At other times, ghosting can be the go-to method for people incapable or fearful of expressing their emotions. For Marcel*, a lifelong struggle with confrontation and crippling insecurity has led him to ghost people. He knows it’s toxic, he says, but it comes from a lack of trust towards others. It’s the impulse to leave before being left. “I feel bad doing it…” he says, “but I just feel more comfortable burying my head in the sand.” Elsewhere, for Ronan*, ghosting is a means to end when she feels she’s given all she has to give. “I’ve usually been driven to the point [of ghosting] after a multitude of questions, and once I’ve fully explained why I no longer want to see that person. I always think honesty is the best policy, but it’s whether they are able to listen to that which is the deal breaker.” And that’s the real crux of all these stories isn’t it? Boundaries and how to enact them.
At the tail-end of 2019, a meme dubbed the ‘I’m at capacity’ meme started doing the rounds on social media, taken from a post on Twitter about personal boundaries. The original poster – a woman called Melissa Fabello – wanted to start a discussion around a text she had received from a friend, asking if she had the headspace to talk to her about a personal problem. Fabello said she appreciated the thought, and then suggested the template for a message in response, telling someone you just can’t be there for them right now.
Personally, the thought of sending a message like this feels wildly uncomfortable, and it had the same effect on a lot of other people – hence why it was relentlessly parodied in meme-form, I suppose. I do wonder though, if this type of language is so uncomfortable because it is very much not normalised, and I also wonder, if it were, would social practices like ghosting become less common? Would ghosting, in other words, feel less like the only remaining option if people felt like they could just say ‘I can’t let you in right now’ and know, for sure, that they would be heard, just as Ronan* suggested? Perhaps that’s reductive and too simplifying of our emotions, though, because our capacity to process them doesn’t always happen in a timely and consistent way. After all, this sort of planned offloading doesn’t take into account the moments where you just really need to say what you’re feeling, while it’s fresh.
In the end, something that becomes clear in the midst of Elena’s portraits and the stories collected here, is that nobody comes out well in the messy, modern rhetoric of ghosting, because so much outside of what it originally meant has been conflated into the ways we label and use it now. Ghosting still carries with it entirely negative connotations, but ultimately, while there are people that are hurt, and there are people doing the hurting, there are far more people somewhere in between, trying to figure out where their own emotions lie. Sometimes ‘ghosting’, or the act of cutting someone out, is just cruel; but other times it is a valid and necessary step we take for our own wellbeing. Added to this is the overwhelming, haunting realisation that we are contactable, from multiple directions,100% of the time. Whichever way you cut it, our issues with ghosting are likely part of a larger problem with communication in the digital age, and our ongoing struggle in learning how to draw the line between identifying boundaries, respecting others, and enacting our own values.
*All names have been changed.