Texting: Is it helpful or harmful to your relationships? A therapeutic look at one of America’s most popular forms of communication

Looking back over the past few decades, it is amazing to consider the ways in which technology and communication has dramatically evolved. My experience with the whole phenomenon began in middle school, when I discovered the bountiful gifts of the Internet.I remember it like it was yesterday… Spending a couple hours here and there in chatrooms while my mother periodically wandered in to read conversations over my shoulder (despite my incessant protesting). In high school, I got my first cell phone and began using numerous AIM screen names, spending a few months to a year with each until I outgrew it and registered a new one.  In college, I remember walking to classes and being fascinated by the amount of people talking on their cellphones. You became more of an oddity if you did NOT have a cell-phone in plain view than if you did. And you were equally shunned if you didn’t have an account on facebook, but that’s a blog for another day. Now, texting… texting didn’t blow up so-to-speak until around the past few years or so, I’d say. And while I could take each of these various forms of communication and offer my opinion as to how they have come to shape the ways in which we communicate in relationships involving significant others (and I probably will, in time, explore each in a blog post), today, I’m only going to focus on my experience, and the experiences I’ve gathered from others, with regard to texting.

In DBT (Dialectical-Behavior Therapy), Marsha Linehan offers the notion of Reasonable Mind and Emotional Mind. Reasonable mind denotes your rational, thinking, logical mind. This mind state most appropriately handles things such as making plans, solving logical problems, following instructions, and managing things objectively. The second state of mind Linehan identifies is Emotion Mind, known as a state of mind that occurs when one’s emotions are in-control and running the show. Emotion Mind is beneficial for fueling various types of motivation. When driven by intense emotion, people undertake exceptional feats. It is our emotions that separate us from each other and make each of us uniquely different. 

So, what does that have to do with texting? Well, to better facilitate my understanding of texting’s pros and cons, I will metaphorically and literally utilize Linehan’s two mind states. Texting’s most easily identifiable pro is its ability to swap information quickly; yet, as with most things, its biggest pro is often inappropriately used. Texting can efficiently, and fairly successfully, communicate thoughts that occur in reasonable mind, without leaving much room for over-analysis or unnecessary speculation. “What time do you want to meet?” “Where are we meeting?” “Did you bring the book?” “There’s traffic” “It’s raining here.” “The meeting ran over.” “I’ll be late.” The list of appropriate phrase usage goes on and on. It’s hard to misunderstand facts and logistical details. My clients rarely come in to my office obsessing over what he/she meant by, “I have a doctor’s appt. tomorrow at 3pm” (What does he meeeeeeean?!?).

The problem arises when people start using texting to communicate thoughts that are born in Emotion mind. There are just too many opportunities for misunderstanding…and the lack of associated body language, facial expressions, and voice tones creates unnecessary and could-have-been-avoided anxiety. I’ve had clients recount distressing arguments that occurred entirely on texting, (“hold on, this was on text, let me just read you the conversation” [pulls out her phone]). A study by Albert Mehrabian concluded that 55% of communication is body language, 38% is tone of voice, and only 7% has to do with the words spoken/typed. While these numbers might be challenged with regard to preciseness, the overall point remains that we are missing too many communicative cues when using text messages. This lack of cues produces a potentially damaging over-analysis of emotion mind texting, which seems to affect my female clients/friends more so than my male clients/friends. In my opinion, this excessive rumination has proven to lend itself, at times, to an increase in anxious and obsessive thoughts, and ultimately, a destructive and exhausting waste of time.

Does Emotion Mind texting have any benefits? As much as I don’t want to admit it, I have identified what I think are some benefits. Despite the aforementioned types of communication for which texting cannot account (body language, etc.), texting provides a certain level of security under which certain emotion thoughts can be uttered that might otherwise be fearfully stifled in an in-person or over-the-phone conversation.  While one begrudgingly gets off the phone with a loved one after being unable to voice his/her opinion on something, he/she might find it quite easy to send a follow-up text, expressing the very thought they could not find the courage to voice. However, while texting allows people a space to communicate hard-to-communicate thoughts/emotions, one could argue that this very seeming benefit is turning us into a society of cowards by reinforcing our inability to express ourselves in difficult interactions.

