Physical immersion, narcissism and digital addiction


From physical activity to physical immersion

The rise in physical fitness and the use of westernised Eastern practices such as yoga has been significant in recent years. The emergence of the boutique fitness studio, new forms of high-intensity  Yoga, such as Hot Yoga, as well as the rise of the low-cost gym (with UK gym membership spending up by 44% in 2014) all point to an increase in western human focus on the human body. The often cited motive for this is health and fitness. In practices such as yoga, the intention may go beyond that into psychological and spiritual well-being as well.

You probably know someone – a friend of family member – who has joined the local gym or bought a two-week pass to a Hot Yoga class, and they can’t get enough of it. Often when we try something new and gain benefit from it, we can quickly become immersed in it. We go to the gym every day and take half a dozen classes. We go to three yoga sessions in a day. It is thrilling, exciting, we feel immediate benefits. Apart from the possible risks of overdoing it, there are darker consequences of over-immersing ourselves in physical activity, especially when, in parallel, we begin to over-immerse in the digital realm – the world of texting, photo sharing and social media gaming and messaging.

The rise of digital connection

Studies are already finding that too much texting can harm relationships. It can create mistrust, and also take our attention away from critical times in our relationship with our partner and family members. On waking, instead of spending a bit of good morning time with our partner or our kids, we head into the bathroom and everyone notices that our “morning poo” is taking longer and longer. There’s an eerie silence in the bathroom, for these days, tapping on gorilla glass is a silent activity. The family becomes fractured even in the first few minutes after waking up.

But what does all this have to do with going to the gym? Physical activity – exercise, yoga, Zumba, and even stillness-based mediation are all bodily activities. They take us into our separate selves. They are immersive activities. What does that mean? it means we go into them, physically, emotionally, our attention fixes on the physical activity, we sink into the activity. The problem doesn’t lie with yoga or physical fitness methods per se. Traditional yoga wisdom warns of narcissism and over-immersion – and that wisdom goes back a very long time time. The problem lies in our modern addictive relationship to it, our need for instant gratification and the way some new forms of it are packaged and marketed.

The need for balance

Most physical exercise is about balance. If we overdo things we can injure ourselves. We can get headaches, have disturbed sleep and even become depressed by too much physical activity. Too much water can poison us, and too much physical activity can, under some circumstances, also become toxic for us. There’s even a term for it: exercise addiction. We become “exercise dependent”, and this can be experienced by partners as a decline in their relationship. In physical exercise, our focus on the bodily form can create insecurity in our partners and family members.

Distaste for those we used to love

We can become critical of them and their bodily form. Suddenly they look overweight and even ugly to us; under the guise of wanting them to be as fit and healthy (and good-looking) as us, we cast our critical eye over their posture, their lifestyle and express dissatisfaction.  We’ve possibly arrived in a genuinely good place in that our newly won fitness and health is something our family would genuinely benefit from emulating. But we may also have arrived at narcissism where no one in our close family and friends is quite a beautiful as we are! Slowly, your partner starts to be less attractive to you and the better toned people in your gym become cooler and more compelling.

Who are you kidding?

In spiritual-physical practices such as yoga, your may fall into “spiritual delusion“, seeing your newly improved body as a kind of temple that your boring family are not fit even approach or simple don’t understand. Then the morning hugs stop, even the eye contact.  Sometimes that comes from the culture of the gym or class which can fuel that elitism and narcissism, especially where there is no discussion or reminder about the impact on, and relation of your practice to, the rest of your life and family.

Me Me Me!

Narcissism is “excessive interest in or admiration of oneself and one’s physical appearance”. When we immerse too quickly and too much in any activity we can lose our connection with our wider social context. We have to “surface” again. The problem with a narcissistic approach is that we do not see our close social context as the place on which to surface. We surface alone, or with our cool friends from the gym or the yoga class. If we can’t meet them physically, we simply trade one form of immersion for another. We say we are going for a walk, to take a bath, or to sit in the garden but what we really do is light up our smart phone and start messaging on Facebook and texting. It’s 10pm, the child is tucked up in bed and we wish our partner goodnight without so much as a kiss or a warm smile and head back into our own private world. The danger of overdoing physical practice is that we then abandon even the smaller physical acts of a cuddle, a conversation or a meal together. Family life feels too intense, and we feel as if we are being scrutinised when, in reality, our kids, our partner, even our friends are genuinely trying to reconnect with us because, through immersion, we seem very absent, zoned out, and even a bit alien. And all we have to offer thm is silence; becausethe now mundane family seems too intense.

