Compulsive behaviour is a behaviour rooted in unfreedom. We behave in a particular way, often even believing ourselves we have chosen freely to behave so, when, in fact, we are simply obeying a force outside of our present control.
The world of social media and mobile phones is becoming a place of growing compulsion. This can show itself to be either – or a combination of – a strong addiction or habit, and/or being “locked in” to a social media platform that, by its very design, demands we check into it regularly.
Addictive behaviour is a form of extreme compulsive behaviour. We often label our addictions within a very narrow range: addiction to alcohol, to smoking, to gambling, to sugar, to drugs. In recent decades other addictions have come into play – addiction to television, to computer gaming, even to social networks. These are addictions less easy to pin down and many of the general public find it hard to see these things are truly compulsive, as uncontrollable addictions. They often see them as choices people make to indulge themselves, making free choices to be greedy, to choose to repeat behaviours, often doubting these things to be authentic treatable conditions. Like many social phenomena these days, it might be a partially justifiable attitude, but it is not the whole story.
“Addicted to Facebook” or “Addicted to my mobile” are, in a more popular sense, terms of humour, phrases coined to describe our chosen indulgences, not our more tragic compulsions. There are emerging therapies and studies of “online” addiction but they haven’t yet taken root in our social consciousness in the way smoking addiction has. Perhaps more worrying are the people who very confidently claim they are on top of their mobile gadgets, that THEY are the master and not the locked-in slave, and who are simply unaware of how much they are actually using these devices on a typical day. They are akin to the alcohol drinkers who, though perhaps not at the stage of alcoholism have become unwittingly alcohol-dependent, drinking a large glass or two of wine a day as well as a nip of gin. They break their own rules about not emailing at weekends or after works without ever honestly acknowledging it to themselves, and they regularly indulge a compulsion to be very regularly, if not always, “on”.
There is even a view in current and emerging generations expressed as “What’s wrong with having compulsions anyway?” I believe this irritated and regular reaction against the possibilities offered by “sinking” into addictions and compulsions – possibilities that offer pleasure on an ongoing basis – is actually another form of compulsion – an inability to choose self-control or self-discipline, by naming it compulsively in a derogative way. “Don’t tell me what to do!”.
If you enjoy your compulsions, or do not see them as compulsions at all, and if you don’t experience a problem here, read no further. If, however, you feel that online addictiveness and compulsiveness is creeping into your life and you would like to do something about it, read on.
Get this: the wish or need to be “always connected” is a compulsion. There may be times when being in constant touch is really necessary in a work or personal situation. But mostly, it is not necessary. People are closing their front door as they leave home in the morning and their hand is reaching for their mobile device even as they walk along the street. Back into their pocket it goes (though not always) as they cross the road) then out it comes again, as we check for those red alerts on our Facebook page or for signs someone has retweeted us. We arrive at the bus stop and “kill time” by checking what’s new on our device again. We then spend the whole bus journey to town checking in every few minutes or even seconds into various forms of social media. Time flies and we are there. We’ve taken in no one on our street, almost been killed crossing the road, ignored everyone at the bus stop, and seen nothing of the passing scenery on our bus. Did we miss anything? We’ll never know.
Try this. The next time you leave the house, leave your mobile device in your pocket until you get to your destination. If it is a long train journey, leave it in there at least until you get to your departing train station. Hold the idea inside that the first walk out of the door, or first car journey isn’t dead, unconnected time. Taste the air of the morning, check the formation of clouds or the weather in the sky. Connect to THAT, even just for a few minutes. Connect to a neighbour and say good morning. When crossing a road, observe the passing cars, – what colour are they, what types of cars, what mood are the drivers in? Go on, indulge your physical senses. Notice any compulsive urge to reach into your pocket – note the compulsive gesture, and with your own will, say a gentle “no” and let the compulsion return to the depths. Try this for a week – see if you can last for a week. Of course, some would say that people are spending more time online and “virtually” connected because of the lack of warm connection between people in the physical world. That may also be partly true, but there’s still a world out there to delight and stimulate our physical senses. Just step out of your door and look.
Try this. Take control of the placement of your mobile device on your journey to work. Even for only five minutes place it “off” and perhaps physically place it in your bag, and not your pocket or resting in your hand. Make the conscious choice to be in a “not connected” mode during a coffee break or even during lunch and make connecting with people physically there an act of will and priority. Why? Just to see if you can do it. Just to put the compulsion in its place.