So, where do we go from here? It is my recommendation that one stick to using texting to fulfill the expression of reasonable mind thoughts. While you may feel more comfortable using texting to communicate difficult emotion mind thoughts, you strip yourself of the ability to grow and build mastery with regard to effectively handling and interacting in difficult situations with others. Furthermore, when you communicate emotion mind thoughts in text form, you open the door for potentially destructive misunderstandings and the possibility of turning an anxiety-provoking situation into an unavoidable anxiety-producing occurrence. Be kind to yourself, validate your fear, and choose to grow.

For more information on me, visit my profile on psychologytoday.com

Julie

DBT: Finding the Purpose…

Do things happen for a reason? Or is everything left to chance? Are there random occurrences? Does karma exist? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do things happen that just don’t seem fair? How am I supposed to see the silver lining when I suffer? How do I withstand what seems to be pointless pain?

I lost someone close to me last Fall. Not to death – he’s still here on earth. We just wouldn’t be seeing each other anymore. I lost him from my everyday life. One morning after it occurred, I found myself overcome with grief as endless questions circled around my mind: “why should I have to endure this pain? Yes, there were so many good memories and I genuinely enjoyed all our time spent together. But were those memories – those good times – were they worth this pain? What was the point?”

Throughout my life, I’ve only allowed myself to become interested in partners with whom I could see a future. While I did see the possibility of some sort of prolonged exchange with him, what was the point of our interactions if we would end up very simply and sadly saying goodbye?

I continued to watch the thoughts swirl: “I should have never gotten involved. I should’ve turned back when I had doubts. I should’ve known.” The thoughts triggered embarrassment, which triggered more thoughts: “you were naïve again. You didn’t listen to your gut. You do this every time – when will you learn?!” The sadness and guilt deepened. I became awash in a sea of discontent, embarrassment, and frustration. All for what?! Why was I allowing these negative thoughts to consume and berate me? It was if they entered my psyche with baseball bats and crowbars and immediately went to work defacing my self-esteem.

Then, I remembered something helpful to me. It was almost as if a voice from beyond whispered into my ear, “find the purpose…” Ever since I began having intimate relationships it’s been difficult for me to let go of partners when the relationships end. It’s possibly one of the only areas in my life in which I experience a genuine repulsion to change. While I’m with someone, we develop a bond, a beautiful friendship. When the time comes for the relationship to end, I often hear myself protesting, “you mean I’m not only going to lose a partner but I’m going to lose one of my best friends too?!” So, a trick I learned along the way [of life], was to believe that everyone with whom I was in a relationship had come into my life to teach me something, to assist me in my personal growth, which would ultimately lead to a more wholesome life experience – a life experience I could then more efficiently share with a loved one down the road.

I ran through my list of past partners, noticing each of their unique purposes: to know the purest type of love, to trust more deeply, to be more adventurous, to appreciate the importance of maturity, to live a life free from substances, to be silly and laugh often, to take care of one’s mind and body. So what was his? I asked myself freely what was his purpose and the answer came almost immediately: to allow me the time and space to develop a comfort in being myself.

Marsha Linehan, creator of DBT, has developed several helpful skills for cultivating the ability to tolerate distressing situations, one of which includes finding/creating a purpose. She notes that research has shown that creating a purpose for a difficult situation, even if the situation seems to be so blatantly wrong, can assist anyone in better managing the emotions associated with the event and in effectively navigating through it. Some situations we’ll encounter in life will seem outlandishly unfair, unjust, or wrong; however, we still have the power to find a purpose in it, whether it be something so concise as: developing patience, making one stronger, or giving one to the ability to connect with another in a similar situation down the road.

After realizing what I perceived to be the purpose in losing my friend, that crisp Fall morning, I felt a calm come over me. When at first I felt deep sadness in losing him, upon finding the purpose I felt as if perhaps I was still on the right path. So, next time you find yourself in a situation that sparks painful thoughts and emotions, see if you can find a purpose, a tiny light softly shimmering in a black hole of grief. Breathe deeply, be kind to yourself, and grow.