Families can normally deal with immersion. We all have phases of immersion and most of us don’t fall into addiction and dependency. Phases come and go and things tend to settle over time. However, in recent years, the rise of the digital realm has brought in a powerful new dynamic – the possibility of instant and even constant digital distraction and immersion, alongside whatever else we are doing in the physical world.

The pull of social media

Social media is rooted in connection, in our messaging other people and it is device-based – when we are doing it, we are NOT doing anyone or anything else. Younger people have learned to multi-task and for them holding two conversations at once is now normal. There’s plenty of evidence for that in Sherry Turkle’s new book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. My own research in my book, Digital Inferno, also suggests that digital immersion brings many new experiences and benefits to humanity, but also takes it toll. And it takes a particularly heavy toll on people who do not find its underlying “pull” easy to cope with. Partners can feel ignored, excluded and even begin to wonder at who and what their partner is connecting with in their over-long stay in the lavatory.


Scratching the itch for connection

Digital distraction scratches an itch for connection without the need for physical intimacy and visceral immediacy. When a partner comes home from a workout at the gym and feels physically satisfied, even overloaded, it is easier to debrief with someone with a few hundred finger taps,  away from the family in the room next door, than to expose yourself to the “glare” of real physical presence. When someone has physically immersed to the point of overload, even a goodnight kiss is one physical act too much. The light goes out first and the “g’night” emerges minimally from the darkness, if at all. The partner turns over into some restless sleep.

Joining in?

One solution is for the partner, even the whole family, to join in with the physical activity. This can and does recreate connection. We develop some shared, common ground. We all go to the gym together. We all take a family walk together. But if we all then go into overload, it will simply multiply the problem, not resolve it. Certainly if one family member is experiencing physical exercise as life-changing, we should not make them feel alienated. We should celebrate with them and join in when we can. But when narcissism creeps in and takes over, that can be hard as the person wants us to keep out of their space. This is my thing! This is none of your business! You don’t get me (and I don’t want you to get me anyway). We can feel we are losing a person and that can create fear and panic in a husband, a wife, even a child. It is always healthier to debrief our activity together, to share and involve each other. That makes it easier to feel safer to then give the other person whatever space and distance that they also, at times, need. Where it all goes wrong is where the partner and the rest of the family is frozen out of the activity. They are put “over there”. And then, when the immersed person does want to connect and debrief, they head to their Facebook page, Whatsapp, and their texting buddies as the default.

The Fatal Tipping Point

Digital immersion creates a tipping point, I believe, in many relationships. Relationships which began warmly, start to suffer under a fatal combination of physical and digital immersion and even addiction. The physical immersion makes family intimacy feel “burning”, and the added digital immersion steals any final energy and inner resources for smaller acts of physical intimacy and warmth. A kiss from your partner feels forced, even grotesque because you are simply physically overloaded and it all feels fake. You’ve ploughed all of your physical and emotional energy into yourself. All you have left for your family is polite, detached, spoken words, all at a fairly safe physical distance. In comparison, typed kisses and fingertip conversations are so much easier…

Some people joke about being a “yoga widow“, and the “I and mine” (as it is sometimes called) consequence of over-immersing breeds narcissism. I become more important than my family, and my partner’s need for the regular intimacy and connection we used to share becomes unreasonable, annoying, cloying and invasive. If physical practice feeds narcissism, the added ongoing digital connection on social media – a realm of Xs and likes and superlatives, feeds that egoism even further. If you are doing too much yoga, the digital realm will “loop back” into your “false ego duo” and actually harm your practice. You’ll then bring THAT home to your family which they may experience as you being even more detached, selfish and even cold. This can erupt into “angry yoga” syndrome where the physical and digital overload overwhelms us and we express that in terms of blame and intolerance of those around us. Why don’t they get us? Why are they demanding so much of us? Why can’t they give us a bit of space? 

We get home – the family wants a bit of our time, and all we want is to get to bed, get into an empty room for a bit of digital time, or to simply be left alone. We don’t realise we are too immersed, overdosing and putting up defensive walls of survival. 

