Catherine Price's book, she poses the question about social media and that is - ever wondered why it's free? It's a good point. It's free because we are the product not the consumer. We are the mass audience who are baited to click through to "see more" - the more time we spend scrolling, the more likely we'll see an ad. Worse still, social media is using our friends to keep us there...it's using our fear that we might miss out and our emotional pleasure in getting a "like" or a "comment" to keep us coming back - thus providing another opportunity to tempt us down another rabbit hole.


And in terms of the ugly - I'm only going to focus on body image as that's something I've considered recently. I've had a hate-hate relationship with my body for 45 years. Even at one point when I lost weight, I still wasn't convinced, and now I've put some back on you can imagine that emotion has only gotten worse. But a question I've always posed when I start a class looking at the concept of comparison is - if you have no alternative, how can you compare. I then thought - what if the only bodies I had to compare mine to were "normal" - not photoshopped, not those of people who have the luxury of working out regularly - but diverse, different shapes and sizes...I'd probably appreciate in the big scheme of things, I'm looking ok.

...and then, what if I'm not constantly looking but thinking more deeply about what my body does (you know, because beauty is skin deep and all that) - then I'm pretty damn proud of it. It can dance and skate - previously to competitive levels, it can swim. It learned to ski 10 years ago, it can run 5k with some ease regularly - and it moved to 10k this year, and it even managed a 30k bike ride. It doesn't give in too easily, it heals well and in all, it's actually doing a darn fine job...and I am learning to give it some love.


Is it time to reset your network?

One area that I teach is cognitive psychology. This approach to development suggests that as we grow, learn and experience we set down "schemas" - this is like a network of strands, a blueprint, which we then connect with new experiences. Our schemas are also organised - so for example, while one would not necessarily link a phone with a husband - one is an object the other a person - as he and I exchange messages during the day, I might associate my phone and my husband in the "like" schema. (Similarly "phone" and "work" don't necessarily match, BUT they COULD link in the "stress" schema - or as is more common with me, in the "relief" schema because if work calls and I attend to it, I feel a lot better.)..."like" and "relief" are reasons why I am driven to check my phone.


BUT I'm now separating out social media with messaging. The former is an announcement to the world, the latter is a deliberate communication - that shift in my schema was the catalyst. I want to connect, but I want that connection to be meaningful and deliberate.


We are programmed for distraction to help not hinder us!

Humans are information magpies - we are drawn to things that catch our attention - again an evolutionary hangover, because if we are aware of changes in our environment, they may save our lives. Imagine the irony of watching someone so "distracted" by his phone that he stepped out in front of my husband's bicycle (both stopped without incident) without looking up.


Perhaps he was attending to something really important I hear you say.


Perhaps, but even I (a week ago), if I've seen a notification and I'm out, and it IS really important - will stop and attend to it rather than dilute it with walking.


Distraction is not multitasking

Multitasking is being able to do more than one thing and it refers to things that do NOT take up the same area of our brain. If it's two things in the same area, then it is "switching attention". You can "multitask" if you can watch TV and do the dishes - one is physical, the other is mental...although oddly enough we'd often call watching TV and running on a treadmill a "distraction" - it stops us from thinking about the exercise - yet that is a "multitask".

When we move from email to facebook to message to watching TV to having a conversation...and I've not only seen this but I'm ashamed to say that up until last week I was doing it regularly - I'm not attending to any of them fully. That's fair on no-one and it's also reconfiguring my brain to flit from one thing to the other. It's hard enough if you are a parent with young children - but when you're talking about social media - we have a choice.


Slowly I'm beginning to appreciate the beauty of being able to focus on one thing at a time.


"We have less time than we realise, but more time than we think" (Price, 2018)

Despite my own foibles, I too have looked at people at a restaurant, both engaged in their phones and wondered - why are you even out at all? Yet, I too have taken my phone out - perhaps for a "legitimate" reason eg - to look up something we were discussing, or perhaps to answer a work call (I'm freelance - this happens) - and kept it out with a cheeky glance at facebook where I'll even reply to someone rather than turn my attention back to the people who took the time out of their day to be in the same room as me. It's known as "phubbing" - phone-snubbing. I don't have my phone out when I eat with others anymore, I punctuate "I'm just looking it up" if I open it while watching something on TV with my husband - and save sending a message of "I'm coming home now." - after taking a photo (I like photos) when out with friends, it goes back in my bag...(If I feel compelled to "check in" I'll do so after the fun of being there!)


...and I'm beginning to appreciate that I not only have more time, but the actual time I spend doing something. I think it's helping me take in more, it's certainly helping me engage more.


Is it time for you to break up too?

Perhaps you were drawn in by my slightly misleading title...I read 3 books this weekend - another was Patrick Fagan's Hooked: Why Cute sells Firstly, I'd forgotten how much I loved to read, and secondly, without distractions how much I could learn. He talked about how when we're driving engagement the first thing to "hook" is the primal part of the brain (sex ie relationships sells...as does "cute"), the next is emotion, especially shock...I thought I'd give it a go - sorry not sorry!

Now I'm not expecting you to do the same. My toxic relationship with social media has been a slow drip feed since 2007 (when I first joined facebook), and it slowly chipped away at my time and even my self esteem for 13 years. While I learned to manage it to varying degrees as I need a "brand presence", I finally wanted to call it off - you might have a healthier one. BUT, if you do think it's time to move on, then I thoroughly recommend Catherine Price's detox plan, but what works for me is:

- An app blocker on the sites that steal my time for little return

- A conscious rule to put my phone away at mealtimes

- Always making it clear if I'm going to use my phone when in company

- Moving my friendships with whom I want to remain fully connected into WhatsApp, Text or Email - a "work based" medium

- I haven't gone "cold turkey" - but I've certainly withdrawn without symptoms.



Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; watch her psychology & coaching masterclasses on YouTube Or catch her hosting Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV where she and her team discuss how psychology affects our behaviours in the workplace and what we can do about it.

Follow her on Twitter/IG @draudreyt (but she doesn't check it regularly anymore!)








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