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I get overwhelmed with social interaction very quickly and can only handle so much at a certain time. Is there a socially appropriate way to initiate a conversation with a time limit?

When I'm answering the phone or texting (and someone sees that I'm "typing..."), I often feel like I'm trapped in that conversation for as long as the other person wants to talk.

I don't know how to excuse myself from these conversations because I don't want to be rude. Most of these people are people who I really miss, and I do want to communicate with them again... but I really need to manage it or I'll get overwhelmed and shut everyone out again.

Problem: I have shut everyone out for the past few years, but there are a few people who haven't given up on me. They want to talk, Zoom, text, whatever, and if I do it becomes very draining and emotional. I do want to talk to these people, but just in small bits while I get comfortable. I struggle with social stuff, found out I'm autistic and I don't want to lose the last few people who care enough to "bother" me... but if I talk for too long, that's it, I'm done. I really need to able to manage it... but these people haven't heard from me in over a year and I really don't know what to do. Sometimes conversations get emotional or heavy - I'm crawling out of hiding, I just want to pop in and say "hi, I learned that these things overwhelm me but I still care so here's your hello, get used to shorter conversations please cuz I don't know how to hang up the phone ok, luv you bye!" (only half joking)

(I've tried this - "please only 10 minutes" and nobody has respected it. One "ten minutes, I promise" phone call ended up with me secretly crying after an hour and saying "hey, remember we were gonna talk for only 10?")

How do you tell someone on the phone or text (or zoom, omg, the horror) that you don't wanna talk anymore? OR that you wanna talk but seriously only a few minutes... Is there a way to say "please, let's mutually agree to hang up in 5 minutes, I'm just calling to say hi" without being rude? I have a problem with lying... so I end up trapped. I can't say "someone's at the door" because nobody is. There's no valid reason other than the fact that I need to keep conversations short so I don't get overwhelmed. If I KNEW beforehand that a conversation would be only 10 minutes... I would go home and call them all right now.

To be clear - I WANT to learn how to talk to people I care about. This is not to avoid them, it's how to limit conversations or end them without being rude - so I CAN handle more conversations. None of these people is a concern, they all are good people who care. I need to change their expectations a bit but how can I do that if I can't even hang up the phone?

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    Are these people you are talking to friends? If so, you should just be able to tell them what you just told a bunch of strangers on the internet just fine. Jan 20, 2023 at 21:29
  • Yes, they're friends. It's not explaining that's the problem, it's that my explaining doesn't matter. I just don't know how to say I need to hang up I guess. Jan 23, 2023 at 17:39
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    There's a lot here about what you tried before the conversation becomes an issue, but what have you tried during the problematic period? Have you tried simply saying "Okay, gotta go, bye!" or somesuch? I have a friend who will, out of the blue, say "Gottagobye" as a single word and just leave instantly, and nobody really thinks any less of him other than just being 'quirky'.
    – Onyz
    Jan 24, 2023 at 13:17
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    Do you say anything when the ten minutes mark has passed to inform them the time is up, or do you expect them to keep track of time themselves and end conversation themselves? If it is the latter I will probably write the answer soon. If it is the former please include it in the question.
    – BagiM
    Jan 25, 2023 at 5:46
  • I say something like "oh, hi, hey I can only talk for a couple of minutes" and hope they respect that. When people are talking I feel like I can't interrupt so I mostly end up just listening and saying "yep, uh huh" and stuff. Every once in a while I'll say "hey, I..." and just kinda get talked over. Nobody's being rude to me, they just miss me and like talking. Happens a lot with my kid - she just wants to tell me stuff and sometimes I'm doing dishes or something but I don't want to hurt her feelings so I stop everything and listen. It's like that for everyone. Jan 31, 2023 at 16:35

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It sounds like you're worried that telling the person the conversation needs to end will hurt their feelings. You can take advantage of a funny quirk of people. If you say

Well, I don't want to talk to you any more now, that was enough

They may well feel hurt.

If you present a fact, such as that you are tired, they may acknowledge it, but not take it as a reason to end the call, or at least not yet.

You are not willing to lie, but the solution that works for me is very close to the lie you're rejecting -- while not being a lie. I'm going to assume that ten minutes is your phone call limit for all people on all occasions, but this technique will work just as well if it's a different time each time.

When your phone rings (or whatever) set a timer, ideally on a different device such as your microwave or a windup kitchen timer that rings or whatnot. When you answer, say something nice and tell them your limit too:

Sue! Great to hear from you! I have ten minutes and would love to spend them talking to you!

(Note, not "ten minutes until I have to leave for work", not "ten minutes until this food is cooked and I need to eat it", just "ten minutes.")

Then do that. Chat. When the timer goes off, say "oh! There's my timer/reminder/alarm" or something else that makes this limit feel like an external thing imposed on the two of you by someone else (even though it was in fact set by ten-minutes-ago you.) Tell them you enjoyed the chat and look forward to the next one. Then say goodbye.

This can also work when you call them. Just open with a reminder of your limit:

Hey Sue, I had a few minutes free and wanted to hear your voice if you can fit in a quick little chat?

Same thing, when the alarm goes off, "oh, there's my reminder, gotta go, so great talking to you!" and say goodbye.

While this works better in a voice call where the other person can hear the noise, you can do exactly the same thing if you're texting or otherwise typing the conversation.

I know this seems like it couldn't possibly work, that people will demand to know what these timers and reminders and alarms are for, or will tell you to snooze them, but in my experience, they don't. They accept "my reminder went off" as some sort of neutral third-party ruling that the conversation must end now, even if they have no idea what the reminder is for or whether that other thing is more important than talking to them.

It may be that someone says "why do you always seem to have appointments no matter what time I call?" or "is there a better day I can call you when we can talk longer?" but if they do, you can gently tell them that you find these calls tiring, and that while you enjoy them you need to limit how long they are. You can make reference to the recovery you are working on, but you don't have to. People aren't entitled to all the details of all your choices and decisions.

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  • "People aren't entitled to all the details of all your choices and decisions." - and that is when the "lovingly" part of the discussion goes the dodo way. I know from experience, I know people on that side of the situation.
    – virolino
    Mar 29, 2023 at 13:42

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