Or try this: Buy a nice note book and record a few thoughts or reflections, or plan your day using a real pen and some real paper, perhaps on your train to work. It can be just for ten minutes – the chosen activity is less important than the free act of will to let go of the addictive need to be connected during that ten minutes. You can sing to yourself in the car, or look our of the window of your train (if it is a regular journey, over the course of a week or a month, try to note new things each day and see how rich that picture really is out of your train window). Retaking control with your will can be a bit tiring at first, but then it starts to energises you, and you’ll find your will power increases and improves in general. And during these moments, place the device to “off”.
Compulsive behaviour tends to energise us in terms of the compulsive act itself, but tends to steal energy from our will power as a whole, leaving less for other activities. Soon, we drift downwards into a kind of listlessness and our bigger dreams and plans start to float away from us onto the “back burner”. Little acts of will can have a remarkably large effect on our will energy as a whole. Compulsiveness tends to leak energy away, trying to hide from our awareness of it. Bit by bit it takes hold.
Try this: You receive a text. Choose not to respond immediately. Instead, choose a time later on to write your reply. Choose not to respond immediately and compulsively. Say to yourself: I’ll reply to that, along with any other texts, after lunch, at 2pm. Then stick to that commitment. Can you?
Or try this: Just for an hour in the day, switch off your “alerts” on your mobile device, especially any “vibrate” alert settings. Instead, make a decision to check your messages at a time and place chosen by you. It can even be just ten minutes a head, but free yourself from the compulsion of needing to be always connected in the now.
On a really busy day where you really are immersed in messaging and connecting, try this: every time you get an alert or message, first look at your device, just for a second and remind yourself it is a tool for YOUR use; then read the message as a decision, or choose not to read it right then. If you do read it, read it then LOOK AWAY and choose to think about your reply before typing anything. Don’t get lost in the screen, and don’t fall into the pull of immediacy. Reclaim a little of your will by choosing consciously the exact moment of your reply. A few seconds chosen thinking time is all it needs, away from the screen, and that can help reclaim a bit of freedom for you.
Finally, try this: at the end of the day, as your prepare for sleep (or at the end of any part of the day where you are resting), play the messages you have received back in your mind. Remember them and see which stand out as significant. Try to picture the real people who sent them in your mind (if you don’t know those people, then try to imagine what they might look like based on the style of their writing). See how many messages you can remember without looking. It can also be beneficial to review these in your memory in reverse order – a bit like winding in a fishing line of messages that slowly extended out over the day. Remembering the day, reviewing it, even for just a few minutes, helps you let go of the day, and put things away properly before sleep. Many messages disappear quickly, often un- or half resolved into our subconscious, giving us a troubled, irritated sleep. This exercise helps to settle us and also to take the most significant moments and reflections with us. You’ll wake up clearer, more restored.
In all of these activities, we are trying to reduce the impact of the compulsiveness of mobile technologies. We do this by attempting to regain some mastery over them, and the best way to do that is to freely “do” something, not out of compulsion, but out of a free act of will. Don’t worry if you stumble with these exercises. Don’t beat yourself up. You might start to realise how addicted you have become. But the best way to swim back up to the surface and breathe the free air again, isn’t to make a compulsion of these exercises! It is to gently resolve to try to do something. Gentle resolve and patience or very powerful, even if they take a little longer.
Can you walk down a street for ten minutes without needing to touch your mobile device? Can you spend an evening without checking in to see who has messaged you? It isn’t that the technologies themselves are bad. But there is a problem if you CAN’T NOT. When you truly CAN NOT, then freedom begins to be born in you. If you delude yourself that your compulsions are really choices, then you’ll find all of this irritating. When people become convinced their compulsions and addictions are daily renewed choices, then they have simply relabelled compulsion as choice and can now justify our unfreedoms as our “unalienable right to be chained”. Renaming something compulsively doesn’t change its true name.
I know a lot of people. I know far more people who cannot NOT drink alcohol than who truly choose to drink it occasionally. I know almost no one who can choose when to smoke (though I do know a very few). I know a few people who really are on top of their mobile devices, calmly and gently, with the force of their will. I know a lot of people who think they are masters of their mobiles, and who are simply and very addicted, compulsively reaching for them from minute to minute, missing out on a rich world of family and friends, of community and landscape all around them. Even as they are more “connected”, they are detached in their physical space – whole families become, what Sherry Turkle calls “Alone, together”.
When being “connected” becomes a renewed and refreshed choice, rooted in spontaneous freedom and authentic will, we become the truly free masters of our mobiles. You’ll notice that these technologies, by their nature, call us to lose ourselves in them, promising (and partly and impressively delivering) a new world, and a kind of blissful immersion. They promise us a version of psychic connection in each moment to the whole planet, to thousands of people, we can see with the eyes of satellites, hear the thoughts of souls a thousand miles away. The deal is this: one world traded for another. If you feel that trade isn’t a fair deal, try some of the exercises mentioned here.
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