Little gestures of warmth and love

The digital realm of social media is all about many small gestures. That is what an”X” is. That is what a “like”, “smiley”, a little “hello darling” to a male friend all are  – these little gestures each take an imperceptibly small amount of our energy and motivation and we often get little positive gestures back in return. They are immediate and compelling and they are nearly always aimed at “ME.”. When we are tired out from three gym classes and a run, it can be easier to get a goodnight and a kiss from our Facebook friends or a loving or fun text than the more physically close and “intense” husband lying next to us. Looking at us. Why is he staring? Why is he being so needy? There he lies – wanting to touch and a bit of warm eye contact in the moonlight. Yeuchh!  

When he says “I love you”, it is because he means it and because he hasn’t seen you all day. Yet it can feel like a demand because, of course, it is so much more than a convenient smiley.
There’s plenty of evidence that staying in love is all about small, simple gestures. Without them, relationships degrade. I believe a tipping point can be reached where normally benevolent practices such as physical fitness and yoga become so immersive that, when combined with digital overload, the relationship within a family or between two people can begin to die. And the tragedy is, it wouldn’t have died had this not been the case. Relationships that would have lasted and grown over years get buried under the weight of addiction combined with distraction, detachment and, often, anger. And the real tipping point is when we lose the ability to value or even understand those little gestures of love from those we used to welcome them from. Those little gestures actually point the way out of the mess.

What can be done?

For those practising yoga and other spiritual-physical practices we need to apply similar discipline and mindfulness that we do in the practice itself. We have to become aware, not only of egoism developing in us,  but also of harmful social detachment developing too. I believe small physical and emotional gestures towards our family become more important the more we immerse in physical activity. These are gestures of giving and sharing, an antidote to selfishness and narcissism. And what is wonderful about them is that they challenge the developing narcissist because they are gestures of giving and sharing. A hug, a kiss, holding hands, listening to another, a cuppa and sitting close – all of these things are not only about ME. They become a counter-weight, an antidote to toxic selfishness. This balance will actually enhance the physical practice you engage in as well. If I go to yoga, it should never only be about me but also my family, even my community, even the world at large. Yoga was never meant to be cold and unkind. It was never intended to damage family life. Physical fitness was never meant to diminish how we see others and our conversations with them. Those conversations can be diminished to such an extent that they become empty and unbearable. It’s hardly surprising that the easier “chat” on social media and the smiley become such ready alternatives.

Hippy nonsense?

Does that sound like New Age clap trap? I suggest not. It is eminently practical to develop ourselves to be at our physical and emotional healthiest and best, not as an end in itself, but so that we can be a better partner, a better mum or dad or parent, better in the job we do, a better more contributing member of society. That isn’t hippy, it is actually purposeful and efficient. My partner is a yoga teacher and she often refers to her motive for doing yoga. Yes, she is working on herself, but there is a companion motive of being more present and energised for we, her family. And she wants to make a positive difference in her community- not just for herself, but also for the world. She comes home from a long day, tired from physical activity. And it is just in those moments I offer up those (sometimes hard to take) little gestures of love – physical, emotional, and warm. So does our son. So does our cat.

As more and more people admit to using their phones whilst on the toilet, and with research pointing to how smartphones in bed can ruin your sex life as well as your relationship, I believe that immersion in physical activity combined with digital addiction will destroy more and more relationships. Indeed this is already happening. It may be happening to you right now. It’s time to open up the dialogue with your partner and your wider family – before it is too late.

When physical immersion goes beyond being a fun and thrilling phase and becomes a compulsion; when family life begins to suffer from it, it is time to reduce and more consciously place that immersion and find a better balance. If the people who you know love you begin to tell you they are experiencing you as colder, more detached, if they are struggling to experience the warm flame of love that seems to have diminished to a hidden pilot light, there’s still time to reclaim the conversation that brought you all together in the first place. 

How? You will need to begin to place both your physical and digital activity more consciously in the context of your family and friends, and of your partner who isn’t as immersed as you. You might need to name it as an addiction. You may need to say sorry. You might need some professional help. One good place to start: those important, small gestures of love.

Paul Levy is the Author of Digital Inferno

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Digital Inferno by Paul Levy

About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

Posted on October 7, 2015, in Key themes. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Well done article. I’ve seen it this with my own eyes.

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