Made You Look! Checking Our Phones and Checking Ourselves

Have you thought about why you check your email and messages frequently?

Evan is a 38 year old husband, father of four, and successful corporate attorney. He frequently checks his phone for messages (texts, imessages, and WhatsApps), emails, and missed calls – approximately 10 -15 times an hour, both at work and at home. When his phone’s ringer is on and he doesn’t hear any rings or tones, he often checks to see if he might have missed something. Evan also texts, emails, and checks his phone while driving (sometime with his car’s Bluetooth connection, and often on the phone itself). He commonly experiences phantom vibrations, where he feels that his phone is vibrating, and then checks it but finds out that it didn’t. He even reports feeling those vibrations when his phone is not on or near him.

Evan doesn’t see himself as a compulsive, addicted phone checker – he reports that most of his friends and colleagues manifest analogous behaviors, with similar frequencies. At the same time, Evan senses that there might be something negative about his repeated involvement with technologically current communication. Sometimes Evan loves his phone, sometimes he hates his phone, and sometimes he loves to hate his phone. What might be behind Evan’s strong desire to check it and use it?

Part of Evan’s behavior began when he did. From the time a baby’s life begins as a few cells, he is inextricably linked to his mother. This connection continues as he develops into a baby, and even exists for the first few minutes of his life in the outside world. For some weeks after birth, an infant does not understand that he and his mother are separate; he sees them as one undifferentiated object. As time passes, the new baby begins to comprehend the difficult reality that he is not the same as his mother. He desires to bond with her, and she is often there to help him and to fulfill his needs. As a child matures, he still craves a deep association with his caregivers. Often, he realizes that it has to be balanced with other factors, such as the need for him to go to nursery, or for the parent to go to work. As the child develops, matures, and proceeds through life, his yearning for connection becomes greater. His desire to connect with others becomes more intense, and the pool of people he desires to connect with becomes larger. His connections take on different forms, such as family, friends, and romantic partners, who partially fulfill his profound desire to connect with others. One might say that yearning to connect with other people is so overwhelmingly powerful that it is the energy that fuels human functioning.

That deep desire for connection is a driving force behind a person’s involvement with hi-tech communication. Phones, tablets, and computers are colossal doorways to worlds filled with others to communicate with, interact with, or observe. When one interrelates, it brings the gift of connection with other human beings, even if the subject matter discussed are insignificant facts or ideas.

A single beep or message represents a bit of that fuel being added to our psychological systems. On the other hand, when the potential for that energy is there, but it doesn’t come – there are no calls or messages –  it can create an acute sense of loss and loneliness. Checking our phones is the result of both sides of that coin, we are both in search of the power of connection, and are trying to curb the sense of loss of it not happening.

The desires to connect and not to feel the loss of connection are so overwhelming that perhaps no amount of advertising or legal measures will curb us from texting while driving or not talking in prohibited areas. In addition, education about safety or explaining that multitasking is really an oxymoron might have limited success with us. If Evan would like to curb some of his phone us, is there any intervention that will be beneficial?

Evan explored that when he was extremely young, he had believed that when his mother wasn’t present, she didn’t exist. As he matured, he learned that his mother’s love existed even when she was not physically present. He discussed that perhaps the most meaningful relationships that exist throughout life follow that pattern. They need to be nourished and invested in, but don’t necessarily require constant mini-communications.

Evan found it beneficial to focus on creating, developing, or deepening meaningful, robust relationships with several individuals.  As he invested the time, energy and effort into those relationships, he noticed an inverse association. The more he focused on creating valuable relationships, the less he required continuous interactions to validate them.

Evan still enjoys communicating via his phone and is sometimes disappointed when no one reaches out to him. At the same time, he feels that the depth of his current connections partially mitigate the sense of loss he had formerly felt when he had no missed calls or messages. Evan’s complex interaction with other people greatly enhances his life. He might not have seen himself as a compulsive phone checker, but he currently enjoys a new sense of freedom and empowerment.

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