We’ve reached the time of year where no one can resist yearning for a break—from our routines, from our screens, from our daily to do lists.
The winter holidays (and winter solstice, if we’re getting celestial) often provide a natural time to reflect and restore—there’s something about nature retreating into hibernation for the season that gives us permission to do so, too.
But sometimes, our need for a break from the object of our affliction runs deeper than a temporary pause or moment of reflection.
In this issue, writer and strategist Lee Tilghman shares an insight into her own constantly evolving relationship with social media, and how her decision to take extended breaks from Instagram over the past several years have helped shape the role of social media in her life.
If you’re looking for a sign that it’s time to take a break, from whatever it is you may be needing a break from—let this be it.
I’ve been on social media since 2006, when my college-aged sister invited me to join Facebook. Off the bat, I felt naturally comfortable with the ease of meeting and communicating with others online, and loved the internet for allowing me to express myself, connect with people, discover new things, and feel less alone. At age 16, my love for social media blossomed.
In college, other forms of social media began rolling out, and I was on all of them.
I started a WordPress blog in 2008 called For the Love of Peanut Butter. There, I blogged about things like the challenges of college life, and the different oatmeal recipes one could make in a microwave. I found a big, beautiful community in the food blogging corner of the WordPress era.
I eventually deleted my blog and scrubbed the internet of its presence—within just one year, I could already see how it was taking over my life. I was spending a lot of time on the computer with this digital community, and not enough time in the physicality of my college life.
The hiatus didn’t last for too long. I began using Instagram before graduating college in 2012, to share various aspects of my college life: heavily filtered sepia tone pictures of my spring abroad in London, pictures of my favorite Philadelphia pizza spot, and sweaty yoga mirror selfies.
I had learned a lot about building communities online through my blogging experience, and channeled that expertise into my Instagram presence. In 2013, I moved to NYC and devoted my downtime to curating my Instagram into a blog-like page. At the time, I was working as the assistant to a restaurateur, and would wake up at the crack of dawn to create smoothie bowls and photograph them in morning light for my personal IG. This content swiftly evolved into the blog Lee From America.
Things progressed quickly. I vividly remember the day in 2015 when Free People featured my recipes on their page. I was walking to work, watching the followers pour in, feeling like I was high. That was just the beginning. Brands started reaching out to me directly. These were the very early days of sponsored posts, and I began asking for payment to feature their products on my page. Within two months, I picked up and moved to LA, where the climate was warmer, and the wellness food community was strong.
By 2016, Instagram became my full time job.
From here, it was full speed ahead. I don’t think I took more than a week off from 2013, when I first started curating my Instagram, until early 2019, when I took my first break. My sense of self became entangled with Instagram. Friends, relationships, hobbies, interests, and work were all mostly digital. I shared my meals, workouts, travel, home life, apartment, shopping excursions, digital friendships, romantic life, family milestones, negative thought patterns, my health journey—everything. The lines between work and play were now blurred, if the lines had ever been there at all.
When your job is to share your life, you have no time off. I repeatedly canceled offline weekends away with friends, in favor of doing my job online. It became a source of stress amongst my relationships, both romantic and personal, as I felt a growing pressure to make every post perform well, to always be gaining, growing, and accumulating followers.
My aunt, who had been a mentor to me throughout my life, could tell I was burnt out before I could. When I saw her around the holidays, she urged me to take six months off. As a cookbook author herself, she couldn’t believe the steady stream of recipes I was developing and publishing—she usually took 8-9 months off to recuperate and rest after each book she published.
I was worried about losing my “momentum,” but I considered her proposal. I was feeling depleted of creative energy, but more than that, I wanted to see what would happen if I let go of Instagram for a little bit. I also knew, for the sake of my career, that I needed to take a break to re-gather energy for a new creative wave. I wanted to know where my mind would take me without a constant feed of new imagery.
When I finally committed to taking a break from this vicious social media cycle, I was able to relax into my skin. I did not go on a retreat or travel far away. I stayed local and re-engaged with my community. I made new connections, and nurtured my old friendships. I spent time with my dog and went on hikes. I started to write again, just for me. I took classes. I had a lot of quiet time. I tried new things without feeling compelled to share. I moved back to the East Coast to be closer to home. I let myself have a full recovery from social media use, and only returned once I felt ready to reframe my relationship to it.
I am now back on social media with boundaries that feel natural to me, so I’m not thinking about it all the time. I know my sweet spot for time spent on social media—and I stick to it. I think twice before pulling out my phone when I am with friends or loved ones, and I do my best to practice phone-off times before bed each night. I take breaks when I need to.
And I know that there is a whole world out there outside of social media, and I am lucky to be a part of that, too.