Emotional Bandwidth Capacity and Limits

A post on LinkedIn caught my eye. The original poster stated he was at his emotional limit due to all the events in 2020. He stated he could not give his spare time to others requesting attention for their social or emotional needs. I found this really interesting and clicked open the comments to find people disagreeing with him. They urged him to contribute or participate, but that choosing to narrow his focus was incredibly selfish. That’s when I thought about a common phrase I hear: emotional bandwidth.  What is bandwidth anyway? Of course, I go to Google to find out. Here is the definition straight from Wikipedia: “In computing, bandwidth is the maximum rate of data transfer across a given path. Bandwidth may be characterized as network bandwidth,[1] data bandwidth,[2] or digital bandwidth.[3][4]

This definition of bandwidth is in contrast to the field of signal processing, wireless communications, modem data transmission, digital communications, and electronics[citation needed], in which bandwidth is used to refer to analog signal bandwidth measured in hertz, meaning the frequency range between lowest and highest attainable frequency while meeting a well-defined impairment level in signal power. The actual bit rate that can be achieved depends not only on the signal bandwidth but also on the noise on the channel.”

At the mention of signal processing, my internal voice begins to mimic the incomprehensible chatter of grownups in Charlie Brown. On a second read, I put it in the context of my emotional capacity to deal with everything I’m doing right now as a working mother, with three kids at home, with a very supportive spouse, and a house full of pets (three dogs, a cat, three fish, and two chickens).  

Let’s break down the definition into digestible chunks.: 

Maximum rate of transfer

The rate of transfer refers to how much I can deal with from work and home:

  • Work politics
  • Conflict management on teams, among peers
  • General work frustrations that pile up, such as having to follow up repeatedly, decision-makers constantly changing course, project delays, etc. 
  • Learning how to teach a fourth-grader how to find the area of a rectangle
  • Siblings getting frustrated with having been each other’s only playmates in the past six months
  • Laundry, cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, trips to the vet, orthodontist appointments, dentist appointments
  • Finding out your child has a rare skin disease during a pandemic and then finding a specialist to make the effort to help solve a severe rash that has covered over 50% of your child’s body
  • Making sure to call my mom every night since she’s all alone and can’t socialize anymore, on top of her dementia
  • And finally trying to find time to connect with my husband so we don’t go off the rails at the same time. 

For any parent out there, you know this isn’t a complete list and doesn’t even go into trying to find 5 minutes to myself… 

Back to the maximum rate of transfer… that’s the, “How much can you take before you cry or scream because someone drank all the coffee?”

Range between lowest and highest attainable frequency while meeting a well-defined impairment level  

What could you imagine being the best case, most restful weekend? I would find myself somewhere with luxurious bedding, a giant tv with on-demand shows, with food delivered… alone. And then the worst-case scenario would be hustling between work meetings, trying to get out the door to take a child to a doctor’s appointment, finding the coffee pot empty, not having had a snack, lunch, or breakfast, resulting in extreme frustration and maybe some yelling. Between these two extremes is the “range” where life should usually be. This means your bandwidth will always be in use. Expect to be somewhere between your best day and your most stressful one.

Actual bit rate that can be achieved depends not only on the signal bandwidth but also on the noise on the channel

This was my favorite line, because it means how much you feel you have the capacity for is related to how well (or badly) others are when interacting with you. This also includes how many different things are coming at you. A very typical example during my current work-life “balance:”

I am talking to my husband about dinner options, two of our dogs decide it is a great time to play-wrestle inside, one child starts asking questions about playing video games, I hear my MS Teams start to ring, and I cannot tell if the other two children playing outside are really hurt or if they are just pretending.  

During these months, I’ve hit my limits more often than I expected. I’ve been able to keep my composure most days, but I’ve also sobbed because I feel like everything is on my shoulders. How well will the kids come out of this pandemic? What will suffer? Their social skills? Their mental health? Their academic interests? Their friendships? Their table manners? I feel like everything I had once maintained has multiplied. 

Where does all this leave me, or women like me, or parents like me? Spent. Emotional bandwidth has so much noise right now. The signals are strained. Practically the entire nine months has been filled to the brim of at this “maximum rate of transfer.” I’ve lost (or gained, depending on perspective) the desire to deal with anyone else’s mess, but my own. I’ve learned that is okay. When I participated in a friend’s or co-worker’s problems, I found myself with less time to give to my husband, my kids, my home. It seems simple enough to listen, to reach out, to make time for others. It doesn’t involve lending money, buying gifts, or moving furniture, so it should be simple, right? But for me it isn’t. It means I pass up the opportunity to eat dinner with my family, I am not taking a walk with my husband, drawing flowers with my daughter, playing badly at Fortnite with my boys, or taking just a few moments of quiet where I can listen to the acorns falling from the trees. When I read that post on LinkedIn I empathized. I know where this person is coming from and why they are so very tired. The standard phrase we often express is, “I’m sorry, but I just can’t…” It’s the soft and polite way we’ve been taught to create space, to spare other people’s feelings over our own needs. For my own relief, but to the shock of others, my response is now a firm, “I can’t.” Sometimes, I feel a bit of guilt. But, then I weigh it against having less noise on my path, which creates more capacity for what I have in front of me every day, right now. My husband, my kids, my mom, and my pets are my priority and I shouldn’t have to apologize for that.

If I lessen the noise there is more space to function with the constant and continuous tasks that require attention. More dishes, the amount of dirt being tracked in and out of the house, the laundry seems even more endless, the toys make their ways into all the nooks and on the countertops, and the number of meals I cook can be overwhelming. Less noise on this channel lets me enjoy the smaller things I was rushing through. Now, I have more space to like having my hair braided by my nine-year old, cuddling with a dog, or enjoying the smell of cookies coming out of the oven. 

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