Spending too much time on our phones is something that many of us feel we do all the time. It has become the byword (or by-phrase) for modern living. Living without a smart phone is a prospect that we find equal parts frightening and liberating. The idea of not seeing what people choose to put on social media (and, by extension, what they are doing in their lives), gives most of us fear, at least initially.
First of all, in itself, the compulsion to check social media must be viewed exactly as this: a compulsive behaviour. Compulsive behaviours are designed to make us feel safe. They are part of our anxiety response. In order to feel safe and secure within our lives, we create systems of behaviours that we know will cause the satisfaction of familiarity, comfort and control. The insecurity of being ‘out of control’ is precisely why we engage in any repetitive or compulsive behaviour. We also do this in order to give our minds the peace that comes with engaging in a behaviour that is so familiar that we do not need to ‘engage’ from a social or from a psychological point of view. Essentially, we are looking at our phones, in order to give ourselves a break from interacting. Therapeutically speaking, this is a fairly healthy mechanism. Constant stimulation from a social or a psychological point of view is intense. Being around people and constantly thinking, feeling and interacting is an energy-consuming piece. Therefore, taking a break and hiding behind a screen makes sense, when considered in this context.
Within this space, however, there are also people who are engaging in this compulsive behaviour as they understand, emotionally, that there are certain people who, for them, it is so safe to be in contact with that the idea of not being in constant contact with these people allows a great anxiety to manifest. For example, knowing what your flatmates are doing 24/7, from following them on social media is certainly a testament to the strength of the connection between you. However, it also means that you are missing out on interacting with the real-life, flesh and bone people around you in your daily life, who may not meet your needs as well as your flatmates (or the insta hero that you can’t live without). Your connection with the real people around you actually may feel less intense, less nourishing and less important. From a therapeutic point of view, this symbolises a situation where your standard for personal validation, and therefore interaction has taken on a quality that would not occur without social media. Life is not intended to be lived with only people who are perfect for us. When we invalidate the real people and the reality that we live in, we create a psychological barrier between ourselves and our ability to be with people who are different from or difficult for us. This means that over time, we become less able to be with anyone other than those who validate us. Psychologically, this is isolating and potentially dangerous.
When we are checking our screens in order to replace interacting with the people around us, it is important to also address what reflection this is on our attachment style and what this could mean about the issues that might trouble us in other areas of life. For example, if you are someone who finds it easier to have online friends than face to face interactions, this could tell you something about your level of fear within relationship in general. This is very likely a system that was laid in place for you in early childhood and though it is manifesting now as social media addiction, this is simply the facade that your attachment issues are hiding behind. Work here would be around helping you to feel safe with ‘real’ people and comfortable with the vulnerability that comes from knowing that people can cause pain and that this pain needs to be managed in real time. Compared with the control and security that a screen gives us, with their capacity to be turned off at any time, people are unpredictable and therefore very frightening. However, this piece of work does not need to overwhelm. Instead, with some focused work within the here-and-now of a situation, fears around real people can be managed until they are not as consuming as they were initially imagined to be.
If you find yourself in a space where you feel that social media has more control over you than you have over it, it might be time to take a breath and take stock of what this means for you and for your overall mental health.
By Lorraine Hackett