Texting has been a thing for maybe fifteen or so years. If you’re 30, you’ve been texting since you were in high school. You might not remember what life was like before. When you could ask someone a question and get an answer without waiting for those little moving dots to resolve. Or when you could see the face of the person when you cracked a joke or expressed your anger. Or when you had to coerce your mom into calling for a pizza.
Because I’m considerably over 30, my experience with texting is a little different from that of a younger person. In high school when social lives begin to evolve, we had to call someone on the phone, now known as a landline, and leave a message on an answering machine. If we were expecting someone to pick us up, we might actually stand out on the porch waiting for them until they showed up. My first experience with texting was as a late 30-something, communicating with a friend who happens to love new technology. I soon graduated to a Blackberry and since then, I’ve been a a somewhat heavy phone user. I love being sociable and chatting with people all over the place or just randomly texting to tell someone they’re on my mind.
We’ve all morphed with the technology as time has gone by. We write almost no letters, send almost no cards. Nor do we even send those e-birthday cards anymore with the low-tech graphics. We all didn’t realize in the moment how our communication with other humans was evolving. But if we make the leap to what we were doing, say, fifteen years ago, we’d notice a major shift.
I remember around 2006 or so, entertainment shows were losing their minds that Britney Spears broke up with K-Fed via text message. Because the details were foggy of even which celebrity it was who did this, I googled it. An ABC News story refers to it as “the text message heard round the world”. Britney Spears was being treated as if she had pressed a button somewhere and unleashed a massive bomb that blew away a planet. (For what it’s worth, I still haven’t seen the Britney documentary so if this story is mentioned in there and I’ve mischaracterized it, it’s due to my own ignorance.)
The outrage! The horrors!!! And then the sanctimonious “I WOULD NEVER DO SUCH A THING!”
To which I sort of cock my head. Really?
You may not have broken up a relationship via text message. But – and maybe not you specifically – a lot of things are happening via text message (oh, and social media, too! But let’s just stay with the phone.) that used to happen in person. Or on a telephone call.
Here we are in 2021. My first text message might have been sent around 2006 or 2007. At that point, there were likely people using text messages for years before I did. Have you ever considered how your texting has changed?
Most people early on were still click-click-clicking on each number to select each individual letter of each word. I bet our early texts were less verbose than they are now. Maybe they were mostly about logistical sorts of things. “Can you pick up milk?” “Be home in 5.” “Can’t wait to see you!”
Smartphones and the way we connect with others has changed significantly. We used to send brief messages, but now we can send paragraphs of text.
While I’m not the most tech-savvy person, I like technology. Using phones and social media has both made our lives easier and helped us connect with people all over the world. All your long-lost relatives can see your pictures now and you can find old high school friends or friends from old jobs if you want. It’s up to you how much or how little you want to connect or reveal.
But just going back to the texting aspect of phones. Where the slippery slope is in our “always on” usage is that the intimacy level of our contact with others can take a hit.
So, on that note, again…ask yourself that same question I asked above: Have you ever considered how your texting has changed? What sorts of things are you texting about in 2021 that you weren’t in 2011 or 2006?
The fact that we now have an “out” if we need to say something important might cause us to avoid the hard conversations. People aren’t only having the “can you pick up the girls from soccer practice” conversations. They’re texting siblings about their aging parents, or having arguments with partners, or having previously innocuous chats with one of the dads or moms at the school.
When a client said they talked with so-and-so in their life, sometimes I ask what they mean by “talked with”. Talking used to allow us to be seated at a table across from each other, or beside each other in the car or on the couch. But now it means our fingers are typing to another person. One who cannot hear our voice, see us rolling our eyes, or hear us breathing.
Perhaps the eye contact and the sound of someone’s voice or hearing someone take a long, deep breath as they converse with you are exactly what we are trying to avoid by using texting as a way to communicate. Somehow we think it’s easier. Yes, it might be. But what are we missing out on? What are we depriving the person on the other end of?
If you’re someone who has discomfort engaging in difficult conversations, like breaking up with someone, texting is a best case scenario. It’s sterile and you can stop responding at any time. You can even shut your phone off altogether. A cell phone is your dream come true because you don’t have to look into the eyes of someone who is breaking your heart right now. Or having their heart broken by you.
What exactly is your fear?
Has our dependence on texting caused us to more fully separate the emotion from the conversation? Our progression of using devices causes me to think about how something gets pulled into the current at the shore. The pull going out is stronger than the one going in. So over the course of five or fifteen years, we are more deeply pulled away from experiencing our own emotions in relationship with another person.
So what do we do?
Well, because of the way I practice as a clinician, what helps one person isn’t going to help another. Your life is unique and you’ve arrived at this point governed by many influences and forces. But perhaps I’d consider asking you – do you want to work on improving your emotional experience? Some people say a resounding YES, while others say, meh, I’m just fine the way I am (and then continue to break people’s hearts via text message…).
Making improvements involves getting curious about how we got here. I do see that collectively, most of us have likely grown more reliant on our phones to carry out all sorts of business – emotional and otherwise. So in that respect, we have all felt the pull of the current. But how comfortable are you with your own self and with your own emotions? If you wanted to be the kind of person who stopped breaking people’s hearts via text message, I might ask you how you got here. It might then evolve into discussions about how your emotions were handled by the early caregivers in your life. How difficult has it been for you to encounter another person in an emotional conversation? Did you feel supported? Anxious? Humiliated? Answers to some of these questions might help someone better understand their behavior.
A simple blog post might not turn your whole life around, but if it helps you gain an awareness of how much – or how little – you conduct your emotional business with a phone as your buffer, maybe my work here is done.
If you’re interested in seeing if therapy could help you open up your emotional experience, please reach out. I continue to provide virtual therapy to residents of New Jersey and have some limited openings in-person in my Livingston office. You can reach my at firstname.lastname@example.org.