For more information on me, visit my profile on psychologytoday.com

Julie

DBT’s Interpersonal Effectiveness: Building Mastery and Self-Respect

“Do you think it’s important to nurture genuine respect for oneself?” I would be shocked/stunned/mind-boggled if the majority of people to whom I asked this question replied with some variation of, “no, thanks, it’s been quite pleasant disrespecting myself and my beliefs and sincerely thinking that I am incompetent.” In fact, while it might be almost impossible to believe, most of the people who walk into my office voice some type of desire to feel good about who they are and at peace about the decisions they’ve made with regard to their interactions with others.

So, just how important is self-respect? Let’s look at a recent situation in my personal life that pertinently and efficiently reminded me of the vast importance of self-respect. Recently, I found myself in a situation with a friend that, over a two-week period, proved to be particularly distressing. Two weeks prior to this realization, I identified my need to express my feelings about his actions, or in this case, lack of action. However, I wanted the discussion to take place in person, not via some sort of electronic medium, and I wanted to find the appropriate time, a combination of desires that proved to be especially difficult to attain as day after day blew by.

Upon his most recent departure from an in-person interaction between us, during which I, again, could not seem to recognize this seemingly elusive perfect time, I found myself bombarded by uncomfortable thoughts/feelings. The most common thought: “You failed. Once again, he left and you did not say anything,” followed closely by the feeling of shame. Then, I watched, mindfully, as the thoughts/feelings cycled through my mind. Shame triggered the thought, “you’re weak, you’ll never find the right time. You’re using this right time notion to avoid talking to him,” followed closely by more shame, who brought with it its two acquaintances, guilt and sadness (nice to see you, again!).

And that’s when it hit me. Why wasn’t I eagerly having this seemingly necessary conversation? Well, that was a fairly easy one for me…fear. Fear that he wouldn’t like me. Fear it would ruin our relationship. Fear that he’d leave. And I didn’t want to discount, invalidate, or avoid this fear, as the fear of losing or damaging significant relationships in one’s life can be daunting, vastly uncomfortable, and even paralyzing. However, what was the cost? By avoiding the first situation of having a discussion due to potential negative consequences, I was causing other, very real, negative consequences to occur in the place of ones that had not even occurred yet, and might not even occur. Based on consequences that had a 50% chance of materializing (It might ruin our relationship, it might not. He might leave, he might not.), I was creating a second situation with a 100% chance of damaging my self-respect…and I still didn’t even know what might or might not happen in the first situation!

The founder of DBT, Marsha Linehan, describes mastery as doing something that increases one’s feelings of competence, and sometimes, if you fail, doing it over and over and over again until you succeed. With regard to self-respect, Linehan notes that one builds self-respect when he/she acts in ways that support his/her personal beliefs, morals, and opinions. Mastery builds competence. Competence builds self-respect. Take the example of a newborn learning to walk. When little Joey takes his first steps and falls, what would happen if he never got back up? Would he ever learn how to walk if he never tried again? How would he feel about his walking abilities? Furthermore, would he be more or less likely to get up and try again if he were to succumb to his inundating thoughts of, “I’m a failure. I’ll never learn how to walk. All the other babies will learn how to walk and I’ll be stuck here, crawling on the floor, forever (insert sad-face emoticon here).” I’m concerned about Little Joey’s self-respect already.

It’s not easy to do things we perceive as potentially threatening, and it’s also not easy to deal with the inevitable thoughts/feelings that show-up when we don’t take action when we want to (or act when we don’t want to). And while the blow to our self-respect can be equally devastating, we deny ourselves the opportunity to learn how to skillfully manage difficult situations.  So, the next time you find yourself in a particularly tough situation with another person, just remember this is probably not the last complicated situation/interaction you’ll be faced with in your lifetime… AND every difficult situation you encounter is another opportunity to build your mastery at effectively handling tough situations and to enhance and deepen your self-respect! Be kind to yourself, validate your fears, and grow.

For more information on me, visit my profile on psychologytoday.com

Julie