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Signing up for other people's drama

Last week I managed to avoid doing a hard but important task for the entire week.

It's the most incredible/insane thing about the human psyche - I knew I needed to get this particular task done, but because the consequences of doing it right are significant, I was nervous about the work, so I found all sorts of other work and distractions throughout the week to to avoid doing this particular task.

The final straw was on Friday when I found myself clicking on a news advert about some ridiculous thing Trump has done recently. I clicked the ad, was redirected to the news article, and for a moment felt some respite by absorbing myself in someone else's drama.


It was a major low point, and I felt a level of shame straight afterwards that gave me the kick up the butt I needed. I got up from my desk, made a cup of tea, and then sat down and vowed to not get up until this task was 100% complete.

I finished it on Friday at 17H15.

I've spent some of the weekend thinking about this, and the aspects of my psyche which were at play throughout the week. There are a few things to unpack from the experience, but the one I want to focus on today is the allure of absorbing myself in someone else's drama.

When you think about it, it's pretty strange that as a South African, I would choose to spend any time at all on what a past president in the USA is up to. His actions literally have no impact on me whatsoever, save to the degree that I invite them into my life. So what aspect of my psyche is being served by clicking on a Trump news article?

One explanation comes from Yuval Harari, in his book, Sapiens:

“Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bisons,” he wrote. “It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest and who is a cheat.” This information about which individuals could be trusted — in other words, gossip — allowed early humans not only to survive, but also to expand their tribes. Long hours spent gossiping helped the early humans to forge friendships and hierarchies, which, in turn, helped to establish the social order and cooperation that eventually set them apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. And with a skill so vital to everyday life, it makes sense that our brains are structured to help us hone it.

Okay, so from an evolutionary point of view, when we lived in small tribes and relied on our immediate community for survival, it makes sense that gossip would help ensure our survival. Fast forward a few hundred thousand years, and although we've kept the same neurology, our external circumstances have changed entirely. We no longer live in small tribes, and for the most part, we no longer rely on those immediately around us for our survival.

This is helpful context, at least for me, as it allows me to feel some compassion towards myself for being drawn to click on the news article in the first place. The more important question, at least to my mind, is whether this sort of behaviour still serves me in this day and age?

The answer is an emphatic "no".

What Trump is doing has literally no impact on me. It might feel good for a moment to read the article and get absorbed in someone else's drama, but these sorts of articles will likely make me feel agitated, lose more faith in humanity, polarise me further from others who hold different beliefs to me, and waste time that could have been spent on something that is actually relevant to me and my community.

The invitation to get absorbed in other people’s drama is literally all around us now. No wonder Facebook is so intoxicating, or that click bait adverts are drawing our attention on every second website, or that the whats app group you share with your friends is full of gossip.

More subtly, the temptation to avoid our own issues by absorbing ourselves in other people’s drama results in a predictable downward spiral. For a moment we get to feel morally superior, but deep down our conscience knows what we're doing, and the shame that follows is predictable, and ends up waking us up at 3am in the morning when our mental guardrails are down.

We're not helpless victims to our neurology. Without question our neurological wiring influences us, but with the right willpower and determination, we all have agency over what we choose to expose ourselves to. Objectively, clicking on a news article about Trump is going to make my life worse, and I'd rather choose to use the precious time I have on earth towards a more productive and loving end.

What choices will you make today when you're scrolling online?

What choices will you make today when you feel compelled to distract yourself from the task you know you need to do?

What choices will you make today when you feel the urge to distract or numb yourself from your unpleasant emotions you're feeling?

Our agency is our greatest gift, and although it’s the harder road to choose, taking total responsibility for our choices and actions, however small they might seem, is a critical first step towards an intentional and fulfilling life. The small daily choice to not absorb yourself in other people’s drama is one such choice, and we all get to make it multiple times every day.


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